Native Village
Youth and Education news
 December 1, 2010, Volume 2

Preserving Mechoopda tradition
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Condensed by Native Village

California: Recently, Kyle McHenry stood in front his Mechoopda Maidu tribe elders and played a program in Koyoongkawi, their native language.

The elders eyes filled with tears.  .

“There are no native speakers,” he said. “It was worth all the work that I did just to see the look on their faces. They haven’t heard it since they were kids.”

Imagine trying to bring dead language that has old texts or letters to refer to. No one knows the vocabulary and grammar. The was the challenge for McHenry, a 23-year-old student at Haskell Indian Nations University.

Like other Maidu youth and young adults, Kyle is fascinated with cultural traditions. One tradition he feared would be lost forever was Koyoongkawi, their trial language. The only real reference source to it was 1940s recordings made of then-elder Emma Cooper.

When Cooper was in her 80s, the U.S. government interviewed her about Koyoongkawi. They intended to use the language as a code during World War II. The war ended before that plan could be realized, but the recordings still exist.

McHenry spent over 120 hours transferring these recordings to digital format, then converting them into a teaching tool. The recordings include 579 words. The program has been dubbed  Niseki Wehweh, meaning “Our Talk” in Koyoongkawi. took

"Where we come from is everything,” McHenry said. “The language explains different things about the land, the culture, who we are. If nobody learns now it will be gone forever,” said McHenry, who hopes to return to Chico when he graduates in the spring. “It was a gift, and we should keep it and cherish it.”

Niseki Wehweh is on the librarian’s computer at the Mechoopda office.. Each group of words has its own folder and visuals. So, when bear pops up on the screen, one hears an audio of Emma Cooper saying the Koyoongkawi word for bear four times. The listener has time to hear and repeat it. 

As soon as Niseki Wehweh is copyrighted by the Mechoopda Maidu tribe, it will be available to all tribal members. The tribe will even lend out  iPod Nanos with the program already uploaded.

The Mechoopda’s identity lies in the hands of the younger generation.

“It’s very sad that we’ve lost our language, but the kids will bring it back,” said tribal elder Delores McHenry. “Kyle is really doing a great service to us.”

McHenry  has worked with Koyoongkawi for two years, but says he only has the vocabulary of a  2-year-old. He's still has trouble forming sentences. But he's confident that his and the younger generations can revive their native language. He’s confident, however, that his generation—and those younger—will be able to revive their native language.

“Without our language, we’re not our people yet. When that comes back, it’ll just be—I can’t put it into words,” Delores said. “Listening to him speak, it threw us way back in time to when we all spoke it. You can’t imagine hearing your language being spoken—it’s like a miracle

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