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The Klamath River, which flows through Oregon and northern California, is the ancestral home of the Karuk people. The Karuk are known as the "upriver" people who come from the place where the Salmon and Klamath Rivers meet. In this film, we meet three Karuk tribal members—Phil Albers, Julian Lang, and Maymi Preston-Donahue—who are dedicated to speaking Karuk in order to keep their people connected to their language and the river.
During the California Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, the Karuk endured decades of generational trauma. They were severed from the river, their culture and language due to forced assimilation and genocide. In the late nineteenth century, tens of thousands of native children in the United States—including Phil's grandmother—were forcibly taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools. Many returned home years later. They either forgot their first language or were instilled with so much fear and shame that they refused to speak Karuk. It took decades for Phil's grandmother to be willing to openly share Karuk.
Language survival depends on the critical relationship between elder and student for one-on-one learning. Phil and Julian first learned Karuk from their respective grandmothers, but in order to continue learning, they had to seek out others and convince them to share their knowledge. Julian and Phil bridge an older generation of fluent speakers—alive and deceased—with members of a younger generation. Mothers like Maymi, who are learning the language, are taking a step toward restoring the transmission of language between parent and child.
While it may seem logical that we learn our native language from our families, it has become increasingly rare for Indigenous languages to be passed from parent to child. This is the case for the Karuk. With the chain of language transmission broken, those who wish to learn their native tongue are often left to seek out an elder who is fluent, who may not be a relative. Today, once again living alongside the waters of the Klamath, Karuk speakers are working to keep their words, traditions, and connections to the land alive.