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MailTribune.com
  • Bits of lost Takelma language preserved

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  • Long before European settlers arrived in the Rogue Valley, the Ditani was the center of the world.
    The late summer waters of Tak-elam flowing through the Sathkawk brimmed with alk, yols and yuxgan. Lamax and loxom thrived in the Ta-tsipek-wank; t-gal was gathered at the base of the towering Malsi.
    The words may be foreign to today's Southern Oregon residents, but they are as native as Ditani (Table Rock) or the Tak-elam (Rogue River) and the Sathkawk (Rogue Valley area).
    They are among the words used for place names and food by countless generations of Takelma Indians in the Rogue Valley area, words that Medford-born Andrew Brother Elk has been collecting since he was a student digging into the archives at Stanford University.
    History is written by the victors, observed Brother Elk, 39, now an arts commissioner for the city and county of San Francisco.
    But the American Indian whose ancestors spoke the words believes the descendants of those victors as well as later arrivals can learn from the names and the language of those who lived before.
    People who live in a place for a couple of thousand years learn a lot about their area, he said. We don't want to lose that knowledge base.
    For instance, Bear Creek was known as Sikuptat, meaning dirty water. Sexton Mountain was Alta-wayakhwa, which means where boat rested after the world flood.
    Like the Table Rocks, the Rogue River was central to their lives. Its Takelma name meant the life course of the Takelma, according to Brother Elk.
    An upland Takelma village located in what is now the Ashland area was known as Lawaya, or knife in belly. It was a place of fierce inhabitants, Brother Elk noted.
    Most Takelma Indians were rounded up following the Rogue River Indian War of 1855-56, and forced to live at the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations in northwestern Oregon.
    But a few remained. Medford resident Jim Prevatt, 57, whose grandmother was a Takelma Indian, says the list is important for the Takelma descendants as well as latter-day arrivals.
    I've been trying to learn more about the language all my life, he said. But it's almost been like running into a brick wall: History stops back to the settlers.
    When I was going to school, they were talking about Takelmas being extinct, he added. I would argue with them.
    Yet the ranks of the local descendants are growing thin, he said, noting a 91-year-old uncle died last week.
    My family didn't talk about it very much, he said. I'm glad somebody has put something together on it.
    Brother Elk is not the first to gather the names of local Indian place names.
    Ashland archaeologist Dennis Gray compiled a substantial list of Indian place names, which were printed in his 1987 research book, The Takelma and Their Athapascan Neighbors.
    Like the others, Brother Elk relies on the field notes of early-day ethnographers like Edward Sapir and John Peabody Harrington.
    Depending on the source, each name has a slightly different spelling.
    One of those who has also studied the old scribbled field notes, some literally written on paper lunch bags, is Jeff LaLande, archaeologist for the Rogue River National Forest.
    I wish we knew what all these names meant, he said. We don't have a lot of translations that give us much of a background.
    But even with that fact, knowing these place names gives us a link with the past, he added. It's humbling to realize this land was known and loved with much regard and knowledge centuries ago.
    Based on archaeological studies, the region was inhabited by humans at least 10,000 years ago, LaLande said.
    However, since the Takelma people apparently didn't arrive until a couple of thousand years ago, their language would not be the last word on place names, he said.
    There were many different languages in Southwest Oregon, and many were as different as French is from Turkish, he said.
    LaLande, who would like to see native names used at some local sites today, frequently uses the native names on field trips.
    There is something in using those names, while humbly acknowledging that we're no doubt mispronouncing them, that evokes the generations that preceded us, he said.
    Kate Winthrop, archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, agreed.
    Learning these names helps us to understand how the land was used, she said. A lot of times place names are evocative of what the place meant to them. That's valuable to us to help us learn things about the landscape. It also gives us a handle on how things were in the past.
    Like LaLande, Selma resident George Fence, a Cherokee who has been actively involved in American Indian issues in Southern Oregon for more than two decades, would like to see Takelma names used in some instances.
    Anything that helps correct the misconception that it's just white history is good for everyone, he said. Quite a bit of history has slipped between the cracks.
    Contrary to the suggestion given by most places named after or by settlers, the region has a rich history of cultural diversity, he said.
    In the early days, everybody had some sort of accent, and they tried to speak the chinook jargon on top of it, he said, referring to a language incorporating Chinook, French and English along with a smattering of other Indian words.
    A lot of our tourism could be centered around the diverse cultural history of this area, he said. But unless we elect to present it, to expose it to the public, it's just a valuable tool gathering rust.
    A 1977 graduate of Medford Senior High School, Brother Elk is a descendant through his grandmothers of the Takelma and Tututni, a tribe that inhabited an area along what is now the Southern Oregon Coast.
    Majoring in English, he graduated from Stanford in 1981 and later attended Oxford and Harvard. He is a founder of a consulting firm based in San Francisco.
    I would play in Bear Creek a lot where I would find arrowheads when I was a kid, he recalled. It was a funny feeling. I knew it was part of my culture, yet I felt discombobulated in some ways.
    The only Indian names he knew were Dead Indian Road and Squaw Lake.
    The indications were there, but they were negative indications, he said of the impact of the Indian culture.
    But he learned precious little about the Takelma Indians while attending school in Medford.
    When I happened upon this treasure trove at Stanford, I was surprised I had never heard anything about this when I lived in the Rogue Valley, not from schools, friends or family, he said.
    My grandmothers were very interested in going back into the history but my parents, because of so much overt racism at that time, weren't interested in talking about it, he added.
    The language of the Takelma people was literally word of mouth, since none of it was written down until the arrival of the Europeans, he said.
    Some of the names could be placed at some sites like parks, he suggests.
    People who want to learn about it could, he said. But it shouldn't be forced down anyone's throat.
    Meanwhile, he plans to continue adding to his list.
    I want to find a lot more Takelma words, he said. We've found maybe 2 or — percent.
    Most of those words focus on place names, food or clothing, he said, noting he is searching for words used in casual conversation.
    I'm hoping there are some notes out there by an anthropologist which can tell us a lot more, he said. There is so much more to learn.
    — — Glossary
    English words and their Takelma equivalents:
    — —
    Salmon -- alk — Steelhead -- yols — Trout -- yuxgan — Sunflowers -- lamax — Manzanita berry -- loxom — Agate Desert --Ta-tsipek-wank — Sugar pine nuts -- t-gal — Mount McLoughlin -- Malsi — Rogue River -- Tak-elam — Table Rock -- Ditani — Mount Ashland -- Al-ketak — Roxy Ann -- Al-wiya — Coker Butte -- Titsan — Rogue River Valley -- Sathkawk — Bear Creek -- Sikuptat — Grizzly Peak -- Lathkawk — Pilot Rock -- Tantsat Seniftha — Ashland -- Lawaya — Jackson Hot Springs -- Takaw — Butte Creek -- Soytanak — Jacksonville -- Ti-kalawik — Antelope Creek Valley -- Lathalik — Gold Hill -- Ti-tsenkwatak — Evans Creek -- Tawaxki — Grants Pass -- Ti-talam — Applegate River -- Sbink
    — —
    Food Names
    — —
    Acorn -- yana — Camas lily root -- tip — Freshwater mussels -- tak — Crawfish -- libis — Tobacco -- op — Chokecherries -- lakwan — Indian carrots -- pulm — Plums -- piuk — Parsnips -- thkanay
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