For generations children were taken from Native families in the
U.S. and sent to Indian boarding schools where they were instructed
in the English language white culture at the expense of their own
language and culture. The Karuk Tribe is using a handful of federal
grants to move in the other direction with the present generation
of young people.
Saxon, back to camera, polls students for their reactions
after a lesson in oral tradition and storytelling at Junction
School in Orleans./Photo by Malcolm Terence, Two Rivers Tribune
The new program was put into action when a group of story tellers
came to river schools. Besides the stories, the group shared xuun
sára, acorn bread or crackers, and champínishich,
yerba buena tea. Jesse Goodwin, one of the students, nodded appreciatively
at the snacks and said he'd never had either before. His classmates
The audience for the first presentation was the students from
Junction School in Somes Bar plus students from Forks Elementary
up the Salmon River. Team members prefaced the storytelling with
a discussion of how the oral tradition worked, and let the students
begin drawing their own comic strips to tell a story.
Then Julian Lang took the stage. He explained that he grew up when
there was a church at what is now the school site. He recalled that
there was a rope swing that would carry a person out over the edge
of the bluff and back. He was from the Conrad family on his grandmother's
side and Tripp family on his grandfather's side.
Saxon, standing, praises the work of a student at Junction
School in Orleans. He was part of a team that shared traditional
stories with students in local schools./Photo by Malcolm Terence,
Two Rivers Tribune Contributor.
Besides and artist and a scholar, he is also a student and teacher
of the Karuk language. He would divert from his delivery to teach
phrases to the students. When a coworker walked in late, he teased
hôotah kúkuun, late again, and repeated the words a
few times. Language is acquired through repetition.
He led the children in a repetitive tune in Karuk, amtáapitck
kukuku, and told them to standup like a one-legged, one-eyed creature,
the earthworm. As soon as the school kids were out of their seats,
wobbling on one leg, he congratulated them, encouraged them to all
applaud themselves, and then to shake hands with the person next
Capturing a crowd of school kids, especially when they're bouncing
around on one leg, is no easy task, but Julian had already captured
He launched into story with a question. "It's about a really
handsome guy. Girls thought he was handsome. How many of you girls
have seen a really handsome guy?"
There were many giggles and many hands raised as he launched
the story about a group of girls long ago before White people came,
who were digging the edible roots called tayiith, Indian potatoes,
with sticks. As they found them, they placed them in a big pile,
which they would later load, into their baskets.
Lang shares a story of a good looking young man who could
put young women into a trance with his songs. Then he'd steal
the Indian potatoes, an edible root called tayiith in Karuk
language./Photo by Malcolm Terence, Two Rivers Tribune Contributor.
He taught the children in the classroom a chant, ku áan
áan áan áan. He had them repeat it a few times,
before he continued the story, "Then a very handsome guy started
down the hill," and he fell into the crouch of a dancer jumping
center at ceremony.
"He started talking to the giggling girls and told them, You
want me to sing?' Then he lined the girls up into a line with the
tallest in the center." Julian made a circular step, something between
casting a magic spell and farting, although he delicately avoided
All the girls fell in a trance and when they woke, all but the
smallest Indian potatoes were gone. They brought the news to the
grandmother who started sharpening one of the sticks and handing
it to the tallest girl.
"When he comes again, goose him with this stick when he gets
ready to poison you," she instructed.
Julian said that the handsome boy came again and the girls were
again entranced, but the tallest girl remembered and stabbed the
boy hard when he again pivoted to poison the girls.
The handsome boy became a skunk, Julian said, and to this day
he walks around funny. Julian imitated the jerky movement of a skunk.
From there, he switched to stories of putwans, Indian devils,
and of a boy who was kidnapped but eventually returned to his grandmother.
At the end of the stories, the class was asked, "What did you
learn from the stories?" Several hands shot up and the first student
answered, "Never fall for a cute boy."
The visit to classrooms is part of a $1 million grant the Karuk
Department of Natural Resources has gotten for its Pikyav Field Institute.
Pikyav means "fix it" in Karuk. It refers to the Tribe's traditional
and continuing efforts to restore the earth and its creatures to harmonious
Lang, the Karuk artist, scholar and language teacher, can
also tell a traditional story in a way that can completely
capture the imaginations of a group of grade school students.
He joined a team that did presentations in Somes Bar, Orleans,
Happy Camp and Yreka./Photo by Malcolm Terence, Two Rivers
After the presentation at Junction School in Somes Bar, the
Karuk team went to schools in Orleans, Happy Camp and Yreka.
Over the past decade the Tribe has been working with academic
institutions and researchers to integrate traditional ecological
knowledge and western science into contemporary management practices.
Key projects were developed as part of a five-year USDA-funded
Klamath Basin Food Security Grant, led by Dr. Jennifer Sowerwine
from UC Berkeley, and they were used to leverage the new grant award.
Project objectives include curriculum and cultural sensitivity
trainings, further development of culturally-relevant California
Common Core Standards-based curriculum, support for students interested
in pursuing careers in the environmental sciences, and continued
implementation of experiential learning activities grounded in traditional
"The Indian Boarding School era was one of many factors leading
to the inter-generational trauma native peoples experience today.
By incorporating Native American traditional ecological knowledge
into the lessons taught in local schools, we hope to mitigate some
of the wrongs done to our people in the past," said Leaf Hillman,
Karuk Tribe's Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy.
"This effort represents a valuable contribution to tribal sovereignty."
After the storytelling and the sampling of local tea and acorn
crackers, the students were surveyedshow of hands fashionabout
what they learned from the day.
Then Stormy Polmateer, part of the visiting team, asked how
many girls would be interested in learning to make baskets. Many
hands shot up. To be clear she added that basket making includes
harvesting materials all year. "Who's interested in gathering materials,"
she asked. Short pause, and then, again, many hands shot up.