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Pair breathe life into dead language

In 1933, anthropologist John Peabody Harrington chauffeured the last known fluent Takelma speaker, Frances Johnson, from the Siletz Reservation near Newport to the Rogue River Valley to capture some of the phrases and stories of the dying indigenous language.

During the trip, Harrington took about 1,200 pages of field notes on the language, now extinct, said storyteller Thomas Doty.

Johnson died the following year.

Seventy-five years later, Doty and author John Michael Greer hope to revive the Takelma language by writing its first handbook.

"We are basically taking an essentially extinct language and bringing it back to life," Doty said.

"Talking Takelma," the first publication of the Takelma Language Project, will draw on the work of Harrington, 1884-1961, Edward Sapir, 1884-1939, and other anthropologists.

The project began about a year ago as part of Doty's effort to make the stories and culture of Southern Oregon's oldest population available to current residents and descendents of the tribe.

No timeline has been set for its completion, as both writers are working on the project in their spare time.

An English-Takelma dictionary and a collection of traditional myths in Takelma and English are planned to follow the handbook, Greer said.

The Takelma are the earliest known people to have lived in Southern Oregon.

"They are a people we know very little about and could have known more had they not been removed or decimated by disease," said Jeff LaLande, archaeologist with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

Harrington and Sapir both worked with Johnson to learn more about the Takelma and about the lowland dialect of the language.

"When Sapir came around (in 1906), there were less than a handful of speakers around who spoke Takelma as a matter of course," LaLande said.

Johnson and some of her kin accompanied Harrington on his 1933 visit to Southern Oregon.

Johnson's native village was near Jumpoff Joe Creek, north of the Rogue River and east of Grants Pass, Doty said.

She was a young girl during the Rogue River Indian Wars of the 1850s and walked the long Trail of Tears from Southern Oregon to the Siletz Reservation on the Oregon Coast, he said.

The only audio recordings of spoken Takelma come from Johnson's trip with Harrington.

Doty is in the process of obtaining copies of those recordings from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to help develop the handbook and add to his Web site.

The existing vocabulary lists of Takelma words are far from complete, Greer said. How incomplete they are is unknown, as there is no record of the language prior to the early 1900s when anthropologists began studying it, he said.

"Some Takelma words have been kicking around in published form for a while, but they're very obscure. They have a phonetic pronunciation, which isn't very reader friendly," LaLande said.

Doty has penned a series of 22 books on stories about the native West called "Doty & Coyote."

His interest in native stories stemmed from his own heritage and a year spent in Southeast Alaska with the Tlingit Indians after college. During his stay in Alaska, he attended dances, visited old village sites and listened to the tribe's rich stories.

"I came back and noticed no one was keeping the native stories alive from this area, and that's what I decided to do," Doty said.

He performs many of his stories for audiences, including events set for Jan. 19 at the Talent Historical Society and Feb. 21 at Southern Oregon University.

He spearheaded the creation of a replica of a Takelma pictograph found along the Rogue River — called "Reading the Rocks" — at Talent Historical Society.

He also worked with Agnes Baker-Pilgrim, a Takelma elder and Johnson's grandniece, to return the Sacred Salmon Ceremony to its original native site at Tilomikh on the Rogue River last year and install "We Are Here," a 20-foot-tall native carving in downtown Ashland in 2006.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Takelma storyteller Frances Johnson (Gwisgwashan) is photographed just before her death in 1934.