Innovator James Gensaw: Revitalizing a Language — and a People

James Gensaw helps Native American youth connect to their culture
Photos by Kim Sanford

“Aiy-ye-kwee” is a Yurok greeting, but it means much more than hello, James Gensaw explains to his ninth grade students at Eureka High School in Humboldt County. 

“It has more feeling. It means I missed you, I’m so happy to see you. It applies to places. When I go fishing or kneeling at the mouth of the Klamath River and I wash my hands in the ocean, which is considered a living being and ceremonial place, I say ‘aiy-ye-kwee,’ which means ‘hello, you make me so happy.’ It is an important phrase.”

Yurok is a Native American language that came close to extinction, as elders passed away. But Gensaw has played a key role in revitalizing the language, including teaching four levels of Yurok to high school students at Eureka High.

The Eureka Teachers Association member intertwines instruction with stories, songs and games, building a sense of community in the classroom. Approximately half of his students are Native American, and many are Yurok, but not all. While students say Yurok is easy to learn, it’s a complicated language — for example, there are 20 different ways of counting, depending on whether one is counting animals, flat things, round things, money or people.

With only 35 fluent Yurok speakers left, Gensaw tells students, “You are important, needed and valuable.”

Gensaw wrote the curriculum, and his classes meet world language and “a-g” college preparatory requirements. Two students in his fourth-year class received Seal of Biliteracy awards for mastery of the language after passing difficult tests, including translation.

“One of my students said it saved her life,” shares Gensaw. “She was a Yurok tribal member. She was getting in big trouble with the law. She told me that learning Yurok got her off drugs and prevented her from going to prison. It helped her to understand who she was.”

He tells his students that what they are doing is special. “Millions of people are able to speak Spanish, French and German, but Yurok has only 35 conversationally fluent speakers, so you are important, needed and valuable.”

His students are proud to be revitalizing an ancient language.

“I wanted to learn this language to help keep it alive,” says Native American student Gracie Anderson, whose great-aunt speaks Yurok. 

Kirsten Simpson has family who are Yurok. “[The class] makes me feel more connected,” she says. “And it’s cool.”

Gensaw, a Yurok tribal member, grew up on the Yurok Reservation in Klamath. He was raised by his grandparents, who knew little of the Yurok language because, like many in their generation, they were forced to attend boarding school. (Beginning in the 1800s, the practice of forcibly removing Native American children from their homes was intended to coerce assimilation by wiping out their memories of Native language and culture.)

After high school, he took community language classes offered by the Yurok Tribe and worked with Barbara McQuillen, a teacher at Del Norte High School and member of Del Norte Teachers Association. “A part of me always felt something was missing, so I immersed myself in learning Yurok,” Gensaw says.

After enrolling at College of the Redwoods, he became an intern in the Yurok Tribe Language Program and worked with elders whose first language was Yurok.

“I was very blessed to have the opportunity,” Gensaw says. “They became like family. I documented and recorded more than 1,000 hours with nearly a dozen elders. That time contains some of my fondest memories, and also some of my saddest, because everyone I worked with has now passed away.”

Our 2019-2020 Innovation Issue

James Gensaw is one of the innovative educators we highlight this year. Meet the rest:

The Yurok Tribe, the largest in California with 6,400 enrolled members, partnered with UC Berkeley to create the Yurok Teacher Institute, which has the goal of restoring the language and developing credentialed Yurok language teachers in public schools. Gensaw earned his credential through the program.

He later worked with Andrew Garrett, director of UC Berkeley’s Yurok Language Project, and a team of elders to create an online Yurok language dictionary and database. Gensaw also helped develop a free language app for Android and iPhones, and created online Yurok lessons for Quizlet and Kahoot! to help other educators. 

He was recently approached by College of the Redwoods to teach a Yurok class as a pilot project, which he finds exciting.

“It means everything to me having Yurok as a living language again,” says Gensaw. “It’s changed my life and helped me grow into a stronger man. It’s a way to honor my elders. It’s a way to give Native American students resilience so they can find out more about themselves and their culture. To be part of taking an almost extinct language to a living, flourishing language has been awesome.”

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