Keeping the language alive

Wallace Clark

Wallace Clark is part Maidu Indian and the teacher-speaker of the Koyomk’awi Maidu dialect of the North Fork of the Feather River people, a dialect unique to that area of the Concow Valley (Maidu has a variety of dialects). Clark and his nephew, Butte College anthropology student Matthew Williford (whom Clark has been teaching), and a few others are working to keep this dialect alive by organizing language camps at Concow Lake. The next one will be held this weekend, Aug. 17-19. For more info, contact Clark at

How did you learn your tribe’s dialect?

I was introduced to it approximately 22 years ago, when I was an administrator for one of the local Maidu tribes. I acquainted myself with the elders at their center where we met for lunch. I got to know quite a few of the elders who were with us in those days, including Mary Wagner Jones, and she and I would go over to a Maidu family where they’d get together and talk. I was blessed by being able to be around all of that in those days. That gave me the basis for the language.

Do you have access to information about your dialect?

We can go online and seek some of the information out. There’s still a lot where you have to go to the university and complete research there. Some of it is archived at UC Berkeley. In Colorado, there’s a place where a lot of Indian information is catalogued. Some of our old songs are stored over there and also at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

What is your tribal role?

I am the linguist for the tribe. What I have done for the past 20-some-odd years is to keep studying the Koyomk’awi Maidu dialect. I’ve recently returned from the Breath of Life Conference at UC Berkeley, which was a week of intense research.

What else are you doing to keep the dialect alive?

From spring to autumn, we conduct language camps at Concow Lake. One weekend out of the month we dedicate a weekend-long class for the language. To date, we’ve had approximately 40 people who have committed to learning the language. The majority of those are children, which tickles us pink because it’s fairly hard to teach an adult a new language!

How has learning the dialect affected you?

When you start studying the language, it becomes apparent how the ancestors saw the world around them. This gives us a reference for cultural identity.