The Maidu Story

Bill Shipley
UC Santa Cruz

In all the countryside out and around the dusty little town in southwestern Oklahoma where I was born and where I spent my childhood, there lived Native American people descended from four different traditions: Comanche, Kiowa, Apache and Wichita. Thus, from my earliest memories, I have always been well aware that Native Americans are real people, neither icons nor savages.

In 1953, when I became a graduate student in Linguistics at Berkeley, the state legislature had just allocated a yearly sum of ten thousand dollars to provide funding for field work on California Indian languages. In those years, this was a generous amount of money, enough to keep several graduate students in the field every year. This initiated a kind of golden age of ethnolinguistic research in the University of California.

So, in the summer of 1955, I went up to Maiduland in the northern Sierra and set out to learn and record the Mountain Maidu language under the tutelage of a wonderful woman in her sixties, Maym Benner Gallagher. Partly because of my childhood experiences but mainly because of who she was, Maym and I became close and loving friends, enthusiastically bonded in the common enterprise of saving her ancestral language from extinction.

Maym died in the late seventies, one among the Maidu speakers of her generation who disappeared as the years went by. I kept in touch with her daughter Beverly from time to time. About three years ago, I was talking with Beverly on the phone, airing my usual lament that Maidu was on the verge of extinction and that I knew of no young Maidu person to whom I could pass on my knowledge of the language. She told me that her youngest son, just out of high school, was very bright and very interested in the traditions of the Maidu people, including their language. We arranged for him to come down and visit me.

The results of that meeting have been breathtaking. Kenny Holbrook, Maym's grandson, turned out to be very bright, very enthusiastic and very talented at learning languages. His grasp of the phonology of Maidu was effortlessly achieved, he is intensely interested in how the grammar works and he is constantly proposing that we get on to making a new dictionary to include the large number of lexical items which I have discovered since the first dictionary was made. He has become seriously involved with doing the prerequisites at Cabrillo so that he can transfer to UCSC as a junior. He is interested in everything else: classical and modern history, theater, filmmaking, good books. He has moved to Santa Cruz, where we continue to work together.

There is a great resurgence of interest among the Native California people in their languages and traditions. As it happens, the two other languages which are closely related to Maidu were both studied and recorded by linguistic students some forty years ago. For one group, the Nisenan, or Southern Maidu, the researcher died in 1986 without having gotten any of his work published. In the other case, Konkow, or Northwestern Maidu, the grad student who did the field work got his degree but then dropped out of linguistics entirely. I have in hand all of the unpublished data for both of these languages. Andy Eatough used some of the Nisenan materials for his published work on Central Hill Nisenan texts. As far as Konkow is concerned, nothing has ever been published, though I have gotten copies of the unpublished materials into the hands of the interested Konkow people, including the four remaining fluent speakers.

There is much more to tell. Kenny, his mother and his brother, along with my son and me, are involved in helping one band of Maidus recover control of some of their ancestral lands. Among my Maidu friends, there is an ever-growing sense of pride in gaining some power over the situation and in gaining real knowledge of their traditional languages and cultures. It is very gratifying to me that I can be a part of all that.