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Cow Creek Tribe works to restore once-extinct language

Elizabeth Bryant leads a Takelma language class.
Korina Worden
Elizabeth Bryant teaches a Takelma language class at the tribal community center in Myrtle Creek.

The Takelma language, once spoken by the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians and others, went extinct in Southwestern Oregon by 1940. Now, tribal members are in the process of restoring it.

The ancient Takelma language had been spoken at least since Europeans first arrived, according to Dr. Stephen Beckham, retired Pamplin Professor of History at Lewis & Clark College. The language disappeared over time as tribal members were removed onto English speaking-only reservations.

Now, tribal members are in the process of restoring it.

At 21 years old, tribal member Elizabeth Bryant is the most fluent speaker of the language. She’s the Lead Takelma Teacher Learner for the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. And for the past three years, she and a few others have been working on creating a dictionary and teaching classes to tribal members. The goal is to revitalize important history.

"It really ties into that sense of my ancestors. And this is where I come from, these are my people who are no longer with us. And so it's very much an emotional connection to what they could have been thinking," she said.

In 2019, the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians received a three-year grant from the federal Administration for Native Americans to do this restoration work. They hired Curriculum Specialist and Applied Linguist Dave Prine to help.

"We really got to use the language in context, we really got to play with the language, throw it back and forth with each other," he said.

It was historically spoken along the South Umpqua River and in the Rogue River and Cow Creek Valleys. The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua was the northernmost group that spoke Takelma. The Rogue River Indians, sometimes called the Takelma Tribe, lived in the Rogue River Valley.

But, how do you teach, or even learn, a language that no one speaks? Especially a language like Takelma, which Prine said has no related languages.

The tribe got lucky. In the early 1900s, anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir made recordings of Frances Johnson, the last known speaker of Takelma. He also wrote down sound charts, translations, and extensive field notes.

"We take those papers, and we had a current linguist that looked at all of those and learned from there to then teach them to us and try and bounce ideas off of like, okay, well it looks like this is how a sentence is made, these are the sounds, we have 100% what the sounds sounded like," Bryant said.

The field notes provided more than just translations. Michael Rondeau, CEO of the tribe, said Sapir’s writings provide explanations for customs that he has practiced for years, but never knew the origin of. One such custom was gifting visitors with meat.

"He wrote down that a custom of the tribe was that when someone would come to visit from far away, when they left, they would gift them with meat. It immediately just stuck in my mind. In the field notes that Sapir had written, it explains so much about the way we are," Rondeau said.

In this way, Takelma provides a cultural connection for the tribe as much as a linguistic one.

"I feel that we owe it to our ancestors to at least make sure that language is preserved in a way that's respectful to the tribe and to those elders that had passed on. It's a way of keeping the past alive and authentic," Rondeau said.

Elizabeth Bryant teachers the colors in Takelma.
Korina Worden
Elizabeth Bryant teachers the colors in Takelma at the tribal community center in Myrtle Creek.

The group made extensive progress over the last three years, posting educational resources online, holding in-person and virtual classes, and creating a dictionary. At a recent virtual class, 17 people joined Bryant to learn the colors.

But, there’s still much more left to do. That federal grant ended this summer, and Prine left. Bryant now has another year-long grant, but she’ll have to keep applying for funding to continue her work. So far, she has worked with 250 tribal members on learning the language, and she said 30 regularly show up to classes.

The goal is to raise awareness about the language and encourage more people to speak it. Although participation by tribal members is prioritized, Bryant said classes are open to anyone who would like to learn the language.

Prine said he’d like to turn Takelma into a living language that evolves over time.

"There’s just this wealth of knowledge that is spoken in other languages, and once you lose those languages, you lose that knowledge. And you’re missing part of this glorious picture of what knowledge can be and culture and identity," he said.

For Bryant, the language is a connection to where she comes from, and it conveys the importance of her culture. She’s motivated to continue doing this work by the cultural significance of the Takelma language.

"We're still here, and the reason we're doing this is because it’s a connection to our culture, and the importance of connection to our culture I would say is at the root of why I'm here," she said.

Jane Vaughan is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. Jane began her journalism career as a reporter for a community newspaper in Portland, Maine. She's been a producer at New Hampshire Public Radio and worked on WNYC's On The Media.