The Tolowa people, or Tolowa Dee-ni’, come from a region on the Pacific coast of California bordered by Wilson Creek to the south and Sixes River to the north. Loren Bommelyn is the sole fluent speaker of Tolowa Dee-ni’. He is working with his family to overcome generations of trauma in order to preserve the Tolowa Dee-ni’ language, traditions, and songs.
The Tolowa live on their ancestral lands. These lands have drastically changed. In the mid-1800s, logging and gold mining industries moved in, which were then replaced by a state prison—currently the largest employer in the region. Neighboring this facility is what remains of the old-growth redwoods.
In 1853, a group of armed men from Crescent City murdered hundreds of Tolowa Dee-ni’, including women and children, during the Nee-dash Earth Renewal Ceremony at the village of Yan’-daa-k’vt, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ place of genesis. After this massacre and the burning of Yan’-daa-k’vt, the village lost its traditional name and came to be known as “Burnt Ranch,” the name it holds today. The Burnt Ranch Massacre was one of the largest massacres of Native people in American history. Over the next few decades, state-sanctioned violence and the spread of disease ultimately took the lives of 95 percent of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ people.
Loren’s grandmother, Dv-lay-li Frank, was born in 1875 and survived the murder of her parents by a white man who took her and her siblings as indentured slaves. She lived to witness the federally organized sterilization of Native women and to experience her grandchildren being taken away to boarding schools. She lived to be sixty-six years old, raised a family, and passed on her language to the next generation.
Loren’s dream for the Tolowa Dee-ni’ is to see the youngest generation speaking the language in the lands where both the language and the people originated.