Loren Bommelyn Tolawa

Strong Words

Revitalizing a language to save a culture from being lost in translation.

Loren Bommelyn believes he was born a linguist. A plane crash turned his eldest son, Pyuwa, into one.

It was August 2006. The Bommelyns and other Indian families around Crescent City, California, were preparing for their semiannual nee-dash, or Earth renewal ceremony, gathering and assembling regalia to take to the dance house up the Smith River. One member of the group—a pilot from Reedsport, Oregon—had flown in a day early and persuaded Pyuwa, then 25, to join him on a short sightseeing flight up the river, stopping off at the town of Gasquet, just 10 miles or so by air to the northeast.

But something went wrong as the pilot touched down on the short airstrip tucked into the steep-walled canyon. He attempted to pull up and abort the landing, but within seconds the speeding plane was careening out of control.

"I saw an oak tree in front of us, right at eye level," Pyuwa recalls. "I knew there was nothing I could do, so I just took a deep breath and closed my eyes to keep the glass out." The plane spun across the ground, then lurched to a stop, nose down. As soon as he opened his eyes and realized both he and the pilot had survived, Pyuwa's next conscious thought surprised even him.

"I've got to learn the language," he recalls thinking. "I've got to quit putting it off."

That language is Tolowa, or Wee-ya', as its speakers call it: the language of the Tolowa, or Dee-ni' people, whose traditional homelands range up coastal rivers from present-day Crescent City north to the Sixes River at Cape Blanco in Oregon. Tribal headquarters are a few miles north of Crescent City at Smith River Rancheria—rancheria being a California term for a small Native American settlement—an Indian reservation.

Pyuwa and his two younger siblings have heard their ancestors' language spoken since they were kids, most often by their dad and by older relatives. But the number of older "first speakers" has dwindled. None of the Bommelyn children's friends spoke it as they were growing up, and as kids, they had other interests. Not until the plane crash did Pyuwa wake to the urgency of something his parents had been talking about throughout his childhood: the awareness that the language of their ancestors would die if the next generation didn't continue the work to preserve it.


Today there are about 30 people studying the Tolowa language at Smith River and a dozen or so more at the University of Oregon, but there exists only one genuinely fluent speaker: Loren Bommelyn, MS '97, teacher and coordinator of the Tah-Ah-Dun Indian Magnet School in Crescent City, Tolowa Tribal Council member, traditional basket maker, linguist, husband, father. His grandparents spoke little English, but they had encouraged their own children—Loren's parents—to embrace English and to participate in the larger community. So Bommelyn grew up with English as his first language. But he found himself drawn to the language of his grandparents, the language his parents, uncles, and aunts spoke among themselves. That fascination grew into a passion and, ultimately, a mission: to ensure that, when he dies, the language and everything it carries—the culture and its rituals, the spirituality he shares with his ancestors, a sense of self and a worldview that can't be adequately expressed in any other idiom—doesn't die with him.

As kids in the 1960s, Loren Bommelyn and his siblings used to accompany their mother as she drove the backroads of Del Norte County, conducting the region's first Indian needs assessment for the nascent Inter-Tribal Council of California. From the car's back seat, he learned how and where other Indians lived and heard how they talked, the words they used. On the beach during his extended family's annual smelt harvests or at Shaker Church dinners, he listened in on conversations among the elders and peppered them with questions, earning himself the nickname How Come. "How come you say sii-ghvs and he says sii~-ghvs?" he'd ask one elder or another while waiting to tuck in. "'Cause I'm hungry!" was the usual response from a peckish uncle.

That question—sii-ghvs or sii~-ghvs?—or any other in Tolowa, could not have appeared in print in any form until 1969, when the first attempt to render the language in writing was made by a faculty member at nearby Humboldt State University. The alphabet used back then was Unifon, a set of 40 characters—some borrowed from the Latin alphabet, some invented—developed by a Chicago economist in the 1950s in an attempt to create a universal phonemic code.

But it failed to capture the nuances of Tolowa's sounds—the spoken language's glottalized consonants and nasalized vowels. Nor was Unifon particularly keyboard-friendly. In 1993 Bommelyn, by then a public school teacher in Crescent City and chairman of the tribe's language committee, came up with what he called the Practical Alphabet, which replaced some of the more obscure Unifon symbols with letters and other characters found on any computer. Using it, he published the first Tolowa dictionary in 1995. That same year he began a two-year master's degree program in linguistics at the UO, working with noted linguist Tom Givón on a grant from the National Science Foundation. Sii-ghvs or sii~-ghvs? The slight variations that had stymied Bommelyn years earlier at the Shaker Church dinner, he finally realized in grad school, were simply the language's way of expressing a change in speaker, from I to you.

"I had a lifetime of collecting this information," Bommelyn recalls. "All I needed were the labels—and, of course, the theory behind it. All the mechanics that I saw in my mind, as a speaker of a language, had a name; all the grammatical processes had been analyzed by somebody before." Givón was particularly interested in the Tolowa language because it had never been studied in depth, and because it is something of an anomaly: a language in the Athabascan, or Dené, family from a maritime rather than an interior culture, one more closely related to Navaho and to languages spoken in central Alaska than to those spoken by neighboring coastal tribes such as the Yurok and Karuk.

At the UO, Bommelyn developed a new written code—what he called the Tolowa Dee-ni' Alphabet—based on his close study of the language's sounds. By attaching a tilde to certain consonants in the Latin alphabet and an apostrophe to certain vowels, the new alphabet enabled Tolowa speakers to communicate not only in person, but on paper, and even electronically. He then began a wholesale revision of the Tolowa dictionary, completing it in 2006.

