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In a modern office near the Sonoma County airport, a noble effort is underway every Wednesday night to preserve an ancient language on the cusp of extinction.

Members of North Coast tribes gather there to learn and keep alive Southern Pomo, which likely was spoken for thousands of years on the Santa Rosa Plain, along the lower Russian River and in Dry Creek Valley.

Today, a handful of fluent, or "first-language" speakers survive, none younger than 90.

"This is a beautiful language, and the thought of it dying is a tragedy," said Gus Pina, a Dry Creek Rancheria administrator enrolled in the class.

The three nightly classes are taught by Alex Walker, a linguistics instructor who is writing his doctoral dissertation on Southern Pomo grammar.

"This language says things we can't, or don't say, in English," said Walker, who is completing his PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has studied Southern Pomo language for the past decade after marrying a Dry Creek tribal member and raising four children together.

The Southern Pomo classes are held at the administrative offices of the the Dry Creek Rancheria, the tribe that owns River Rock, the only Indian casino in Sonoma County.

But Pomos from other area tribes also attend, including Lytton, Cloverdale, Kashaya, Graton and Round Valley.

"A core group of 10 to 20 take it seriously because it's hard work. We have someone new every time," Walker said of the multi-generations that show up, ranging from 10-year-olds to people in their 80s.

Trying to learn it, he said, is both "fun and difficult for tribal members."

"It's fantastically complex. It's a language where many bits of meaning can be packed into one word," he said.

Walker uses 21st Century techniques: a giant TV monitor and a custom keyboard with the language's 33-character alphabet that includes five variations of C and six variations of T.

A smart phone application provides an electronic poster of the alphabet. When touched, each cell on the screen speaks a sample word.

The class is as much about preserving the heritage and culture as it is about learning an obscure language.

Southern Pomo is one of seven Pomoan idioms, according to the UC Berkeley-based Survey of California and Other Indian Languages. The others are Central Pomo, Eastern Pomo, Kashaya, Northeastern Pomo, Northern Pomo and Southeastern Pomo.

Though the Indian groups all lived in Northern California, their languages could be as distinct as English is from Romanian, according to Walker.

Because their languages were so unique, it indicates the different Pomo subgroups inhabited the same areas for millennia.

"To get to that point you have to be in the same spot a long time," he said. "They've probably been in the vicinity of Clear Lake to the Russian River for 2,000 to 5,000 years."

Of course, Indians were nearly wiped out with the arrival of European and American settlers, especially with the Gold Rush deluge.

There was a time when speaking their native tongue was forbidden, or considered shameful.

"When Indian people were colonized, they were stripped of everything, including language," said Denell Gonzales, a Shoshone who is married to a Dry Creek member. "It was rare to have native speakers step forward. They were punished and brutalized for speaking their language."

"They were ridiculed, beaten and killed for being who they were," she said.

Her husband, Joseph Gonzales, said that famed Pomo basketmaker Elsie Allen did not teach her children the language because she wanted them to avoid similar treatment.

Allen died in 1990 at the age of 91, but her recorded voice could be heard in the classroom this week, reading the Pomo tale of a well-known character named "Rock Man." It involves animals and mystic force and explains how the coast became rocky.

Allen lived in several Pomo communities, including Cloverdale and Hopland. Toward the end of her life, she made the recordings with anthropologist Abraham Halpern. He had worked with Allen's mother, Annie Burke, in the 1930s, documenting traditional stories. He had Allen read some of them for posterity.

"It's very different. There are sounds made in Southern Pomo that aren't made in other languages," said Cheryl Boden, a tribal member and retired Windsor teacher.

"It's not like it's foreign to me," she said, explaining that she remembers phrases and words from growing up. Her grandmother and other elders taught her words, mostly having to do with food or the body.

Salvina Norris, a Dry Creek Rancheria board member, brings her son, 9, and daughter, 13, to the language class.

"Hopefully, one day we will bring it back and our kids will learn it and pass it on, generation to generation," she said. "I just don't want to see it lost."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.