Preserving Mechoopda tradition
A young tribe member creates a learning program using old recordings of the native language
When Kyle McHenry stood in front of the elders of his Mechoopda Maidu tribe and played for them a program he’d created of their native language this summer, tears came to their eyes.
“There are no native speakers,” he said. “It was worth all the work that I did just to see the look on their faces. They haven’t heard it since they were kids.”
One of the elders he spoke to was his grandmother, Delores McHenry.
“My grandfather was fluent in the language,” Delores explained. “But he could not pass it on to my dad because Bidwell wasn’t letting them speak the language.”
So Koyoongkawi, the Mechoopda dialect, could have been lost forever. But for young tribe members like Kyle, preserving traditions like language are extremely important.
Imagine trying to resurrect a dead language. Sure, Latin is still taught in some schools, although it is no longer used in the world. But what about a language that was traditionally not written—so there are no texts or old letters to refer to—and nobody who is alive can pass along the vocabulary and grammar because nobody still speaks it.
Herein lay the challenge for McHenry, a 23-year-old studying at Haskell Indian Nations University, a Native American school in Kansas. Like other young people in his tribe, he’s fascinated with cultural traditions. One of those traditions he feared would be lost forever was Koyoongkawi. The only real reference material the tribe had to it was in recordings made in the 1940s of then-elder Emma Cooper.
“She was born by Upper Park,” McHenry said via phone. “She was one of the last people to leave her village.”
Cooper was in her 80s when the U.S. Department of Defense interviewed her at length about Koyoongkawi, having her repeat the words for such things as animals, people, places, anatomy and directions in her native tongue. The intent was to use the language as code during radio broadcasts during World War II. The war ended before that plan could be realized.
With these recordings, McHenry undertook the massive challenge of transferring them to digital format and then converting them into a tool for teaching. The recordings included some 579 words, and the entire project took McHenry more than 120 hours to complete.
“Where we come from is everything,” McHenry said. “The language explains different things about the land, the culture, who we are. If nobody learns now it will be gone forever,” said McHenry, who hopes to return to Chico when he graduates in the spring. “It was a gift, and we should keep it and cherish it.”
The program, which he has dubbed Niseki Wehweh, meaning “Our Talk” in Koyoongkawi, is on the librarian’s computer at the Mechoopda office on Mission Ranch Boulevard. Each group of words—animals, anatomy, etc.—is in its own folder and corresponds with a visual. So, when a picture of a bear pops up on the screen, it is accompanied by the audio of Cooper saying the Koyoongkawi word for bear four times so the listener has time to hear it and repeat it with her.
As soon as the tribe has copyrighted Niseki Wehweh, it will be available to all tribe members. There are even several iPod Nanos the tribe will lend out with the program already uploaded, so all they have to do is watch and listen.
For older tribe members like Delores McHenry, the Mechoopda’s identity lies in the hands of the younger generation.
“It’s very sad that we’ve lost our language, but the kids will bring it back,” she said confidently. “Kyle is really doing a great service to us.”
The younger McHenry clearly sees the value in older traditions. Having grown up near Reno, Nev., he moved to Chico a few years ago to attend Butte College and be closer to his extended family. His artwork—pottery, paintings, etc.—are scattered about the Mechoopda office. It was evident during a recent visit that other members appreciate the effort he puts into preserving their history.
After two years of working with Koyoongkawi, McHenry says he has the vocabulary of a 2-year-old, and it’s still difficult for him to form sentences. He’s confident, however, that his generation—and those younger—will be able to revive their native language.
“Without our language, we’re not our people yet. When that comes back, it’ll just be—I can’t put it into words,” Delores said. “Listening to him speak, it threw us way back in time to when we all spoke it. You can’t imagine hearing your language being spoken—it’s like a miracle.”