Bringing back Oregon’s Kalapuya language from the brink of extinction

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Esther Stutzman and her granddaughter Aiyanna Brown, who are descendants of the Kalapuya, have spearheaded efforts to print and distribute the Kalapuya-English dictionaries released last winter.

Leah Nash / Underscore News

The native tribes Kalapuya people have lived in Oregon’s Willamette Valley for millennia with their own customs and languages. It is estimated that there are 4,000 people who identify themselves as descendants of the Kalapuya people living in Oregon today. But in the last half century there have been no native speakers of the Kalapuyan language.

now There are efforts to preserve the Kalapuyan language. There is a new dictionary, and some descendants of the Kalapuya Indians are now working to learn the language of their ancestors.

OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni spoke to two people involved in the effort: Esther Stutzman and her granddaughter Aiyanna Brown. They are both registered members of the Confederate Tribes of the Siletz Indians.

John Notarianni: Tell me a little about the Kalapuya: How many were there in the Willamette Valley in their heyday?

Esther Stutzman: It is estimated that more than 15,000 people lived throughout the Willamette Valley. There were at least 12, maybe 13 different groups of Kalapuya people living in different places.

Five people are seated around a table with books open in front of them.

Left to right, Melissa Tuttle, Aiyanna Brown, Shannin Stutzman, Heather Moore, and Esther Stutzman convene a Kalapuya language study on January 31 in Yoncalla, Oregon.

Leah Nash / Underscore News

Notary: And your family is part of that story, right?

Stutzman: Yes, we are the southernmost. We actually live in the upper Umpqua region of northern Douglas County.

Notary: Do you have any idea when people stopped speaking the traditional language?

Stutzman: The last known speaker died, I believe, in the 1950s. He made a recording, one of the few recordings of the Kalapuya language – in 1953, I think.

Notary: Do you have memories of the language or of people who spoke about the language from your youth?

Stutzman: I had an uncle who didn’t necessarily speak the language, but knew a lot of words and phrases. He would say those words and phrases every now and then. As a teenager, of course, I just ignored them. Now, part of that memory comes back, when I see or hear a word or phrase in the dictionary, I’m like, “Oh, I remember Uncle Joe saying that.”

Notary: Much of this new effort has been co-launched with an amateur linguist, the late Paul Stephen McCartney Sr., and I understand you have been collaborating with him to create a new series of dictionaries of the language. How much work did that take?

Stutzman: We first met Paul about six or seven years ago. I had said quite loudly on many occasions how much we would like to learn our language. Paul contacted us and asked if we wanted our language back. Of course we said yes. It was a lot of meetings with him, a lot of emails, a lot of phone calls because he believed the Kalapuya language was worth saving.

Kalapuya dictionaries pile on a table at Esther Stutzman's home in Yoncalla, Oregon.

Kalapuya dictionaries pile on a table at Esther Stutzman’s home in Yoncalla, Oregon.

Leah Nash / Underscore News

Notary: What was it like when you held these books in your hands for the first time?

Stutzman: For me it was magic. It was like preserving history, like preserving culture, with all the hopes of recreating the language of the people.

Notary: Aiyanna, since the books were published you and your family have been working to learn some of this language again. How does this process work? What does a lesson look like?

Aiyanna Brown: It’s a bit difficult because we don’t have native speakers or language masters that we can really rely on. We have to let a lot of it bounce off each other – be it in pronunciation, sentence structure or simply in understanding the word. It can be difficult sometimes. So it was a challenge, but slowly and surely, even if it’s just one word at a time, we’re definitely trying.

Kalapuya language notes are scattered around Esther Stutzman's home, which served as a meeting place for language studies and as a distribution center for the dictionaries.

Kalapuya language notes are scattered around Esther Stutzman’s home, which served as a meeting place for language studies and as a distribution center for the dictionaries.

Leah Nash / Underscore News

Notary: Do you find yourself thinking about it more as you learn the language in your daily life? Do you ever look at an object and the Kalapuya word springs to mind?

Brown: Yes, quite often actually! I walk all day thinking, “Oh, that’s crap, that’s Gitkofin; I know the one in Kalapuya.”

Notary: What are some of the other words or phrases you learned?

Brown: One of my personal favorites is our traditional introduction. It basically just says my name, my lineage, who I am related to and my native tribes. So, it’s “Qá’pai. Tci tanq’uat Aiyanna. Tsum aná du Shannin Stutzman. Tanketsi’ Esther Stutzman. Tsum Komemma Kalapuya nau Hanis Coos.”

Notary: Esther, how is it hearing your granddaughter Kalapuya speak?

Stutzman: Oh, that makes me really proud and hopeful. I know the younger generation will carry it on. We do this by offering some courses not only for our people but for other interested people who want to learn too.

Notary: What are your hopes for the future of the Kalapuyan language and the Kalapuya people?

Stutzman: My real hope is that Aiyanna’s generation might be fairly fluent in the language. I think it will take that long. I know I will never speak it fluently in my life. just because there is so much to learn, but the younger generation has the time to learn it. So we’re building a foundation right now. For me, this is the most important step one: It is this basis.

Listen to Esther Stutzman and Aiyana Brown talk to OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni:

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