Yurok Language Learning Opportunities Abound
By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune
This year, Eureka High School became the fifth secondary school to offer Yurok language classes, as part of a growing effort in the area to expand the number of Yurok Speakers and strengthen traditional culture.
Carol Lewis, who teaches the class at Eureka High School, said, “It’s ironic. In the past, our language was destroyed and taken from us in the schools, and now the schools are being used to help restore and revitalize the language.”
The Yurok language is now taught at Klamath River Early College, and at Eureka, Hoopa, McKinleyville, and Del Norte High Schools.
There are also drop-in classes for community members in every Tuesday night in Weitchpec, and the Yurok Magnet Elementary School in Weitchpec has immersion classes in the language.
Lewis said, “Students really like it. It’s more than just a high school class. People want to be able to speak our language and become fluent speakers.”
Annelia Hillman, one of the Yurok immersion teachers at the elementary school in Weitchpec, said learning Yurok helped strengthen her connection with her culture.
“I didn’t grow up here, and I always felt that something was missing,” Hillman said. “I started learning Yurok when I was 18, by spending time with elders.”
Chelsea Reed did grow up in Hoopa. She started studying the Yurok language in the 8th grade and continued until she graduated from Hoopa High School and then went to the University of California in Davis.
Now she teaches two Yurok language classes at Hoopa High School, and is also an elementary immersion teacher along with Hillman in Weitchpec.
“I never planned on being a teacher, but it just happened,” Reed said. “I was at a brush dance and they asked me if I was interested in teaching.”
“I figured that you don’t often have the opportunity to build a career out of something you love,” Reed said.
Lewis, Hillman, and Reed gathered together with community members Skip Lowry and Elizabeth Davis on Tuesday, Jan. 29, in the Weitchpec Tribal Office for their weekly advanced Yurok class.
As Lewis gently guided the class along, the group spoke in Yurok while laughing and exchanging stories, with an occasional glance into a Yurok dictionary.
Lowry said he’d been studying Yurok since 2001, but he remembered hearing it around the house when he was a kid.
“My grandmother was fluent. It was her first language,” Lowry said. “It’s just been that many generations since it was removed from our family.”
“It relates to cultural identity, and I need that in my life. You can’t have culture without language, so there’s a world view that you can only get if you learn the language,” Lowry said.
Davis said, “It’s still a learning process for all of us. We’re doing this as a sign or respect for the elders, and we feel a responsibility to hand it down to our children and grandchildren.”
The group talked for an hour, and then Lewis moved into the larger conference room for the beginner’s class.
Lewis wrote words and phrases on the white board, translated them into English, and asked her students to respond to questions in Yurok.
“Kues- cho’ so-no-wom’?” Lewis said, asking how one of her students was feeling.
“Nek skue-yen’,” said David Frye, letting her know he was good.
Frye said he was raised away from the reservation and started to pick up the language when he came back to the area.
“This had made me feel more connected to my tribe and culture,” Frye said. “You’re helping to build on and preserve your culture and language, and it gives you so much pride.”