age 90 he still aids youths with native language
Thompson learned the Yurok language as a boy living on his grandmother's
didn't speak English, and I used to make fun of her all the time,
but that's how I learned. She spoke to me every day," Thompson said.
"I learned (Yurok) as I went along. She'd teach me as I went."
Thompson, the Yurok language is infused with memories of the sprawling
Klamath ranch and the many Yuroks he met there.
had a ranch with plenty to eat, and I remember all the old Indians
used to come down there to eat, some for days or weeks or months,
and we fed all of them, and we didn't cost them money, and we would
there would be nothing but old Indian people sitting around the
stove talking Yurok, and I always remember that."
the boy would sit and listen to their entertaining conversations.
all laughed and someone would tell a good story. It was all Indian
talk, and they wouldn't talk no white talk at all."
decades later, the 90-year-old Thompson is the elder Yurok who is
passing on the language to a new generation. Twice a week, Thompson
sits in on Yurok language classes for high-schoolers at Klamath
River Early College of the Redwoods in Klamath, where he serves
as a living resource, one of a handful of surviving fluent speakers.
good to learn
should never lose it."
participates in the national Foster Grandparent program, which is
run locally by North Coast Opportunities, a regional non-profit.
work is so valuable that it has been recognized nationally
this year he traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the Silver
Honor in the Mentor Category from the MetLife Foundation and the
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
trip was a special experience for Thompson. He hobnobbed with First
District Congressman Mike Thompson, and he traveled to North Carolina
to see his son, Archie Jr., a retired paratrooper with sons and
grandsons of his own Yurok men who speak with incongruous
Southern accents. Thompson speaks of his son with evident pride.
got a big home back there. He's not hurting for nothing."
AND LISTENING TO YUROKS AS A CHILD
Thompson has earned a parent's pride. He reared
Archie Jr. and seven other children as a single father, dedicated
to giving his kids the kind of loving home his own parents denied
mother married a white guy, and they didn't want me around, and
they put me in the government school in Hoopa," he said.
that era, Native American children as young as 5 years old were
routinely taken from their families by the federal government and
placed in distant boarding schools where they were punished for
speaking their native languages and forced to wear non-traditional
clothing military uniforms that they would drill and march
lived for three years at the school, from age 58, and lost
much of his knowledge of the Yurok language that was spoken to him
as a young child in Wo-tek village where he was born.
8, Thompson was taken out of the school and brought to his grandmother,
Rosie Jack Happell, who had a 25-acre ranch in Klamath. It was a
place where, as he puts it, he "excelled in everything."
learned how to milk his grandmother's cows and feed the pigs and
chickens. Whenever he wasn't helping on the ranch, he was on the
used to dip candlefish all night. My boat would just be white on
the bottom with fish, and my grandmother would come with a basket
and she would put them in the smokehouse."
spent the rest of his childhood living on the ranch, milking the
cows morning and night and spending much of the rest of the time
fishing on the river for salmon and eels to put in the smokehouse.
me," he said, "that was the life. No one had to tell me what to
do. I was my boss."
attended grammar school in Klamath, and then Del Norte High School
in Crescent City, where he competed on the school's football, baseball,
basketball and track teams, becoming the school's first Native American
to letter in sports, he said.
BY TRAGEDY INTO SINGLE PARENTING
graduating from high school in the late '30s, Thompson went to Sherman
Indian School in Riverside, a place that taught manual labor skills
to many Native Americans from Northern California. There he learned
metal-working, welding and repair. He worked in Los Angeles shipyards
and was drafted into the Navy at the onset of World War II. Thompson
taught welding classes stateside and was then sent to the South
Pacific, where he spent the war repairing damaged ships.
the war, Thompson returned to Klamath and worked for logging companies,
in sawmills, in the woods, and rafting logs down the river. He married
and fathered eight children, four boys and four girls, before his
wife Elda died from a fall when their youngest was only 2.
virtue of a work mishap two years before that crushed his hip between
two logs Thompson regards it as providence he had
a disability pension that allowed him to stay home and raise his
children by himself.
can't work and raise them, no way. So I stayed home and cooked and
washed clothes," he said.
a lengthy interview published in "The Original Patriots: Northern
California Indian Veterans of World War Two" by Chag Lowry, Thompson
said that he now has "a tribe of his own," with eight children,
25 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
fact, Thompson's later life has been punctuated with dedicated work
building up the legacy of not only his familial tribe, but the greater
addition to his current work with high school students at Klamath
River Early College of the Redwoods, he has taught Yurok language
classes in Crescent City; he has helped with Yurok language projects
at Humboldt State, and he has been an important source of knowledge
for the Yurok Language Project at the University of California in
Berkeley, a major effort to create an online digital archive of
the Yurok language: dictionary, grammar, texts and language lessons.
