The people who want their language to disappear

  • 2 November 2014
  • From the section Magazine
Mary Yatkin - John Davies's wife Image copyright other

It's not unusual to hear about attempts to save a disappearing language - but in one place in rural California, some Native Americans actually want their language to die out with them.

Three hours drive from Silicon Valley, we reach the railway. The orange rusting tracks follow the curve of the river through the mountains, disappearing into rough-cut tunnels, deeper into the heart of north-eastern California. This is the road to Taylorsville, a frontier town in the Genesee Valley.

We pull over at the general store. Apart from the hairdressers, it is the only shop in this town of 140 inhabitants - a pointed timber building painted in deep red. The shelves are piled with tins, dried jerky and black and white postcards of pioneers, leaning on wagons or puffing on pipes. Trina, a distant relative and my guide, points to the old mechanical cash register, its brass buttons polished by more than a century of use.

"That was probably one of the first pieces of technology to be brought from the city to the mountains," she says, tucking a strand of black hair behind her ear. "Your great uncle John might have seen it arrive."

Our forefathers were brothers living on a Welsh farm, when in 1850, John Davies travelled to the west coast of America in search of gold. As with many miners during the gold rush, he travelled to California on a wagon train eventually arriving in Genessee Valley where he married Mary Yatkin, a Native American woman from the Maidu people (above).

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Image caption John Davies in the Genessee Valley, California

"There weren't any other women around from Europe," says Trina. "And many of the Maidu men had died at the hands of the early settlers."

We take her jeep through the pine forests to John Davies's farm, a feather, tied delicately to some beads with a leather strap, dangling from the mirror.

"Is Welsh taught in the UK?" Trina asks. "Do you speak it?"

It is, I explain, but I can't. I stutter a couple of badly pronounced phrases and nursery rhymes that my grandmother taught me, which proves the point. She nods.

"I'm the same with Maidu," she says. "But here we are losing our language. There are only five speakers left and they are all aged between 87 and 93."

"Is someone taping it?" I ask. "It needs to be recorded, written down phonetically."

Trina smiles, a little pained. "It isn't quite that simple."

Our arrival at the farmhouse startles some deer. We walk to the family graveyard at the end of the path. Stones bear the names of my very distant family, Maidu first names and Welsh surnames. I notice one new grave. It is for Trina's brother.

"He died last summer," says Trina quietly. "He was very involved in preservation. It concerned him that the next generation wouldn't have that connection. He used to teach the Maidu language, but most of the people who wanted to learn weren't those with Native American ancestors or any experience of it. They would have conversations but I couldn't recognize their pronunciation."

"Those that know the language don't want to speak it. They associate it with difficult times. They don't want to stir up… anything."

Image copyright Thinkstock

Over the centuries, different governments have tried different approaches to the indigenous peoples across North America. From the beginning of the 16th Century, early colonisers, local authorities and even state governments placed a bounty on the scalps of the indigenous people. In 1852, California's state government was reported to have paid scalp hunters more than $1m (£626,000).

From the 1860s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs set up American Indian boarding schools to try to encourage assimilation, following the example of some Christian missionaries. Thousands of children from indigenous tribes were forced to go to these schools and were told to speak English and adopt European names in an attempt to make them forget their heritage.

Some of these schools operated into the mid-20th Century. In 1956, under the Indian Relocation Act, Native Americans were shipped from their reserves to the cities. The programme promised financial security, but often delivered urban poverty and many ended up in slums. Given this history, trust in authority is low and there is little doubt that the Maidu are fearful of opening up again.

We are quiet on the drive back to Taylorsville. Trina suggests we stop for tea.

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Image caption Trina (second from the left in blue) with Caroline (in the white cardigan) with family members

"There is a different way of thinking in the Maidu tradition," she explains.

"We believe the way you reach richness in life is through knowledge. It gives you power and it is your responsibility to use that wisely. If you pass that knowledge on, you are responsible for the outcome. If someone misuses the knowledge you give them, if they use it to hurt someone, you as the person who gave it to them, are responsible for that hurt."

Language is a potent force - more than the words alone, it can communicate a community's mindset, attitudes and priorities.

The Maidu people and other groups struggling to retain their identity may be wary of sharing the key to it. The language barrier is one of the few defences they can still put up against the outside world. What will happen if the world is let in?

Even in the state of California, where the information revolution began, some communities would rather turn in on themselves than share their culture with a world they distrust. Critics may see it as the futile gesture of a community that would rather die than adapt, others as a noble act of social responsibility by a group protecting itself from the unknown implications of their actions.

As regional boundaries blur and knowledge is shared around the world in a moment are we gaining wisdom or merely accumulating facts?

In the age of mass information, the choice of the Maidu shows that without trust and engagement, valuable knowledge and understanding can be lost forever.

The Magazine on language

Image copyright Getty Images

Condemned as a dead language, Manx - the native language of the Isle of Man - is staging an extraordinary renaissance, writes Rob Crossan.

Home to around 800 different languages, New York is a delight for linguists, but also provides a rich hunting ground for those trying to document languages threatened with extinction, says Dr Mark Turin.

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