Hupa Language Immersion Program Strengthens the Continuum of Language and Culture

Xine:wh-ding, Inc., is a Native nonprofit organization based on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California, and First Nations’ California Tribal Fund and Native Arts, Languages, and Knowledge programs are proud supporters.

The organization is led and staffed by a group of Hupa women, including Sara Merrick, a Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow, and Melissa “Lovey” Sanchez, Erika Tracy, and Jenna Hailey. These women are dedicated to cultivating intergenerational healing through language resurgence.

Nest students, teachers, and families gathered at the June family dinner and celebration at the newly constructed outdoor classroom at Tish Tang Campground.

Last year, they started a Hupa language immersion nest for toddlers, ages 18 months to 35 months. They plan to continue to grow this nest into a full-time Hupa Language Immersion School, following these children up to eighth grade.

“We want to build out a viable alternative to the school system that’s completely dedicated to Hupa language and lifeways,” shares Merrick, the organization’s director of research and development.

The group has intentionally chosen to start the immersion program with very young children. “Part of the vision is to make it a normal, easy thing for these babies to learn as they grow up. I see it with my school-aged niece who feels badly when she forgets Hupa language words she has learned. But the babies have no shame, no worries; they love the language, they speak it. It’s a way that language should be taught,” shares Hailey.

Their work is grounded in their philosophy as learners, too, “We consider ourselves as learner-teachers and share that with our families. You can be learner-teachers, we’re all learner-teachers. We are learning and teaching our babies, and our babies are learning and teaching us all the time. It’s a lifelong, intergenerational exchange that we’re all working on together,” says Tracy.

The history of the Hupa language

California is home to more than 100 distinct languages, with each language representing a unique worldview. Many of these languages are isolated without neighbors from similar linguistic families, like Hupa, which is the only Athabaskan language in the immediate area. This means that Hupa people cannot rely on other tribes working on the same language in the way that Lakota language practitioners, for example, may be able to consult with practitioners from other Lakota tribes.

A positive aspect to the Hoopa Valley’s geographic isolation was that the area avoided major contact with colonialism until after the California Gold Rush, so the Hupa language was the norm until the latter part of the 1800s. Boarding schools had a devastating impact on the language, however, many elders held on to their language and culture, anyway.

Nest students engage outdoors with the land and waters daily, pictured here at the river on the Tish Tang Campground.

In the 1960s and 70s, the community began to realize that the language was not being spoken with as much frequency as it had been in the past. The Hoopa Tribal Education Association and elders took action by developing a dictionary and hosting community classes, teaching language in their youth programs, and creating a pull-out program in the school.

This momentum continued building throughout the 90s, leading to the first credentialed teachers and fluent-speaking elders of the Hupa language coming into the classroom as a part of the school curriculum.

Now, Xine:wh-ding reflects fondly on this lineage and feels a sense of urgency to pick up the torch. “These teachers played a role in instilling that love of the language that we have. We’re very grateful for them, for their elders that they worked with, and the history in our lifetimes,” says co-founder Tracy. “Just in our lifetime, we’ve had access to elders in ways that our children, nieces, and nephews don’t.”

How the Hupa language advocates came together

With experience in the public education system as students and adults, the women recognized the need to build appropriate infrastructure to maintain and fortify the continuum of language speakers in their community.

Most nest curriculum revolves around traditional stories. Pictured here are puppets and felt boards inspired by the “Coyote and the Sweetball” story, as told by elder speaker Verdena Parker.

The classes offered through public school were only 30 minutes per week (if the teachers decide to take their class) in elementary school, and an hour per day at the high school. “There’s no possible way, even if you’re the best teacher on the planet, that you can make a child fluent in 30 minutes a week,” says Merrick.

Through her undergraduate and graduate work, Merrick identified language immersion programs as a successful model for other Indigenous communities with fluent speakers. One winter break, she convened a group of women with an interest in language, including Tracy and Sanchez, to try out the immersion concept.

They gathered their nieces and nephews and performed activities with them, speaking the Hupa language, for four hours a day, for one week. After the week was over, the kids received more exposure to the Hupa language than they would have received in an entire school year.

And the women say they gained clarity in their mission.

Since then, this group of language advocates has been building its fluency and curriculum toward a full-time language immersion program. In 2013, the founders began annual language immersion summer camps and spring break programs. More recently, they started Nohk’isdiyun Nohoł (Caregiver and Me) baby groups to recruit for the language immersion nest.

