Canku Ota Logo

Canku Ota

Canku Ota Logo

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 7, 2002 - Issue 69


pictograph divider


Elder Helps Save Tribal Language Years After It Was Lost

by Wendy Owen Oregonian Live
Photos by Curtis
Basket MakerAGNESS, OR -- Gilbert Towner remembers having the Tututni tribal language beaten out of him as a boy in the 1930s.

One word could bring the sting of a leather strap at the Chemawa Indian School near Salem. So, 5-year-old Towner acquiesced. He left behind his Tututni culture and assimilated to white society.

The tall, thin, soft-spoken man is 72 now, and he wants his language back.

"The culture is our language, and without our language we have no culture," Towner said.

Tututen -- the language of the Tututni tribe -- died 147 years ago when the Rogue Indian Wars scattered the tribe. Today, only three people are thought to speak Tututen fluently, and Towner is one of them.

Tututen is from the same group of languages as Navajo, Chetco, Tolawa and Coquille. The Tututni lived along the lower Rogue River near the Chetco and Coquille tribes until a series of bloody battles with settlers and soldiers in 1855 and 1856 scattered them. A large number of Tututni were removed to a reservation in Siletz while others escaped into the rugged Coast Range. Some were eventually captured; others were killed.

The Tututni sent to Siletz are part of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, which is federally recognized.

Tututni ManThe Tututni whose ancestors did not live on the Siletz reservation are not federally recognized. They have, however, joined with the Chetco tribe and asked the federal government for recognition as the Confederated Tribes of the Lower Rogue.

In July, Towner returned to his southwestern Oregon ancestral grounds in Agness for a two-week language workshop. At least a dozen people -- some with Tututni blood, others from European stock -- joined to learn Tututen.

"They are speaking this language again after 147 years of the language being gone," Towner said. "I am, of course, elated, but I think it is the spirits who feel it, and they are more than elated."

Towner, who lives in Idaho but was born on the Siletz reservation, spoke often of his ancestors' spirits. Some of his distant relatives are thought to have lived on what is now the Agness airport, a grass landing strip near the town of 150 people.

He doesn't mind that people other than Tututni descendants learn the language.

"The Creator gave us our language for free," Towner said. "Who am I to say who can and cannot learn the language?"

Drive to save languages Not every tribe is so open, said Inee Yang Slaughter, executive director of the Indigenous Language Institute in New Mexico. Some want the language used only by tribal members.

In the past 15 years, there has been a resurgence among Native Americans to save their vanishing languages. Only 175 of 300 dialects remain nationwide. Of those, 120 are spoken only by tribal elders, such as Towner, Slaughter said.

"With the passing of elders, those languages come close to endangerment," she said.

Some languages exist only as scratchy phonetic recordings made by missionaries. Many remain archived in libraries or museums. They are pulled down occasionally by researchers.

Four years ago, the Northwest Indian Language Institute at the University of Oregon started a program to help Oregon tribes preserve and revitalize their languages.

Before European settlers arrived in Oregon, about 25 native languages existed in the state. Only seven languages, spoken fluently by at least one elder, remain, according to the Northwest Indian Language Institute.

The Umatilla, Warm Springs, Grand Ronde and Klamath tribes have active language programs. The Siletz and Burns Paiute tribes are developing theirs.

"Languages embody the very soul of a culture," Slaughter said. "It is their unique worldview and contains knowledge that has been passed on for generations."

Towner was key to resurrecting Tututen, said John Medicine Horse Kelly, director of the Centre for Aboriginal Education, Research and Culture in Ottawa.

Two other elders speak the language, but one is in failing health, and the other refuses to speak it publicly, Towner said.

As a child, Towner picked up on the subtleties in the language that someone listening to a recording wouldn't hear.

"Those sounds actually make a difference in the meaning," said Kelly, who helped conduct the Agness workshop this summer.

"Gilbert is literally unextincting the language," he said.

Towner's eyes crinkled in a smile when he talked about young people learning Tututen.

"It's a beautiful thing," he said. "They're like baby birds waiting to be fed more and more."

Jaeci Hall, 19, is a Tututni descendant who took part in the Agness workshop. "It's a definite change in my life," Hall said.

For a long period of his life, Towner ignored his native roots.

The U.S. government encouraged Native Americans to leave behind their culture. It funded programs into the 1970s to remove Native Americans from their communities and meld them into white society.

Towner was among them. He left the Siletz reservation as a teen-ager to join the Marines. He fought in the Korean War and was awarded three Purple Hearts.

His desire to return to his Tututni roots took hold 25 years ago, and the turning point came a decade ago when Towner found a reel-to-reel tape of his uncle speaking Tututen. An Oregon State University researcher had attempted to archive the language in the 1950s, Towner said.

"Whether I got criticism or not from the tribe," he said, "I was going to try to learn the language and pass it along."

Tututni Language Lessons
Tututni (pron. to-too-te-nay) was spoken along the lower Rogue River in southern Oregon. It is different in important ways from other Athabaskan languages north and south of the Rogue. Only 3 native speakers remain alive. In this page, we describe this language and present a few beginning lessons for learning this language. We intend to revitalize this language.

Agness OR Map
Maps by Travel

pictograph divider


Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us

Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us


pictograph divider

  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo

The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.

Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!