Last living speaker works to keep NorCal tribe's language alive
Arizona Daily Star
Oct. 1, 2007


Tucson, Arizona | Published:


CLEARLAKE OAKS, Calif. (AP) As a child in the 1950s, Loretta Kelsey grew up hearing the sounds of Elem Pomo, an 8,000-year-old dialect spoken by early peoples of Northern California along the shores of Clear Lake in Lake County.

Since then, as an older generation passed away, the language they spoke went with them. According to scholars, 59-year-old Kelsey is the last fluent speaker of Elem Pomo alive today.
But Kelsey is not content to let her native language die with her. Instead, she has teamed up with a prominent University of California linguist to teach and document Elem Pomo to keep its words and the culture they represent alive in the 21st century.
"Our language is really right here. It's in our ceremonies, our lives, our people, our ways," Kelsey said, gesturing to her reservation along the lake's southern edge. "You keep the language alive, you help keep all of this alive."
When Kelsey was growing up, her mother spoke no English, only Elem Pomo. At the time, many members of the 250-person tribe were fluent. The past decades have seen members die off, join new churches or leave the reservation for jobs.
The tribe traces its origins to about 6000 B.C. Known for its basket-weaving and bluegill fishing, the Elem Pomo flourished on the banks of Clear Lake, once occupying 80,000 acres. But white settlers in the 1800s meant displacement and abuse 200 Elem Pomo were massacred by the U.S. Army in 1850 as retaliation for the murder of two white ranchers.
Three years ago Kelsey's nephew, Robert Geary, attended a statewide meeting of Indian tribes interested in preserving their culture. After Geary returned from the meeting and polled his tribe members, he determined that Kelsey was the only fluent Elem Pomo speaker left.
Kelsey and Geary looked to UC Berkeley's linguistics department for help.
Serendipitously, they were teamed with Professor Emeritus Leanne Hinton, one of the nation's top Pomo language researchers.
The duo found reel-to-reel tapes in the university's archive featuring Elem Pomo speakers, including stories told by Kelsey's father.
"California's tribes have been so fractured over the years that it's very hard to tell how many languages are still alive," said Hinton. "What Loretta is doing is special. And for the last speaker of a language, she's amazingly young."
The relationship has been fruitful for Kelsey, who has conducted four language camps for her tribe. Kelsey's also writing a dictionary and a phrase handbook, with the help of Hinton and a couple of other linguists from the UC system.