North Coast tribes strive to keep Pomo language alive

  • Alex Walker teaches a Pomo language class to members of the Dry Creek Rancheria at their Santa Rosa offices.

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."

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