“I think that the language is the mind of the people. Inside of the language, even in the way things are spoken about, you know how people thought. How the ancestors thought about things, what was important to them. Their world view is wrapped up in language”
-Dreamstarter mentor and Wailaki Language teacher Cheryl Tuttle
Cheryl Tuttle is principal at Round Valley Elementary/Middle School (“Home of the Mustangs and Colts”) in Covelo, California. She has also been the mentor for three Running Strong for American Indian Youth® Dreamstarters®– Blaze Burrows (2016), Shayleena Britton (2017) and this year Lourdes Pedroza-Downey, all members of the Round Valley Indian Tribe.
In her message to students and parents on her school’s website, Cheryl writes that she and her staff “are honored to serve as educators in this beautiful valley for children we love and respect and feel blessed to serve.”
In addition to serving as principal at the elementary/middle school, Cheryl also teaches Wailaki language classes at Round Valley High School where she has inspired Blaze, Shayleena, Lourdes and many other students at the school to work to preserve their nearly-lost tribal language.
The Round Valley Native American Studies Program, their Dreamstarter mentor organization, has a very powerful mission statement: “Through teaching about traditional values,
Native American history, contemporary Native American issues, local culture and Native language, the Round Valley Unified School District’s Native American Studies Program will inspire a deeper understanding of ourselves and our Native communities, promoting self-growth and encouraging generosity through community service and education.”
The program serves an amazing 350 individuals with a full-time staff of only two and about a dozen volunteers. Numerous articles have been published about Cheryl’s innovative techniques in instilling a sense of cultural pride in hundreds, if not thousands, of her students over the years.
The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, California, report in 2017 that the school’s Wailaki language project is the “brainchild” of Tuttle and teacher Rolinda Want, a Dreamstarter Teacher, who a few years earlier began talking about adding a Native American language course at Round Valley High.
However, when Cheryl and Rolinda decided they wanted to teach a local language, they had
many to choose from; many different tribes were forced onto what is now known as the Round Valley Indian Reservation, historically the lands of the Yuki Tribe. Many families of all those tribes – including Yuki, Wailaki, Concow, Little Lake Pomo, Nomlacki and Pitt River Indians – have resided there for generations.
When Cheryl and Rolinda decided to teach a local language, “they had many to choose from,” the Press Democrat reported. “The original reservation was a babel of languages, each with distinct dialects. Many of the current residents claim relatives from multiple tribes.
But one thread seemed to be a connector – “Everyone is like Wailaki and something else,” Cheryl said.
However, as The Press Democrat reported, it would be no easy task resurrect the language. For one thing, it was never a written language, so they had zero original documents to refer to.
In addition, no audio recordings existed, and as far as they knew, there was no one who actually spoke more than a few words of Wailaki.
For help, they turned to an assistant professor in the University of California at Davis’ Native American Studies program who had experience in what is known as the Athabaskan language group, and, as luck would have it, they connected with a UC Berkley linguistics grad student (and native Hupa) who was doing her dissertation on Wailaki grammar.
Among the invaluable resources they came across was the work of Pliny Earle Goddard, who in the first decade of the 20th century transcribed 36 stories told to him by a Round Valley tribal member known as “Captain Jim.”
From those and other sources, they were able to piece together a solid core of Wailaki and the first year they taught the class in 2014-15, they learned along with the class and since then the database has grown and changed.
And where words don’t exist, they have been creative in devising Wailaki equivalents – such as “hand talk” for “phone.”
Cheryl has developed strong relationships with her Dreamstarter® mentees such as Blaze, a student in her Wailaki class whose Dreamstarter® project was to spread knowledge about how to play a traditional Wailaki stick game.
“Blaze and I get along well, know each other as teacher-student who want to make a difference in our Native communities,” Cheryl reported.
She noted the positive change in Blaze, who was only 16 when he received his $10,000 Dreamstarter® grant, saying “Blaze has grown up with this grant. He started out very shy and withdrawn. The Running Strong Dreamstarter® Academy in Washington, DC, really challenged him, but he met the challenge and came away a stronger public speaker and more confident.
“The community has welcomed the stick game, as evidenced through the invitations we receive from community organizations that want Blaze to put on trainings and games at their events,” she reported. “The males involved in the training love it. They find the sport to be fun, and love the opportunity to feel that their ‘maleness’ is accepted and honored.
“I am renewed in hopefulness and energy as a result of seeing Blaze’s dream become
a reality in such a short period of time. As a member of a Native community, I’ve lived with disappointment and heartache all the time, but with this project, through the eyes and efforts of a youth, I can see that we don’t have to live in disappointment and heartache; instead, I can turn my energies towar our youth, listen to their dreams, help them realize their dreams, and see a brighter future.”
And, as a whole, Cheryl observed that the Dreamstarter® program benefited not just Blaze, and not just the school, but the entire community.
“The grant allowed our youth to shine and provided an opportunity to integrate Native culture within the school district. Implementing this program within the school district helped with public relations with tribal members that haven’t, in the past, seen.”
For Cheryl, who is Yurok and Karuk, the Wailaki classes are much more than a fun way to keep kids occupied, notes The Press Democrat.
“I think that the language is the mind of the people,” Cheryl is quoted as saying. “Inside of the language, even in the way things are spoken about, you know how people thought. How the ancestors thought about things, what was important to them.
“Their world view is wrapped up in language.”
To learn more about Cheryl and the Dreamstarters she mentors, visit the links below: