Maidu Storytelling: A Beautiful Language, A Haunting Evening

Moki’ ka’do yapen’imaat sol’dom okau’pintitsoia (His world created with indeed singing caused to sound pretty) — from a Maidu tale

The great Maidu world of Northern California revolved around singing — singing the world into being, singing spirit and presence into the day, singing joy and happiness, singing to meet and greet others. Singing to be allowed into the roundhouse. No verb form was used more often than “sol” — sing.

The music of story certainly filled the Sierra Nevada foothills on January 26, when Maidu storyteller Farrell Cunningham visited the North Columbia Schoolhouse, one of the nation’s oldest and coolest cultural centers. For almost two hours, Farrell told traditional tales in his native Mountain Maidu tongue, and filled in a full house on the Maidu’s 150-year history of contact and interaction with white settlers and the California state government. More on that in a moment.

Farrell’s story is remarkable in itself. In a world where we’ve taken for granted the extinction of plant and animal species, we’ve almost completely swept under the rug another form of extinction — the loss of native languages. Every time we lose a language, we lose a slice of our human brethren, our essential nature as a species. We’ve lost a lot of tongues in the last century. One of the most haunting essays I’ve ever read was Gary Snyder’s experience of joining a linguist to try to get the last two elderly speakers of a Northern California native dialect, one of whom also spoke English, to come together, to record their language for history’s sake. They refused, because they hated each other. The language joined the dinosaurs. Gary’s tears practically stain the printed page on which the essay is written.

Bad news, folks: here we go again. At age 34, Farrell is carrying the torch of the Mountain Maidu language, a beautiful, rhythmic spoken-song tongue that has always revolved around singing. His soft-spoken delivery, often while looking beyond the crowd to connect with Worldmaker himself, held the feeling of sitting in a roundhouse in the dead of winter, listening to an elder talk story. Farrell told the gathering, in both Maidu and English, “Worldmaker told us from the beginning, ‘Everything in this world will have a song. If you want to make things a little better in this world, you will sing.” Later, he added, “Anyone you want to know, anything you want to know, you sing. Then you ask the other to sing. That is how you will know them.”

What a beautiful language. It moves right to the heart and soul, in 18 letters and relatively few words.

For many centuries, the Maidu tongue and other dialects in the Maiduan family filled the Sierra Nevada valleys between Lassen Peak and Sierra Valley, and in the plateaus of the high northeast near Susanville. This included the San Juan Ridge, where the North Columbia Schoolhouse sits. He’s the only lifelong Maidu speaker under age 80 — and of that older crowd, only a very few remain who speak Maidu as their first language.

During the evening, Farrell told us stories about Worldmaker’s determination to walk forward with the creation of the world and its creatures, despite the desires of the beguiling, anti-hero Coyote to either eat or mate with — and then eat — Worldmaker’s creations. While Coyote kept proclaiming that he ruled the world, Worldmaker kept moving forward, creating. But it was the priority he placed in his creation that speaks volumes of the spiritual nature of the Maidu people, the truly spiritual nature of humankind. As Farrell put it in his native tongue before translating, “Worldmaker said, ‘This is going to be a world of energies and spirit, then the humans will enter.'”

Another entertaining tale was Coyote’s desire to fly, and the threatening way in which he demanded lessons from a hummingbird — only to climb a tree branch when the hummingbird consented and fall to his death. Farrell then spoke of the ancients’ resurrection tale, striking in its modern parallels: “In the very ancient days, people would come along and, if they saw your dead body or bones lying there, would throw them into a body of water. You came back to life at the next sunrise.”

Farrell grew up the youngest of eight children, in the Genessee-Pit River Valley area, “where the birds own the creek.” He is a half-Maidu descendant of gold prospector John Davis, who entered a Maidu family whose basketweaving prowess is renowned among collectors. He learned Maidu from his grandfather’s sisters, who used to take him wherever they went. They were the last generation to speak the tongue as a first language before the U.S. government forced them into boarding schools — part of a process of driving the Maidu from their land, resettling them into 160-acre parcels, then systematically shaving off pieces of that parcel. “My family parcel was 40 acres until we ‘donated’ four acres for a septic plant,” Farrell said. His 15-minute overview of U.S. government actions since the 1850s was a tale to make any compassionate person squirm, a story the Native peoples throughout the U.S. know all too well.

Now, Farrell is teaching the Maidu language out of the California gold rush town of Nevada City, which features a corner lot with a Maidu timber tipi on it. Since language is the expression of human life, here’s hoping that he reaches enough people to keep one of the most beautiful languages on earth alive — and continues to pass its musical richness into every heart and soul he touches.



Filed under Adult Literacy, Author Platform, literature, poetry, Reading, travelogue, Writing, Young Writers

2 responses to “Maidu Storytelling: A Beautiful Language, A Haunting Evening

  1. Nola Joseph

    I want to know more…

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