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COVELO — Of all the places where something remarkable might be happening, you wouldn’t peg the modular building behind Round Valley High School on a sleepy afternoon in June. But there, underneath the whir of the air conditioning unit in an auxiliary classroom, a teacher and her students were breathing life back into a language.

Cheryl Tuttle’s Wailaki 2 class was sparsely attended last Monday afternoon. It was, after all, the last week of school, and the lesson had narrowed to practicing speeches the students would deliver in this native California tongue at the local graduation ceremonies.

Among the students was Round Valley senior Shayleena Britton, the Press Democrat’s Small-School Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

So, first a quick word about the All-Empire awards. Each year, athletic directors of our many local schools, which stretch from the Marin coast to the wilds of Lake and Mendocino counties, nominate their top athletes and scholar-athletes, male and female. Members of the PD’s sports staff then gather to eat pizza and comb through a giant binder of entries to vote for the best of the best.

It’s a brutal process. Every year we run across students who are All-Empire in one sport, first-team all-league in another and a solid contributor in a third, while holding down a 4.2 GPA and doing wonderful things in the community. And we eliminate them, because some other kid is slightly more impressive.

This year, when we got to the Small-School Female Scholar-Athletes, one girl leaped off the page at us. It was Britton. She’s one of the top small-campus basketball players in the region, and a good volleyball player, too. She is class president and has something close to an unweighted 4.0 in the classroom.

But it was the work she’s doing in Tuttle’s classroom that made Britton an irresistible pick. She recently received a $10,000 Dreamstarter grant from Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit affiliated with the great Olympic champion Billy Mills, to add a social-media component to the reintroduction of Wailaki.

And what did you do in high school? I played mediocre baseball and worked summers at Jack-in-the-Box.

The Wailaki language project is the brainchild of Tuttle and Rolinda Want, both teachers at Round Valley High. Tuttle is also a mentor to various students undertaking larger projects, and has been principal of Round Valley Elementary School, too. Somehow she does all that without living in Covelo. She drives 65 barfy miles from Ukiah most weekdays.

A few years ago, Tuttle and Want started talking about adding a Native American language to the courses at Round Valley High.

And bear with me, but here we need to take another detour and talk about Round Valley.

To get there, you depart Highway 101 north of Willits and head northeast on Highway 162. You follow stony Outlet Creek, then the Eel River before pulling away from the streambeds and climbing into the pines.

After miles of switchbacks comes an unexpected reward: a sweeping view of a pretty little valley surrounded on four sides by forested hills. Round Valley.

In the middle of the plateau is the dusty community of Covelo, population 1,255. It’s a town of pickups, cowboy hats, chickens in backyards and pastured horses. It isn’t entirely Native American, but the culture is dominant here.

Traditionally, this is Yuki country. In the 1850s, amid increasing tensions between native residents and white ranchers, the U.S. government created the Round Valley Indian Reservation. The Yuki were more fortunate than some tribes in that they were allowed to remain on a portion of their ancestral homeland. But they wouldn’t be alone. Other tribes were forced onto the territory. Some of them were friendly with the Yuki. Others were enemies. Some were largely unknown.

It was a strange and uncomfortable arrangement. And in 1864 the government shrank the reservation to one-fifth of its original size.

Despite this shameful history, many families stayed through the generations and today the valley is the sovereignty of Round Valley Indian Tribes, a confederation of Yuki, Wailaki, Concow, Little Lake Pomo, Nomlacki and Pit River Indians.

When Tuttle and Want decided to teach a local language, they had many to choose from. The original reservation was a babel of languages, each with distinct dialects. Many of the current residents claim relatives from multiple tribes. But one thread seemed to be a connector.

“Everyone is like Wailaki and something else,” Tuttle said.

So Wailaki it was. Just one problem. No, make that several problems. Wailaki was never a written language, so the teachers had zero original documents to refer to. No audio recordings existed. And as far as they knew, no living human spoke more than a few words of the language.

Nevertheless, they persisted. And they got some help.