HANDED DOWN BY YOUR FOREFATHERS'
"The Original Patriots," Thompson explained why he feels it's important
to keep the language alive: "These younger people didn't grow up
with these things. They say there are only 65 Yurok people over
80 years old. They're dying off. I see these little Mexican kids,
just little guys, talking away in their language! I'd like to see
Yurok kids do that. The language is something private. White people
don't know what you're saying!
good to learn your own language! You should never lose it. It's
something handed down by your forefathers.
been on this land for a long time; they know exactly what is happening.
They know when the salmon go up the river; and the sturgeon and
the eels. They know all these things."
though Thompson doesn't always feel well, he is dedicated to making
his twice weekly trips on Tuesdays and Thursdays from his home in
Crescent City to the school in Klamath, where he sits with the students
and helps with the lessons.
I need to remember how to say something or I don't know how to say
it, he will say it," explained language teacher Barbara McQuillen.
"He's like a resource person for me in the class because Yurok was
his first language. I have an English accent and will always have
that. He will always have that first-language accent. It helps the
students to hear him say it as opposed to hearing me say it."
also helps the class in other ways, McQuillen said.
always willing to help with assignments. They will move next to
him and he will help them whenever they need help. And he will help
with classroom management. He likes to tell students the importance
of paying attention and learning, not just in the language but in
said Thompson gets an impish kick out of of being the first to answer
the teacher's questions.
then I have to say, OK, I know you know this,' and he laughs
and thinks it's funny. And the very next question he'll be the very
first to answer again, and the students after the first few classes
learn he's going to get the answer and so they move closer to him
so they can hear because he starts saying it quieter, only to them.
But I think it shows he just loves the language and loves hearing
A CULTURE'S FLAME ALIVE
There are many social benefits to having seniors
in the classroom, said Kim Yost, who works as county coordinator
for the 40 seniors in the county's Foster Grandparent program.
lot of kids don't have grandparents here in the community, so what
they get from (foster grandparents) is respect. They learn to be
gentle and kind and nice, to be careful: all of those things that
come with fragile grandparents and some of them aren't even
so fragile," Yost said.
a teacher, McQuillen sees firsthand how foster grandparents make
an impact on students.
any of the foster grandparents that come into the program, the students
make sure they have a good seat, a comfortable chair, that they're
warm enough, have enough to eat at lunch, they get them a plate,
put the heater next to them. I think they really think about the
respect part of being elders and their place in the community,"
are especially important in the Yurok culture because they keep
culture's flame alive and represent a bridge between the tribe's
long past and an uncertain future.
bring a different perspective for why we do things the way we do
them," McQuillen said.
memory and experiences are especially important to the tribe, said
tribal educational director Jim McQuillen, because Thompson lived
in such a pivotal time for the Yurok.
grew up in a generation that saw a lot of change for the American
Indian community, where the language was changing to English. Living
strictly from the land was changing and people were being moved
off their traditional lands and pushed into other areas. So he's
seen a lot of history in his 90 years."
humorous yet soft-spoken manner belies a wealth of information about
the tribe's ancient ways, Jim McQuillen said.
got fantastic stories of his own childhood in this area, walking
in the land and mountains here, hunting quail and ducks and geese
and other things," Jim McQuillen explained. "Yuroks were known for
their network of trails, and he has stories of that, so he captivates
students with that information along with his knowledge of the language."
in matters of the Yurok language, Thompson represents something
particularly rare and special, according to Andrew Garrett, a linguistics
professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Garrett is
one of two language experts overseeing the Yurok Language Project,
and he has recorded many native Yurok speakers over the years to
compile a comprehensive record of its words, grammar and oral literature.
every language, there are local differences in the language," Garrett
explains. "So It was great to work with Archie because there haven't
been many we've worked with who speak the river mouth/coast accent
version of Yurok. Archie's the only person I've worked with who
talked like that."
the years, Thompson has earned the respect and appreciation of many
people within his family and his tribe. What he represents as an
elder to his children, both literal and tribal, is worth far more
than any "Silver Award" can convey.
his quiet laugh and ancient language are the whispers of thousands
of his people who have lived and died, a priceless treasure of a
nation determined to survive.
like Archie are just making it happen," Jim McQuillen said. "Just
leaving the gift behind for anyone who wants it."