young tribe member creates a learning program using old recordings
of the native language
Kyle McHenry stood in front of the elders of his Mechoopda Maidu
tribe and played for them a program he'd created of their native
language this summer, tears came to their eyes.
are no native speakers," he said. "It was worth all the work that
I did just to see the look on their faces. They haven't heard it
since they were kids."
of the elders he spoke to was his grandmother, Delores McHenry.
grandfather was fluent in the language," Delores explained. "But
he could not pass it on to my dad because Bidwell wasn't letting
them speak the language."
Koyoongkawi, the Mechoopda dialect, could have been lost forever.
But for young tribe members like Kyle, preserving traditions like
language are extremely important.
trying to resurrect a dead language. Sure, Latin is still taught
in some schools, although it is no longer used in the world. But
what about a language that was traditionally not writtenso
there are no texts or old letters to refer toand nobody who
is alive can pass along the vocabulary and grammar because nobody
still speaks it.
lay the challenge for McHenry, a 23-year-old studying at Haskell
Indian Nations University, a Native American school in Kansas. Like
other young people in his tribe, he's fascinated with cultural traditions.
One of those traditions he feared would be lost forever was Koyoongkawi.
The only real reference material the tribe had to it was in recordings
made in the 1940s of then-elder Emma Cooper.
was born by Upper Park," McHenry said via phone. "She was one of
the last people to leave her village."
was in her 80s when the U.S. Department of Defense interviewed her
at length about Koyoongkawi, having her repeat the words for such
things as animals, people, places, anatomy and directions in her
native tongue. The intent was to use the language as code during
radio broadcasts during World War II. The war ended before that
plan could be realized.
these recordings, McHenry undertook the massive challenge of transferring
them to digital format and then converting them into a tool for
teaching. The recordings included some 579 words, and the entire
project took McHenry more than 120 hours to complete.
we come from is everything," McHenry said. "The language explains
different things about the land, the culture, who we are. If nobody
learns now it will be gone forever," said McHenry, who hopes to
return to Chico when he graduates in the spring. "It was a gift,
and we should keep it and cherish it."
program, which he has dubbed Niseki Wehweh, meaning "Our Talk" in
Koyoongkawi, is on the librarian's computer at the Mechoopda office
on Mission Ranch Boulevard. Each group of wordsanimals, anatomy,
etc.is in its own folder and corresponds with a visual. So,
when a picture of a bear pops up on the screen, it is accompanied
by the audio of Cooper saying the Koyoongkawi word for bear four
times so the listener has time to hear it and repeat it with her.
soon as the tribe has copyrighted Niseki Wehweh, it will be available
to all tribe members. There are even several iPod Nanos the tribe
will lend out with the program already uploaded, so all they have
to do is watch and listen.
older tribe members like Delores McHenry, the Mechoopda's identity
lies in the hands of the younger generation.
very sad that we've lost our language, but the kids will bring it
back," she said confidently. "Kyle is really doing a great service
younger McHenry clearly sees the value in older traditions. Having
grown up near Reno, Nev., he moved to Chico a few years ago to attend
Butte College and be closer to his extended family. His artworkpottery,
paintings, etc.are scattered about the Mechoopda office. It
was evident during a recent visit that other members appreciate
the effort he puts into preserving their history.
two years of working with Koyoongkawi, McHenry says he has the vocabulary
of a 2-year-old, and it's still difficult for him to form sentences.
He's confident, however, that his generationand those youngerwill
be able to revive their native language.
our language, we're not our people yet. When that comes back, it'll
just beI can't put it into words," Delores said. "Listening
to him speak, it threw us way back in time to when we all spoke
it. You can't imagine hearing your language being spokenit's
like a miracle."