The good news is, they have honed their pedagogical approach — from thinking on their feet to developing the cultural, land, and story-based curriculum that they currently use. “No matter what was going on in our lives, we tried to maintain this work in a good way, doing the hard work for these kids, so that when they are our age, they will never have to go through some of the things that we had. They’ll have a strong foundation of culture and language,” reflects Sanchez.

The vision for Xine:wh-ding

Xine:wh-ding goes beyond language revitalization and draws on traditional ways of learning and teaching. “We aren’t doing anything new. We’re just trying to pick up the torch of survival, survivance, beauty, and intelligence from our ancestors and elders moving forward. This is our core group vision, but it really has been a vision of the community.” Merrick adds that through conversations with the community, they’ve learned that their traditional education system centers on stories.

Elder Verdena Parker giving an apple pie-making lesson, in Hupa during a language retreat near her home in Oregon.

Verdena Parker, Merrick and Tracy’s aunt, is a fluent Hupa speaker and plays an integral role in the Native nonprofit. She grew up speaking Hupa and went to school right after the boarding school transitioned into a public school. “Auntie Verdena is a wonderful storyteller, so we started working on her coyote stories as both a way to learn stories and language,” says Merrick.

Parker lives in Oregon, so they recorded her storytelling and then developed puppet shows and books so that the children could learn the stories. When she could, Parker would travel to the Hoopa reservation to visit the kids and tell her stories in person. This model proved to be very successful.

“A lot of the kids don’t know the Coyote stories in English, they just know them in Hupa. And they know them very well, they can act them out, and they can tell them back to you,” says Merrick.

The stories teach children important values, as well. “The first thing they learn is the moral of the story―what was Coyote doing, why he did that, and why it wasn’t OK. It’s not just a story; it’s teaching them how to be,” shares Sanchez.

Serving sa’xawh (Acorn Soup) made from the Tan Oak acorns, nest students and their “Auntie” teachers/families gather at the end-of-the-year family dinner.

Children learn about the Hupa culture, too

Xine:wh-ding gets the children out onto the land, teaching them about the flora and fauna. For example, the teachers take the children to gather acorns, process them, and eat them, too, just as their ancestors did long ago. “K’iwinya’n-ya:n is another way we call ourselves, Indian people, acorn eaters. Acorns are essential to who we are,” says Merrick.

Elders who are cultural experts, but may not necessarily be fluent Hupa speakers, are often invited in to teach the children and strengthen the bonds of intergenerational education.

In some ways, Xine:wh-ding is a counter vision to the assimilative nature of boarding schools. Even in public school now, culture is only highlighted as a special and rare activity, whereas ancestral knowledge and language is the No. 1 priority at Xine:wh-ding.

“Part of the vision is to create strong Indian people who know their culture, who know their language, and are connected with the land. So when they walk out into the world, there’s no doubt about who they are,” shares Sanchez.

The importance of language work

Language programs, like Xine:wh-ding, struggle to find consistent, accessible funding. Federal funding opportunities are competitive, rare, and require burdensome application and reporting processes. At the same time, language programs present a reparative opportunity.

“All of the resources that went into the destruction and disruption of our language and cultures is all the more reason why they should put more resources back into those systems, to heal those systems and revitalize those systems,” Tracy points out.

Yet, language programs can feel pigeonholed by non-Native funders that do not have an expansive understanding of traditional language, “They ask what does it have to do with justice? Well, everything. Language is the key to healing everything, to rebuilding everything,” explains Merrick.

Nest students are cracking and sorting acorns to later grind and leach for cooking.

Sanchez elaborates: “Re-learning your language helps connect you back to your culture. Our language is what connects us to the land and to each other. Without language, we cannot speak to each other, we cannot pray. It’s important for us to learn our language so that we truly are Na:tinixwe. We all need our language to connect us to who we are as people.”

“It illuminates our worldview in a totally different way than you ever could in English,” says Tracy. She provides the example of the word for “happy,” Whinist’e’ Xoniwh. “The actual breakdown for the word happy is ‘my body is awake and has awareness.’ That’s what it meant to be a happy person, someone who has this awareness and balance. It’s things like this that we are so excited to uncover and share with our families.”

The group values the lessons that other language immersion programs shared with them as they brought their dream to fruition and hope to pay it forward.

Sanchez offers encouragement: “Do it in a good way, do it with love, and everything will work out in the end. When you start with children, it bridges that gap with their families, and helps bring them all in.”