Published July 31, 2005

When Mabie "Neva" Eggsman died two years ago at the venerable age of 95, the earth that covered her grave extinguished the light of one of the last living keepers of the Klamath language.

Eggsman was the Klamath Tribes' master language teacher, and her death left a void the Tribes have been struggling to fill since.

The Tribes are facing the same dilemma that many other American Indian groups around the country are dealing with: how to keep a language alive that has seemingly lost its usefulness in an increasingly English-speaking world.

Now the future of the Klamath language is balanced on the head of a pin.

Whether it falls to the wayside or is resurrected depends on a generation of children who may or may not be interested in a language that has no words for i-Pod or Gameboy.

Randee Sheppard is one of two part-time language teachers for the Tribes. She takes the language into the classrooms of Mills and Chiloquin elementary schools and helps teach at the Culture Camp the Tribes hold for children every year.

It's hard when she herself isn't fluent, and has been left without anyone she can actually talk with, she said.

Keeping children interested is actually easier than getting adults to learn the language, and adult classes held at the Tribes' office often draw only one or two people.

It's worth it to her, though.

"I think the language is actually a big part of the culture," she said. "It's the only thing we really have that's ours."

Klamath, and its sister language Modoc, are on the brink of extinction, meaning there are no known living native speakers.

Some ethnologists classify the languages as already extinct, but tribal members think there may be some speakers they don't know about.

Protectors of the Klamath language, as well as Modoc and the Paiute dialect spoken by the Yahooskin, aren't alone in their struggle to keep the language alive.

In the Western hemisphere, an estimated 500 languages spoken by indigenous people are now endangered or extinct. Almost all of the 300 others that are in a healthy state are in Central and South America.

Despite daunting odds and stretched resources, members of the Klamath Tribes are joining many other American Indian tribes that are struggling to preserve their language for future generations.

Klamath Tribes Council Member Bobby David, 70, grew up hearing his grandparents speak Klamath early in the morning together as they cooked breakfast.

While speaking the language of their parents they could hold on to some of the old ways.

"They isolated themselves with the language," David said.

Later in the day, with their children and grandchildren, they switched to English.

By David's estimation, by the 1940s the language had pretty much died out on the reservation.

Also leading to the loss of native languages was the fact people on the reservation were speaking at least three different languages - Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin.

Klamath and Modoc are very similar, but Yahooskin is completely separate. It was a factor in making English a unifying language.

Children in the early half of the 20th century were sent to Indian boarding schools where English was the only language allowed. Speaking native languages, even after they returned home, was forbidden.

It was an experience that left many people bitter and unwilling to speak the language.

"We were not allowed to even speak with each other," said Marni Morrow, one of the organizers of the Tribes' Culture Camp.

The camp was created as a way to bring children back to their heritage and pique interest in indigenous ways.

Children at the camp spent last week on the banks of the Williamson River, floating in a hand-carved canoe, picking waxy currants and playing traditional stick games.

They spent part of the time sitting in the shade and learning Klamath words and phrases printed in activity books.

Morrow, like Sheppard, believes it's up to this generation to guard the language, and that teachings like these are instrumental.

"These kids will have it, as opposed to my generation that lost it, and the older generation that was afraid," she said. "I see we're coming back, and we're not afraid."

The state has also stepped in to help keep native languages in tact.

Oregon passed a law in 2001 that allows native languages to be taught by people who pass a proficiency test but may not necessarily have a teacher's license.

David, who can speak some but isn't fluent, is one of the certified teachers. He said learning the language is important to connect people to their past.

"I think there's a connection," he said. "I know what I'm doing now, but what did I do? Where do I come from? Where is my past?" he said.

There is federal grant money to help American Indian tribes protect their language, but the money is scarce and competition is fierce.

Gerald Skelton, the Tribes' director of culture and heritage, said trying to regain the language can seem like an overwhelming task.

"It's a big challenge," he said. "Man, it's like you have all these factors working against you."

The Klamath Tribes are more fortunate than some. They have materials to work with.

Two dictionaries of words were compiled by linguists - one in the late 1800s and another in the 1950s when there were still about 300 people who could speak the language.

Tapes, based on recording of native speakers, and instructional books have been made for people trying to learn the language.

Tribal member Georgene Wright-Nelson would like to take the educational materials one step further.

She wants to put together a full curriculum that doesn't rely on an outsider's interpretation of the language.

"It's not enough to just focus on how to pronounce words," she said. "You have to define the culture it comes from. Unless you come from that culture, you don't understand the significance of those words."

Ironically, some of the most fluent speakers left are non-tribal members such Curt Stanton.

Stanton lives in a trailer outside of Sprague River with a caretaker, a couple of dogs and three families of cats that make their homes in various woodpiles and sheds around his trailer.

The octogenarian is from a hardscrabble Pennsylvania coal mining town. He married a Klamath-Modoc woman, Edna Cowin, after disembarking from the USS Intrepid more than 60 years ago.

He learned to speak the language back then because Cowin's older relatives spoke no English.

Stanton adopted much of the Klamath culture, as well the language.

He made a niche for himself in Klamath society, making friends with members of the Tribes through both hard partying and a determination to pick up some of the old ways.

"Seems the meaner they was to me, the more they took care of me," he said.

Now except for an occasional Waq lis ?i (pronounced wok-klee-see), the Klamath and Modoc greeting, he exchanges with friends in Chiloquin, he's left without a soul to talk to.

"When we were so young, we were so busy chasing the bottle and being modern, we thought the old people would be here forever," he said. "We woke up one day and it was all gone."

Klamath language words

The word "Klamath," of uncertain origin, does not come from the Klamath-Modoc language.

Following are words from the Klamath language. The question mark indicates a gutteral sound, like an opening of the vocal chords.

?ewksiknii - People of the Lake (Klamath)

moowat'aakknii - People of the South (Modoc)

goos - tree

p'as - food

c'waam - sucker or mullet

?anko - wood

lac'as - house

y'ayn'a - mountain

lilhanks - deer

s?abas - sun