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Joseph Dupris

Joseph Dupris and one of his independent study language students, Ashia Wilson, visit in Chiloquin in late November.

CHILOQUIN – In his youth, Joseph Dupris heard only a handful of people introduce themselves in maqlaqsyals, or the indigenous language of the Modoc and Klamath people. Now, he has heard more than 100 people use the language in describing themselves for others.

As a doctoral student of anthropology and linguistics at University of Arizona in Tucson, Dupris has offered workshops to help youth learn — and adults re-embrace — the language that was once taboo to be spoken. For over a century, beginning in the 1860s, Klamath Tribal youth were separated from their families and shipped to boarding schools, where they were punished for speaking their language, far flung from the Klamath Basin. Some were sent to Carlisle, Penn., others to Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nev., and St. Mary’s near Salem.

“Officials made a point of moving us far away from the Klamath Basin. The boarding schools lost a lot of language speakers. People didn’t talk amongst themselves anymore,” he said.

During the Agency era here, “Agents would arrest and put people in chains for practicing our traditional ceremonies,” he explained.

When to speak

There has been a cautious approach to speaking the language by those still influenced by the attempts to suppress traditional Klamath practices. “We forgot to talk to each other. There was a social edge: knowing when it’s OK to speak, and when it’s not OK. Our language is abnormal, even subversive, to some people. It always felt normal, when I was younger,” Dupris said.

While routine speaking was not common in his youth, Dupris said that there has always been written text available. Dictionaries and glossaries were produced from dominant society ethnographers in the late 1800s.

“I enjoy our language. It makes me feel good, and brings me joy,” the 2008 graduate of Chiloquin High School said. He was 12 when the last first language speaker of maqlaqsyals, Neva Eggsman, died in 2003, and while some people were under the impression the language could be lost — that notion was far from reality.

Intensive study

There has been intensive professional study of the language, because it is unique among indigenous tongues, as it shows little influence from other sources. It is a proof that its people have been here, unchanged from time immemorial.

Dupris is pursuing a joint doctorate, because “if our language could have been brought back by linguistics alone, we’d be done.” Through anthropology, he can “explore sociolinguistic and ideological issues that have come to bear on the Upper Klamath Basin.

“In this vein, I plan to examine the influence of political conflict, historical violence and linguistic ideology as it pertains to language shift in the region,” his university profile states.

The 2016 American Indian Alumni Club Scholar learned he liked to learn when he finished his undergraduate work a quarter earlier than expected at University of Washington. Without financial aid or employment, he would take jobs in landscaping, commuting 40 miles to move piles of dirt. Learning to deal blackjack, he discovered his innate love of learning, and landed a job at a casino outside of Seattle.

“My hope is to continue to learn as I teach, too. I’m always looking for opportunities to share what I know, while also learning something new,” he said.

Online, in the class

He’s using new methods to help others use maqlaqsyals, from YouTube videos to Skype. An independent study course at Chiloquin High School allows two students of the approximately 50 percent Tribal student body to access their ancestral language.

“That’s the point of education: to bring it home,” Dupris said. Ideally, he will earn his Ph.D. in Spring 2019, but he’s aware of another important distinction: “We’re talking together again.”