Kevin Fagan, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Loretta Kelsey closed her eyes, letting memories ripple through her. Visions of coyotes, childhood acorn hunts and fishermen filled her head. A minute dragged by. She opened her eyes, stared at the calm waters of Clear Lake, and began to speak.
"Ah wee-e-bee, we-e bit," she said quietly. "Fac-ma, fa-a-kepkin. Aquichin wa mit." The words of the old ways rolled on for several minutes, and as they came, Kelsey fixed her gaze on the ground.
"Sholbit," she finally said, looking up and smiling. "The end."
Yes and no.
It was the end of her story, in Kelsey's native Elem Pomo language, about her aunt chewing tule reeds 60 years ago and using the chaff to catch fish in an apron. But by the mere act of telling that story, she was giving a desperately needed new beginning to her people's language.
Kelsey, 59, is the last person on Earth who is fluent in Elem Pomo, an 8,000-year-old dialect spoken by a people who once flourished along the shores of Clear Lake (Lake County). Handed down orally and never written, the language has nearly vanished - and Kelsey, a quiet, almost demure woman with steely gaze, is doing everything she can to make sure the ancient words do not die with her.
Every time an Elem Pomo phrase passes her lips and someone else hears it, she says, she is helping keep it alive. It's even better if one of the young people in her tribe speaks that phrase back to her - and over the past three years, she has been holding workshops to make sure they are able to do that.
"It would be so terribly sad to let this language die out because ... well, look around you," Kelsey said, waving her hands to take in the oak tree-studded spread of her reservation, the Elem Pomo Colony on the southern shore of Clear Lake. "Our language is really right here. It's in our ceremonies, our lives, our people, our ways.
"You keep the language alive, you help keep all of this alive."
It wasn't so long ago that dozens of people spoke Elem Pomo. When Kelsey was a child in the 1950s and '60s, her parents and many other elders in the 250-member tribe were fluent, and her mother spoke no English.
But as the older folks died off and the younger ones forayed into the broader society around them to make a living, many native ways were lost. It was a disintegration that was millennia in coming.
The Elem Pomo tribe originated in about 6000 B.C., and as it perfected the arts of bluegill fishing, making bread from acorns and weaving watertight baskets with bullrush and willow strands, it came to occupy 80,000 acres around the lake. However, the advent of white settlers in the 1800s brought the usual displacement crises, the most notorious being the 1850 Bloody Island Massacre at Clear Lake - in which 200 Elem Pomo and other Indians were killed by the U.S. Army. The massacre was in retaliation for the slaying of white ranchers Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, who were killed by Pomo braves retaliating for the pair's enslavement and rape of local Indians.
Today, the casino-less tribe exists on a 50-acre reservation of simple houses, next to a closed sulfur mine so badly polluted with mercury that it is on the nation's Superfund toxic cleanup list.
Over the past 30 years in particular, the Elem Pomo's traditions, such as subsistence fishing and basket weaving, dwindled as people joined area churches and found jobs in mercury mines, logging operations and town stores. The same decline has affected tribes all over California. Of the seven loosely related Pomo tribes around Clear Lake - each with its own language - only one, the Elem Pomo, has a full traditional round house.
Speaking the native tongue only got in the way of trying to fit in, the thinking went.
"It's a difficult language, and my dad never taught it to us because he didn't want the white kids to make fun of us," said Elem Pomo Tribal Chairman Ray Brown. "It's a real shame, now that we all look back on it, because you don't really learn it unless you grow up with it."
It's not too late to fix that, Kelsey said. "All we need is a willingness to want it to live, and I think we have that."
Her interest in reviving the language ignited three years ago when her nephew, Robert Geary, who helps run the tribe's ceremonial events, attended a statewide meeting of Indian tribes interested in preserving their culture. After Geary came back he polled the tribe for who spoke the language, and only one name came up: Kelsey.
Remembering that UC Berkeley linguistic students had recorded tribal members speaking Elem Pomo between the 1940s and '60s, the two called the university for help on how to revive their dialect. They wound up with one of the nation's pre-eminent Pomo language researchers, Professor Emeritus Leanne Hinton.
