At Home is a series of intimate conversations from people’s homes across Oregon. See our full coverage.
“I’m probably the only one know a lot of things — the old language and things — and so it kind of bothers me… nobody uses it anymore.”
Verdena Parker recorded herself saying that about ten years ago. She was the last of a kind — the only known fluent speaker of Hupa, the Athabascan language of the Hupa tribe.
“And so even I don’t use a lot of these words any more. I kind of talk to [my daughter] once in a while, but she usually listens but then she don’t say nothing back because she don’t speak the language.”
Parker has lived in Winston, Oregon since 1970. It’s a small town in rural Douglas County. But she grew up in the community of Hoopa, in Northern California. And even as child, she was the only member of her generation who regularly spoke her native language. Her friends and cousins spoke English while she listened to her elders’ stories.
Parker wasn’t just bucking a generational trend; she was going against the educational philosophy of the time.
“At the boarding school,” she says, “they taught you, ‘It’s not important to speak your language. You gotta speak English. You’re not going to go nowhere.’”
But being the only member of her generation to speak Hupa meant that each time an elder passed away, there was one fewer person to talk to. And finally Parker was alone.
“After my mother died,” Parker says, “I didn’t have nobody to talk to.”
Parker’s solution was to record herself telling old stories and reciting poems. Then she would play the tapes back. It was her way to hear someone speaking Hupa.
Over time, Parker recorded 32 90-minute tapes, talking about everything from traditional coyote stories to gossipy coverage of the Lacy Peterson murder. She eventually gave the whole collection to a language library at the University of California at Berkley. She thought that was the best way to preserve them.
“I know if I donated it to [the town of Hoopa] that it would be gone,” Parker says. “Everyone would grab one here or there, and it’d be lost.”
Parker says that often when people think they’re speaking Hupa, they’re really speaking something else: a related Athabascan language of the Redwood Creek tribe.
“There are other people that are alive today in Hoopa who are my age who cannot speak [Hupa],” Parker says. “They claim to speak fluently, but none of them do.”
Still, Parker has noticed newfound interest there in keeping Hupa alive — interest she didn’t see before. “There are older people now that seem like they just woke up,” she says.
For her part, Parker has been trying to preserve her beloved language for years. She encouraged her children to speak Hupa, but they resisted. She’s had more luck with a student from Hoopa, Silish Jackson. They’ve worked together to create lessons for pre-schoolers in Hoopa. Parker says the only way to truly learn Hupa is to start not with grammar but with conversation.
“I have told them,” Parker says, “first you learn the language. Speak to one another back and forth. Then if you want to, find your verbs.”
Parker isn’t just teaching her students Hupa words that have been around for generations. She is also creating new ones to describe some of the objects of everyday life that weren’t around before the 20th century. So microwave is “it cooks on its own,” and toaster is “your bread flies back up.”
Even as the last fluent speaker of a difficult language, Verdena Parker strikes a hopeful note: “If they pay attention to my student, it will probably survive.”