Among those now texting in Tolowa are Bommelyn's sons Pyuwa and Guylish and his niece Marva Jones, who leads the tribe's cultural department. Guylish has exchanged managing a fitness gym for teaching language classes for the tribe; he is in the process of becoming certified as a Native American language teacher. Loren Bommelyn's daughter, Tayshu, is an elementary school teacher on the nearby Hoopa Valley Reservation. None is quite fluent in Tolowa, but they're working on it, as is Pyuwa's wife, Ruby, learning from Loren and others the same way Loren learned from his elders. In fact, Loren's self-styled education in Tolowa—engaging with fluent speakers in rituals and tasks of daily living—became the model for the Master-Apprentice Learning Program developed by University of California linguist Leanne Hinton at Berkeley and promoted in this country and as far away as Australia by the group Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival.

Among Bommelyn's children, it is Pyuwa who has taken the study of the Tolowa language furthest. Before his plane-crash epiphany, he had already completed a bachelor's degree in elementary education and graphic design at Humboldt State. A year later he attended his first summer session at the UO's Northwest Indian Language Institute (NILI), where he met language learners and teachers from tribes throughout the region. In 2009 Pyuwa and Ruby moved to Eugene so he could pursue a master's degree in native language teaching. He completed it and has stayed on to begin work on a doctorate in linguistics. The kind of pioneering work his father did for Tolowa orthography—analyzing the language's sounds and developing a writing system that more closely mirrored the spoken language and made it accessible—Pyuwa is doing for Tolowa grammar, making him the first person to attempt to comprehensively map the language's parts of speech and describe how they function and interact.

"Growing up, I was always taught to look to my community, see a need, and then if you have to, go out and get the tools you need and come back and help your community," Pyuwa says, by way of explaining how he "fell down the rabbit hole of theoretical linguistics."

"So that's basically what I'm doing," he continues. "The Dené language family is a little challenging. And it's going to take more than one person for language revitalization to occur. It's going to take a community effort."

As NILI director Janne Underriner '84, MA '96, PhD '02, explains it, a language dying from disuse doesn't mean the loss of a mere curiosity or a charming relic from bygone days. To its speakers—the descendants of those who lived and died by its sounds—it means the world, literally. If it disappears, with it goes a way of understanding history and culture and even identity that cannot be adequately transmitted with any other words.


"It's the seed," she says. "Can there be cultural revitalization done in a dominant language? Certainly there can be some done. Traditions could be carried on. But everything's done in translation. And a lot is lost in translation."

Underriner has known the Bommelyns since 1995 when, as graduate students, she and Loren spent a year studying Tolowa together in a field studies class. After completing his master's degree, Loren returned to his teaching job and family and tribal responsibilities in Crescent City. Meanwhile, Underriner stayed on at the UO, earning her doctorate and helping, in 1997, to found NILI, which offers curriculum development, teacher training, and grant-writing support to teachers of native languages throughout the year and in a three-week intensive summer institute on campus.

Language revitalization has become a central focus for many tribes seeking their way in the 21st century following the abuses of the previous two centuries. The broad story of the relocations and the diseases, wars, and massacres that decimated Indian populations throughout North America is well known. Less well documented by historians are details of the destruction that occurred during what native people themselves and, belatedly, scholars now refer to as the California Indian Holocaust of the mid-1800s. Then, arriving settlers seeking land in that state routinely murdered Indians (including Loren's great-great-grandparents) and claimed their property, enslaved survivors (including Loren's great-grandmother Deliliah) to work that land, and even collected cash bounties for the scalps of Indians killed, all with the tacit or official blessing of the federal and state governments. The result: in just two decades, the state's native population was reduced by 90 percent.

"The United States government literally tried to kill us, and when they realized they couldn't kill us off, they tried to kill our identity by assimilating us, stealing our children from their families, and sending them to boarding schools," Pyuwa says. When a native language is lost or goes out of use, he adds, "you can still partake in those cultural practices, but it's not as strong. It's the language that was given to us, it's the way that we talk to the Creator, it's our survival. So when we don't know our language, it's just one more step toward the death of our identity."

Reviving that language, he says, is an act of rebellion against such contemporary killers as drug and alcohol addiction. "We're still fighting these acts of genocide toward our people. That's how I look at it. It's a little radical, and maybe it stretches the definition of the term 'genocide,' but that's how I see it."

He recalls a metaphor his father, Loren, heard from his father. It is one Pyuwa expects to share one day with his own young children. "You're like a post," he says. "The more you know about yourself, the stronger you are. By digging your post deeper, you're stronger. If someone comes along and tries to knock the post off, they can't, because it's grounded. That's how I see language: you're digging that post deeper. So when my children come up against challenges in life, they'll know who they are."

"Sometimes it's slow going," his brother, Guylish, says of his teaching duties at Smith River Rancheria. "But if I teach only a couple of people, that's a huge success. If I teach two people, that is adding a high percentage to our speaker base."

"In my growing-up period, there was a lot of the 'last-of-the-generation' going on, like the last of the basket makers, the last of the fluent speakers, the last of the regalia makers," Loren adds. "So it was either stand up and do something, or just join the disappearance act. Our job was to push back the tide. And that's what we've been doing."

Bonnie Henderson '79, MA '85, is a freelance writer and editor based in Eugene. "Big Wave, Small World" [Spring 2013] was her most recent story for Oregon Quarterly.