Together, Hinton and Kelsey dug into the campus archives and found recordings in Elem Pomo on old reel-to-reel tapes - and they included Kelsey's father telling stories, and Ray Brown's father singing.
"California's tribes have been so fractured over the years that it's very hard to tell how many languages are still alive," said Hinton, who co-founded the statewide Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. "What Loretta is doing is special. And for the last speaker of a language, she's amazingly young."
Hinton said that in the mid-1770s, California's Indians - Miwoks, Pomos, Ohlones being the main ones in Northern California - spoke 115 languages. Now, only about 50 dialects remain statewide, and many of those have a just handful of speakers each.
Kelsey is the only lone speaker that Hinton knows of.
"A language is not just a monument to knowledge, it's a monument to identity," Hinton said. "But bringing it back takes generations. Loretta and her people have a lot of work ahead of them."
Listening to the old UC recordings with Hinton was the first time Kelsey had heard the language fluently spoken since she was a young woman. She hadn't really spoken much of it since then, either, but it always remained strong in her for some reason.
"Hearing my father's voice brought back so many memories," she said, sighing. "Memories of him and me camping, of us sliding down the hills on cardboard in the summer, memories of my elders fishing.
"It helped me remember even more of the language to hear these."
Part of the charm of the Elem Pomo dialect for Kelsey, and for Hinton, is its gentle nature. Much emphasis, in passing it down through the generations, was on the telling of stories, such as the coyote myths, which have the wily critter causing floods and the like. There are no swear words in Elem Pomo, and nothing for "hello" or "goodbye."
"We just say 'How are you doing?' or 'I'll see you again,' " Kelsey said. "As a people, we really just want to know how you are doing, I guess. And I don't think anybody was mean enough to say bad words."
So far, Kelsey has conducted four weekendlong language camps for her tribe. Each had a theme - animals and birds for one, foods and utensils for the other three - and the 30 or so participants played bingo in Elem Pomo using the themed words to make things more fun.
She's also writing a dictionary and a phrase handbook, with the help of Hinton and a couple of other linguists from the UC system.
Such endeavors are a whole new direction for Kelsey, who raised two children, has six grandchildren and worked as a nurses' assistant before retiring on disability in 2004 after a back injury.
"I just never thought of things like this, but now I really wish I had spoken the language to my kids as they grew up. It was kind of crazy, but that's just how life was," Kelsey said. "It saddens me. I have a tremendous responsibility now."
She sat with friends around an unlit fire pit at the reservation as she spoke, grandchildren and dogs happily playing nearby. Occasionally an Elem Pomo word would pop up in the chatter, and she'd smile.
"It's pretty hard work picking up the language, and it's hard to get everyone together to learn," said Joe Peters, Kelsey's 19-year-old grandson. "I can actually use words with my grandma now, like I'll say "where" or "I love you" in Elem Pomo. But I can't really say a whole phrase just yet."
Tribal Chairman Brown said that if the teaching proves too difficult, he may ask all seven Pomo tribes to try to combine their languages into one, so at least one dialect will be carried on through the ages. That will be tough, he admitted, since only two words are common to all the tribes - hiyu, meaning dog, and masin, meaning white man.
The Elem Pomo, like many tribes around California, is also reassessing its tribal enrollment lists, and many members - including Kelsey - are being considered for disenrollment based on historical family records. That could prompt people to move away from the reservation, further fracturing the ability to get together for language classes.
Kelsey watched Joe and his cousins kick a ball back and forth in the bare dirt yard - the same yard she once kicked balls in 50 years ago as her elders called to her in Elem Pomo. "At least when I speak it now, I can live those old days again," she said, her eyes getting a faraway look. "Maybe someday my grandchildren and their children will get to experience that too."
But Kelsey said that no matter what happens, she is now committed to passing her tongue along for the rest of her life.
"Sometimes I really wish for the old days, when things were simpler," Kelsey said. "Back then, our culture was clearer, things made more sense."