Kalapuya Dictionaries, Language Studies Aim to Revive, Preserve Ancestral Language

“North American languages are dying and disappearing tremendously,” said linguist Jedd Schrock in an interview with Underscore earlier this month. “A lot of them are already gone and we don’t have much of a record for them. Kalpauyan is a rare instance where there are no speakers but we have this enormous corpus of existing Kalapuyan records.” 

Esther Stutzman, her two daughters and granddaughter, Aiyanna Brown, all Kalapuyan descendants and enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, are on a mission to revive the lost language of their ancestors with the help of several bulky Kalapuya dictionaries. According to the article, these dictionaries are the product of a decade-long passion project by the late Paul Stephen McCartney, Sr., whose fascination with the Kalapuya language compelled him to devote his post-high school teaching years to compiling and organizing it. 

Each four-volume set contains more than 3,000 pages and weighs 20 pounds, with two books of English-Kalapuya translations and two of Kalapuya-English translations. McCartney, who passed away last year at 81, wasn’t a trained linguist but loved language and thought Kalapuya was “beautiful,” according to Aiyanna Brown, a Kalapuyan descendent. 

Learning to Speak a Silenced Language 

“When Paul contacted us and asked if we wanted our language back, of course we said yes,” said Brown. “We didn’t even know that was possible.” Regarding McCartney’s dedication to the project, Brown explained that he wanted to “keep the language alive.” 

“This is probably the biggest group of Kalapuya speakers in the world,” Stutzman said during a semi-regular language study, which she launched at her Yoncalla home in western Oregon after the dictionaries were published in December. “And we speak the language at a preschool level.” 

The Dictionaries as Resources 

Schrock and fellow linguist Henry Zenk, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and is a foremost authority on Oregon Indigenous languages, note that McCartney’s dictionaries aren’t rooted in foundational linguistic practices, which renders them largely unviable as academic resources.  

However, they say the extensive glossary-like wordlists serve as an accessible gateway into the language for non-academics. That assessment is echoed by David Lewis, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and professor in Oregon State University’s anthropology and ethnic studies department, who advised McCartney early in his efforts. 

The publications’ usefulness outside of scholarly circles is evident in the informal language sessions at Esther Stutzman’s house.  

“Language is a thing of heritage,” Schrock stated. “If it hasn’t been spoken in a long time, it takes a lot of courage to try to speak it again.” 

He added, “The people who can bring back Kalapuya are the Kalapuyan people. So it’s great that Esther and her family are doing this.”  

The Dictionary Project 

McCartney had access to a trove of written materials and a few audio recordings from ethnographic interviews with John Hudson, a Santiam Kalapuyan who died in 1954. Hudson has often been called the last “L1″ Kalapuya speaker, meaning he grew up in a household where the language was spoken first. But Zenk says at least one other L1 speaker lived longer than Hudson – and probably was the last speaker: Stutzman’s great-aunt, Laura Blacketer Albertson, née Fearn. According to Stutzman, Albertson passed away in 1971. 

The audio files of Hudson from the 1930s into the 1950s are the lone historical sources of spoken Kalapuya, except for recordings of Kalapuya songs from 1914-1915. According to Zenk and Schrock, additional audio recordings may be housed in the Library of Congress, although researchers haven’t yet located them. 

When McCartney dug into the corpus for his project, he approached Stutzman and Lewis, the OSU anthropologist and ethnohistorian, for guidance. Stutzman remained active throughout the process and enlisted her granddaughter, Brown, who launched a GoFundMe page last year to raise money for printing the dictionaries, just as McCartney’s health was failing. 

On his deathbed and unable to speak, McCartney conveyed a message to Stutzman inquiring about the prospects of publication. Stutzman assured him that the dictionaries would be printed. McCartney died two days later. 

Thanks to $10,000 raised through GoFundMe, the first run of 100 dictionaries was printed in December. A second run of 50 sets was funded by an additional $3,000 raised. As long as there is demand and funding, Brown says the printings will continue. These initial runs were delivered to OSU, the University of Oregon, and Portland State University as well as K-12 institutions and other individuals. 

Using the Dictionaries 

The Stutzmans emphasize that oral storytelling is integral to Kalapuyan culture. Esther, 79, is a respected storyteller and hopes to acquire enough language skills to convey those tales, or at least portions, in Kalapuya. Brown, 22, is proud to help facilitate a deeper cultural understanding among her generation and for future generations, including her own kids someday. She called her role in the project “empowering.” 

“Our main hope for the dictionaries is to share our language,” said Brown. “As long as we’re getting our language and culture out there and getting more people to see it and understand it, it has less of a chance to die off.” 

She continued, “Language connects people back to their heritage, and this is another way for us to connect back to our homelands and to our ancestors.”  

Brown acknowledges that the dictionaries are a “starting point,” but not an all-in-one resource for fluency. Stutzman, who is also descended from western’s Oregon’s Coos people, hopes more participants will join the language studies, saying, “We’re really wanting to get this thing rolling and get a lot more people involved.” 

The Kalapuya People 

According to Lewis, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology, the Kalapuya people have lived in western Oregon for close to 15,000 years, once occupying more than a million acres in the Willamette and Umpqua valleys. Zenk said Kalapuyans were mentioned in Lewis and Clark’s journals, although the Corps of Discovery never crossed paths with them. The first documented Euro-American contact came by way of fur traders in 1811, according to Zenk. 

The best-preserved Kalapuya dialects, according to Zenk and Schrock, are northern Tualatin and the central dialects of Mary’s River and Santiam, which John Hudson spoke. The Stutzmans’ linguistic lineage is traced back to Yoncalla, the southernmost Tribe for which only spotty wordlists and sentence documentations exist, largely derived from the field notes of anthropologist Melville Jacobs’ interviews with Albertson, Esther’s great-aunt, in the late 1920s. McCartney’s dictionaries distinguish between the various dialects, which are distinct but similar. 

Lewis, who is the great-great grandson of John Hudson, says about 20,000 Kalapuyans historically lived in as many as 19 Tribes and Tribal bands divided linguistically by regions of the Willamette Valley: northern, central and southern. By 1850, that number had dwindled to about 1,000, a catastrophic decline fueled by white settlers introducing new diseases. Kalapuyans were among several western Oregon Tribes to sign treaties with the U.S. government between 1848-1855. 

Over the years, Lewis said people have occasionally expressed surprise that Kalapuyans are still around and that modern Native Americans exist at all. 

“I say, ‘Well, I’m here,’” said Lewis. “I feel like for the longest time Kalapuyans were ignored. We were written out of history books. It’s almost as if history began with settlers, white people in the area. But we’re starting to see more interest. The dictionary is a stepping stone to help bring more interest and attention to the language itself and the culture.” 

By Stacey Newman Weldon 

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