Preserving the Klamath tongue
July 31, 2005
When Mabie "Neva" Eggsman died two years ago at
the venerable age of 95, the earth that covered
her grave extinguished the light of one of the
last living keepers of the Klamath language.
Eggsman was the Klamath
Tribes' master language teacher, and her death
left a void the Tribes have been struggling to
The Tribes are facing the same dilemma that many
other American Indian groups around the country
are dealing with: how to keep a language alive
that has seemingly lost its usefulness in an
increasingly English-speaking world.
Now the future of the
Klamath language is balanced on the head of a pin.
Whether it falls to the wayside or is resurrected
depends on a generation of children who may or may
not be interested in a language that has no words
for i-Pod or Gameboy.
Randee Sheppard is one of two part-time language
teachers for the Tribes. She takes the language
into the classrooms of Mills and Chiloquin
elementary schools and helps teach at the Culture
Camp the Tribes hold for children every year.
It's hard when she herself isn't fluent, and has
been left without anyone she can actually talk
with, she said.
Keeping children interested is actually easier
than getting adults to learn the language, and
adult classes held at the Tribes' office often
draw only one or two people.
It's worth it to her, though.
"I think the language is
actually a big part of the culture," she said.
"It's the only thing we really have that's ours."
Klamath, and its sister language Modoc, are on
the brink of extinction, meaning there are no
known living native speakers.
Some ethnologists classify the languages as
already extinct, but tribal members think there
may be some speakers they don't know about.
Protectors of the Klamath language, as well as
Modoc and the Paiute dialect spoken by the
Yahooskin, aren't alone in their struggle to keep
the language alive.
In the Western hemisphere,
an estimated 500 languages spoken by indigenous
people are now endangered or extinct. Almost all
of the 300 others that are in a healthy state are
in Central and South America.
Despite daunting odds and stretched resources,
members of the Klamath Tribes are joining many
other American Indian tribes that are struggling
to preserve their language for future generations.
Kids attending Culture Camp
learn traditional Klamath language phrases
and words. Kayla Jackson, right, and Amber
Charlene Riddle, fourth-graders at
Chiloquin Elementary school, color in an
activity book that teaches the language.
Klamath Tribes Council
Member Bobby David, 70, grew up hearing his
grandparents speak Klamath early in the morning
together as they cooked breakfast.
While speaking the language of their parents they
could hold on to some of the old ways.
"They isolated themselves
with the language," David said.
Later in the day, with their children and
grandchildren, they switched to English.
By David's estimation, by
the 1940s the language had pretty much died out on
Also leading to the loss of native languages was
the fact people on the reservation were speaking
at least three different languages - Klamath,
Modoc and Yahooskin.
Klamath and Modoc are very similar, but Yahooskin
is completely separate. It was a factor in making
English a unifying language.
Children in the early half of the 20th century
were sent to Indian boarding schools where English
was the only language allowed. Speaking native
languages, even after they returned home, was
It was an experience that left many people bitter
and unwilling to speak the language.
"We were not allowed to even speak with each
other," said Marni Morrow, one of the organizers
of the Tribes' Culture Camp.
The camp was created as a way to bring children
back to their heritage and pique interest in
Children at the camp spent last week on the banks
of the Williamson River, floating in a hand-carved
canoe, picking waxy currants and playing
traditional stick games.
They spent part of the time sitting in the shade
and learning Klamath words and phrases printed in
Morrow, like Sheppard, believes it's up to this
generation to guard the language, and that
teachings like these are instrumental.
"These kids will have it, as opposed to my
generation that lost it, and the older generation
that was afraid," she said. "I see we're coming
back, and we're not afraid."
The state has also stepped in to help keep native
languages in tact.
Oregon passed a law in 2001 that allows native
languages to be taught by people who pass a
proficiency test but may not necessarily have a
David, who can speak some but isn't fluent, is one
of the certified teachers. He said learning the
language is important to connect people to their
"I think there's a connection," he said. "I know
what I'm doing now, but what did I do? Where do I
come from? Where is my past?" he said.
There is federal grant money to help American
Indian tribes protect their language, but the
money is scarce and competition is fierce.
Gerald Skelton, the Tribes' director of culture
and heritage, said trying to regain the language
can seem like an overwhelming task.
"It's a big challenge," he said. "Man, it's like
you have all these factors working against you."
The Klamath Tribes are more fortunate than some.
They have materials to work with.
Two dictionaries of words were compiled by
linguists - one in the late 1800s and another in
the 1950s when there were still about 300 people
who could speak the language.
Tapes, based on recording of native speakers, and
instructional books have been made for people
trying to learn the language.
Tribal member Georgene Wright-Nelson would like to
take the educational materials one step further.
She wants to put together a full curriculum that
doesn't rely on an outsider's interpretation of
"It's not enough to just focus on how to pronounce
words," she said. "You have to define the culture
it comes from. Unless you come from that culture,
you don't understand the significance of those
Ironically, some of the most fluent speakers left
are non-tribal members such Curt Stanton.
Stanton lives in a trailer outside of Sprague
River with a caretaker, a couple of dogs and three
families of cats that make their homes in various
woodpiles and sheds around his trailer.
The octogenarian is from a hardscrabble
Pennsylvania coal mining town. He married a
Klamath-Modoc woman, Edna Cowin, after
disembarking from the USS Intrepid more than 60
He learned to speak the language back then because
Cowin's older relatives spoke no English.
Stanton adopted much of the Klamath culture, as
well the language.
He made a niche for himself in Klamath society,
making friends with members of the Tribes through
both hard partying and a determination to pick up
some of the old ways.
"Seems the meaner they was to me, the more they
took care of me," he said.
Now except for an occasional Waq lis ?i
(pronounced wok-klee-see), the Klamath and Modoc
greeting, he exchanges with friends in Chiloquin,
he's left without a soul to talk to.
"When we were so young, we were so busy chasing
the bottle and being modern, we thought the old
people would be here forever," he said. "We woke
up one day and it was all gone."
Klamath language words
The word "Klamath," of uncertain origin, does not
come from the Klamath-Modoc language.
Following are words from the Klamath language. The
question mark indicates a gutteral sound, like an
opening of the vocal chords.
?ewksiknii - People of the Lake (Klamath)
moowat'aakknii - People of the South (Modoc)
goos - tree
p'as - food
c'waam - sucker or mullet
?anko - wood
lac'as - house
y'ayn'a - mountain
lilhanks - deer
s?abas - sun