Tuttle and Want connected with Justin Spence, an assistant professor in UC Davis’ Native American Studies program who had expertise in the Athabaskan language group; he still Skypes the class regularly. A UC Berkeley linguistics grad student (and native Hupa), Kayla Carpenter, happened to be doing her dissertation on Wailaki grammar. And a linguist at UC Davis, Lewis Lawyer, digitized a bunch of existing work to help create a curriculum.

The team found invaluable resources. One was the work of Pliny Earle Goddard, who in the first decade of the 20th century transcribed 36 stories told to him by a Round Valley Wailaki known as Captain Jim.

By combing and cross-referencing multiple sources, Tuttle and Want were able to piece together a solid core of Wailaki. The first year they taught the class, in 2014-15, they pretty much learned along with the students. Since then the database has grown and changed. Where words don’t exist, the teachers do their best to find Wailaki equivalents; “phone,” for example, is translated as “hand talk.”

The students learn greetings and common nouns, and language “domains” built around simple tasks like washing hands or eating. Sentence structure is different in Wailaki, with the verb always coming last — like, “Dog black he goes around.” But the hardest thing about learning this language, they say, is pronunciation. Lots of spitting consonants and throaty glottal stops.

“You get tongue-tied,” Britton said.

To Tuttle, who is Yurok and Karuk, the Wailaki classes are much more than a fun way to keep kids occupied.

“I think that the language is the mind of the people,” she said. “Inside of the language, even in the way things are spoken about, you know how people thought. How the ancestors thought about things, what was important to them. Their world view is wrapped up in language.”

And there is something more personal at work.

“Right now, a lot of people, their hearts are sad,” Tuttle said. “Because of loss of culture, and because of the genocide that happened in California. It feels like a hole, in a way. Part of bringing the language back is bringing back to people what was stolen from them.”

In a paper published in the Bilingual Research Journal in 1995, James Crawford wrote that, “All of California’s 31 Indian languages are moribund; of these, 22 are spoken only by small groups of elders.”

These languages weren’t simply crowded out by English. Want, who is Wailaki, remembers an older relative recalling how their father had forbade his children from speaking the ancestral tongue, warning that bad things would happen to them. Much later they saw the scars on his back. Indian culture had literally been beaten out of his generation.

Britton didn’t take the Wailaki class as a sophomore because of a conflict in her schedule. But the past two years she has been a devoted language student, and an asset.

“Some students are kind of reticent,” said Tuttle, who has known Britton since the girl was in kindergarten. “She gets them to participate, just in her little Shay way. She doesn’t pressure them. So yes, I definitely see her as a leader.”

For Britton, the classes were a way to connect with the culture of her father’s Wailaki ancestors. (He is also Yuki and Pomo.) Now he routinely logs on to the class Facebook page, which Shayleena administers, to check on the Wailaki word of the day.

Some elders in the community could always understand a few words, though they can’t really speak Wailaki. Britton’s aunt, almost 80 years old, approached her one day and asked, “How do you say ‘crazy’?”

“Because she said her mom used to call her that,” Britton recalled. “She’d go, ‘You guys are crazy,’ but she’d say it in Wailaki.”

Sure enough, the word the aunt remembered was the same Britton had learned in class. She still laughs in wonder at this moment of epiphany.

Wailaki has now become Britton’s third passion, after sports and art. She has drawn and painted and carved and done beadwork for as long as she can remember. Tuttle encouraged her to take a multimedia class she taught at the high school this year, but Britton was already signed up for a full slate of courses. She took the class anyway, for no credit.

Britton graduated Friday and will attend Academy of Art University in San Francisco this fall, where she will study 3D animation.

It’s a medium in which she’s never worked before, though she has always been fascinated by animated films from Disney and Pixar. She cites “Spirit” and “Oliver & Company” as movies that appeal to her visually.

Britton also notes that Academy of Art is the only art school in California that has a basketball team. She will attempt to play for the Urban Knights as a walk-on.

And even in the big city, she will remain connected to her isolated little corner of the world. Tradition binds Round Valley to its languages, but so does technology. Britton will continue to update the Wailaki Facebook page with words brought back from the dead.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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