Every time November rolled around, James Gensaw, a Yurok language teacher at a high school in far northern California, received a request from a school administrator. They always asked him to bring students from the Native American Club, which he advises, to demonstrate Yurok dancing on the high school quad at lunchtime.
“On the one hand, it was nice that the school wanted to share our culture with us,” Gensaw told me in an interview. “On the other hand, it wasn’t always respectful. Some kids made fun of the Native American dancers, imitating battle cries and shouting ‘chief’.”
“Media would be invited to come and cover the dance as part of their Thanksgiving coverage, and it felt like we were a show,” he continued. “Other cultural groups and issues were sometimes presented at school assemblies, in the gymnasium, where teachers monitored student behavior. I thought, why didn’t we have this? We needed more of respect to share our culture.” James Gensaw’s work in public high schools in California as a Yurok language teacher and mentor to Native American students is part of a consideration for equity and justice in schools.
Yurok language in schools
Tribal officials say Gensaw is one of 16 advanced-level Yurok language keepers alive today. A registered member of the Yurok tribe, Gensaw is also part of the tribe Yurok language programwhich is at the forefront of efforts to keep the Yurok language alive.
Today, the Yurok language is offered as an elective at four high schools in far northern California. The courses meet the language instruction requirements for admission to the University of California and California State University systems.
Yurok language classes are also offered at local Head Start preschool programs as well as some K-8 schools when teachers are available, and at College of the Redwoods, the regional community college. To date, eight high school students have received California’s Biliteracy State Seal in Yuroka prestigious achievement that signifies commitment and proficiency in the language.
When I started researching the effects of Yurok language access on young people in 2016, there were about 12 advanced level speakers, according to the Yurok Language Curriculum. The 16 advanced level speakers in 2022 represent a growing speaker base and they are something to celebrate. Despite colonization and attempts to eradicate the yurok language by interrupting the transfer of the language from parents to their children, the Yurok speakers are still there.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, residential schools in the United States functioned as spaces for what I call “culturecide” – the killing of culture – in my latest book, “The Politics of Indigenous Languages in Schools: Cultural Survival in Mexico and the United States. “In the United States and Mexico, students were often forced to attend schools where they were beaten for speaking indigenous languages. Today, new generations are encouraged to enroll to study the same language. Many their grandparents and great-grandparents were forced to forget.
language as resistance
The Yurok Tribe made the decision years ago to prioritize increasing the number of Yurok speakers and as part of that, teaching the Yurok to anyone who wanted to learn. They have a lot Online resources which are open to everyone. Victoria Carlson is the Yurok Language Program Manager and language keeper herself. She teaches Yurok to her children as a first language and travels great distances to teach the language in schools in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
“When we speak yurok, we say we’re still here,” Carson said in an interview with me, echoing a sentiment many yurok students have passed on to me as well. “Speaking our language is a form of resistance to everything that has been done to our people.”
Students in Mr. Gensaw’s classes are predominantly, but not exclusively, Native American. Through my research, I learned that there are white students who enroll out of interest or because nothing else fits into their schedule. There are Asian American students who want Hmong or Mandarin as a language option, but they take Yurok because it is the most unique language choice available. And there are Latinx students who are already bilingual in English and Spanish and want to challenge themselves linguistically.
In my book and related posts, I document how access to Indigenous languages in school benefits different groups of students in various ways. Heritage speakers – those whose family members speak the language – shine in the classroom as people with authority over content, which many Native American students struggle with in other classes. White students have their eyes open to An Aboriginal presence that is sorely lacking when studying the Gold Rush, Spanish missionaries in California, or other standard K-12 education subjects that are taught from a colonization perspective. And students from non-heritage minorities report increased interest in their own identity. They often go to elders to learn some of their own family languages after being inspired that such knowledge is worth being proud of.
Bringing languages like Yurok to schools that are still, as historian Donald Yacovone points out, dominated by white supremacist content, does not in itself negate the effects of colonization. Get rid of programs that teach Doctrine of Discovery – the idea that the colonizers “discovered” the Americas and had a legal right there – is a long process. But placing Native American languages in public schools both affirms the validity of Native cultural knowledge and also affirms the contemporary existence of indigenous peoples at a time. It’s a place to start.
One step after another
In my experience as a researcher on education policy and democracy, I have found that bring more culturally diverse lessons to school is something that better prepares young people to learn how to interact in healthy ways with people who are different from themselves.
Gensaw, the Yurok language teacher, is at the forefront of this. One year, when asked again if he could get the students dancing around Thanksgiving, he said yes, but not on the quad. He asked for a school meeting space where student behavior could be monitored. The school said yes and the students danced without being belittled by their peers. These steps are just the beginning of what it takes to undo the effects of colonization.