Yurok language lessons will soon be more accessible than ever before
The Administration for Native Americans recently funded the next evolution of the Yurok Language Program’s comprehensive effort to fully restore the everyday use of the Tribe’s first form of communication. Over the next three years, the Program will use the ANA award to make learning the Yurok language more accessible than ever before. The primary goal of the project is to reintegrate the language within households, workplaces and community events. To accomplish this objective, the Program is creating a series of digital platforms containing interactive educational tools, implementing culturally relevant learning exercises and developing a virtual archive featuring a diversity of resources. The Program is also establishing a community-wide team of language liaisons, comprised of tribal staff and local residents, who will help promote and participate in learning opportunities.
“When we designed this project, we focused on how we could best serve the community, while supporting the development of new and existing language speakers. We wanted to ensure that language is spoken in the home, that language is spoken in the workplace, and that we hear and speak the language at our ceremonies and gatherings,” said Yurok Language Program Manager Victoria Carlson. “We also thought about the elders who dedicated their lives and energy into preserving the language.
The Yurok language team feels we are on a path they would want us to pursue.”
“The Yurok Language Program has developed an outstanding teacher training program. The language is now taught in head starts and public schools. We have built an amazing foundation to take the next step, which is to move the language out of the classroom and into the community. We want to empower people to use the language in their day-to-day lives,” said Distance Learning Coordinator Brittany Vigil.
“We’re really focusing our efforts on bringing the language back to where it belongs, which is everywhere,” added Yurok Language Cultural Coordinator James Gensaw. “One of the things they did when they tried to exterminate us was remove language from the home. One of the primary goals of this project is bring the use of the language back into the homes of all of our members.”
The Planting Seeds: Reclaiming Yurok Language Domains and Building New Circles project reflects the input of more than 130 Yurok citizens, who provided feedback on the Program’s future goals. The three domains, which include Reintroduction to Ceremony, Yurok Tribal Employees, and Distance Learning and Community Engagement, were each selected for a specific purpose.
“The domains touch on the aspects of our daily lives as Yurok people. We want to normalize the use of the language in everyday situations,” said Distance Learning Coordinator Brittany Vigil, who is leading the development of the digital assets.
The first online platform is a new website, yuroklanguage.com Currently under construction, the site will contain language curricula, digital animations with Yurok songs and much more. The Language Program is also building a series of applications offering on-demand learning materials, including videos and audio recordings of tribal elders telling traditional stories.
“I want people to see the Yurok language every day of their lives. They’re going to see it in their email, or at a community class or on social media. We want to normalize the everyday use of the language,” said Distance Learning Coordinator Vigil.
“Once the distance learning courses, digital platforms and the online archive are in place, they will be available to the community. For as long as there is a Yurok Tribe, all of these learning tools will be organized in one place for future learners,” added Barbara McQuillen, the Yurok Language Collections and Teacher Training Coordinator.
The Program has already organized the first of many immersive activities, including acorn-gathering and eel hook-making events where participants learned terminology related to the activity. Plans are in the works to put on similar events in the near term. The language will also be incorporated into the Tribe’s most high-profile gatherings, such as the Salmon Festival and Spring Flings.
“There are numerous studies that show hands-on learning stimulates language acquisition. Immersion is actually the best way to learn. It triggers a ton of language growth,” said Yurok Language Cultural Coordinator James Gensaw. “The online and in-person language activities cater to every learning style.” There are benefits that go well beyond language acquisition and retention too. For example, second language learners regularly perform better in reading, math and language arts. Indigenous communities who have higher levels of language retention are shown to have lower rates of cigarette smoking, substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence, and diabetes. Native Children who learn their language have higher levels of self-esteem, higher levels of confidence in their own abilities, and decreased levels of anxiety.
“New research indicates that those who learn their native language are less likely to attempt suicide too,” said Language Collections and Teacher Training Coordinator Barbara McQuillen. The Program is currently looking for 15 language liaisons from the tribal government and the community. In addition to supporting the Program, the liaisons will receive assistance with achieving an intermediate-low level of proficiency in speaking the language. The Program encourages all interested community members to sign up to become a liaison. If you’re interested, please email Yurok Language Distance Learning Coordinator Brittany Vigil-Burbank at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Planting Seeds Project represents a natural progression of the successful Yurok elder-led campaign implemented between the 1950s and early 2000s to preserve the language. At every juncture, the Yurok Language Program team acknowledges their predecessors’ dedication to saving the language. Taking the mantle, the Program has made the language available in the Tribe’s Head Starts in addition to public high schools on the Yurok and Hoopa Reservations and in Del Norte and Humboldt Counties. The language will continue to be offered in these educational institutions for the foreseeable future. During the past five years, the Program has trained a team of talented teacher candidates and continues to develop new instructors. In fact, some the teachers from the initial class are now training new language educators. The Program also provides community language classes. Prior to the pandemic, the courses were taught in-person, but now they are available via Zoom.
“We believe this project is a reflection of what our fluent elder speakers would have wanted us to carry on to ensure the survival of our language. I feel confident our language team will be able to accomplish the goals of this project,” concluded Yurok Language Program Manager Carlson.
Source: (Joana Jansen, Northwest Indian Language Institute, University of Oregon; Lindsay Marean, Owens Valley Career Development Center; and Janne Underriner, Northwest Indian Language Institute, University of Oregon)
To stay informed about learning opportunities, visit the Yurok Language Program’s Facebook page, which can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/yuroktribelanguage