Wung Whikyung Na’way
(My Mind Goes Over It)
vol. 3, August/September 2021
Like chahla-q’ude (sunflowers) in my garden, I woke up this morning and went out to face the sun and pray. Wha xa:singya (sun rise up)! A red sun peeking over the treeline; it was not yet smokey to my lungs yitse’n (downhill, west) on the coast in Eureka, but the Monument Fire yiduq (uphill, east) in the mountains blew smoke high into the the air above, turning the rising sun a deep red. Standing in coastal morning air and fog in Wiyot lands, I thought of whima:lyo’ (friends and relatives) inland in Na:tinixw (where the trails return, the Hoopa Valley), and what air they might breathe today. Part of my daily prayers have been for whima:lyo’ to be protected from Covid-19, but I had not yet thought of fire and smoke.
Originating from lightning strikes in Wintu and Chimariko lands, the Monument Fire today is yinahch’in (coming from upriver) in Tse:ning-xwe territory, named for Tse:ning (iron side-mountain). Just days ago, the fire crept up its side in the steep river canyon and into Hupa-speaking territory. Evacuations of the town of Burnt Ranch, named in English for a village burned out by miners in Gold Rush times, happened yesterday. I see pictures of Tse:ning on Facebook, and it’s hard to see it burn this way.
Wung whikyung na’way (my mind goes over) to one of my Hupa language teachers from high school who is Tse:ning-xwe. I think of the xontah (fire-among), the traditional Hupa home he rebuilt on the village land that his family is from. His name, Mr. Ammon, sounds like the English word “almond,” so when he was first learning the language the elders named him k’ila:jo:nde’. An example of semantic extension: the Hupa word for a new item and concept in our world, almonds, is the same as an old concept, hazelnut. Semantic extension is one way that we grow our languages and talk about things in the world that weren’t there before. In my morning prayer, I use this name when I pray that he and his family will be safe.
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Wung whikyung na’way how for many recent years even further upriver than Tse:ning-xwe, the Trinity River is pumped out of its basin into the Sacramento, heading south and eventually finding itself in stolen land to grow crops like almonds. I don’t really have a taste for the almonds that line I-5 from north to south, spanning the state, despite my diet becoming gluten- and dairy-free recently to heal chronic inflammation in my body. Prescribed by my doctor, the diet looks to me like a map of Indigenous North America, with foods like sa’liwh (fresh leafy greens) and ło:q’ (salmon). What I am hearing: my body is on fire like the land without big runs of ło:q’ and the plant foods my people stood in relationship with since time immemorial.
I know some of their names thanks to teachers like Mr. Ammon. Would either my body or the land burn so much if there were more water in the river? Or if Klamath-Trinity ło:q’ were as numerous as almond trees along the I-5?
As a professor of Native American Studies on Wiyot lands, I guide students to study what are often their heritage Indigenous languages, shaped by relationships to water and land, and teach about Indigenous land loss in U.S. history. Stories of survivance, resilience, healing, and resurgence are important to counter terminal narratives that have us continually disappearing. Settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event in time, and relies on this Indigenous erasure. I would like to think that kił-diniwił’a’-ch’iłchwe (I am an understanding-maker, teacher). Learning truth in history or to speak our Indigenous languages again, whether from elders or documents, helps maintain our connection to our lands through our worldviews, and helps renew our worlds.
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When you’re lost, one way to describe it in Hupa is ninis’a:n do-whołts’it (the land doesn’t know me). Indigenous languages themselves come from the land, and being willing to learn more than one language makes us better guests on others’ lands. When linguists began documenting Hupa language, they noted that some speakers knew how to speak as many as five different languages; it was not uncommon for someone to be able to speak multiple languages along the river. So-called California spans the territories of around 80 to 100 different Indigenous language groups.
I was told it takes three generations for the land to heal. How many does it take to reclaim our languages? The land burns hottest and angriest where nobody has been to talk to it or for it for a long time. Land back, language back — they are intertwined. If language work leads to rematriation and renewal of Indigenous lands, lives and worlds, then maybe what we can say we were doing was decolonizing after all, remaking time and space to listen, breathe safely, and speak.
Kayla Begay (Hoopa Valley Tribe) is an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. Her work centers on Dene languages, Indigenous California languages, and community-based language revitalization and reclamation. She serves as a board member with the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS), and is a traditional basket weaver and singer.