Archie Thompson dies at 93; Yurok elder kept tribal tongue alive
Archie Thompson, the oldest living member of California’s Yurok tribe and the last known active speaker raised in the tribal language, has died. He was 93.
Thompson died March 26 at a Crescent City, Calif., hospital after an apparent stroke, according to his daughter Sherry O’Rourke.
“It’s our language that truly gives us our identity as Yurok people,” said Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., the tribal chairman and Thompson’s son-in-law. “He is very much responsible for preserving not just a way of life, but the identity of a people.”
Thompson was one of a handful of remaining full-blooded members of the Yurok tribe, which numbers nearly 6,000 members and is California’s largest.. He was also the last of about 20 elders who helped revitalize the language over the last few decades, after academics in the 1990s predicted it would be extinct by 2010.
He made recordings of the language that were archived by UC Berkeley linguists and the tribe, spent hours helping to teach Yurok in community and school classrooms, and welcomed apprentice speakers to probe his knowledge.
It paid off: A recent tally by the tribe’s language program indicated there are more than 300 basic Yurok speakers, 60 with intermediate skills, 37 who are advanced and 17 who are considered conversationally fluent.
Yurok is now taught in public schools across Humboldt and Del Norte counties, including in five high schools, and the revitalization effort is widely considered the most successful in the state. Linguists say the Yurok language will be considered fully out of danger, however, only when tribal members begin speaking it to their children in the home.
Thompson “took his time to mentor, he let people come into his home, he traveled on behalf of our language and felt an obligation to revive” it, the tribal chairman said.
“I don’t think there was a better example of what an elder should be,” he said. “I never once heard him raise his voice in anger. I never heard him speak negative words. Even when people probably deserved them, he found positive words to try to pick them up.”
Linguist Andrew Garrett, who directs UC Berkeley’s Yurok Language Project, said Thompson was a go-to resource for those reclaiming the tribe’s tongue.
“Any gaps in their knowledge will now be much harder to fill in,” he said. “It has to be done through recordings.”
Thompson was born May 26, 1919, in a smokehouse in Wa’tek Village, now known as Johnsons, on the Klamath River. At age 5, he was sent to a government-run boarding school in Hoopa, about 30 miles to the southeast, where he was discouraged from speaking Yurok or engaging in cultural practices.
He would open and close the school gates for visitors, often receiving a penny or a nickel in return, he recalled in a January interview with The Times. He returned home at age 8, and after his mother attempted to put him up for adoption, his grandmother, Rosie Jack Hoppell, took him in, according to his daughter.
Hoppell spoke only Yurok and Thompson lived a traditional life with her and an uncle, hooking eels, harvesting seaweed and clams, catching candlefish and salmon, and hunting elk.
Before school, he would rise early to trap ducks, catching enough for his grandmother to fill 10 feather mattresses, his daughter said.
In 1939 he graduated from Del Norte High School, where he earned varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball and track. He was the first Native American to have his name on the high school’s Coach’s Cup, an annual award for excellence in multiple sports, and was recently inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame.
He learned welding at another Indian boarding school, Riverside’s Sherman Institute, and served in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II.
In 1959, he moved to Crescent City with his wife, Alta McCash, a member of the neighboring Karuk tribe. The couple had eight children before she died in 1968 after a fall.
After he was pinned between two redwood trees while logging in 1966, Thompson was told he would never walk again. He recovered not only to walk, but to play until he was well into his 70s in a baseball game on his birthday each year against a family from the town of Klamath, his daughter said.
He raised his children alone.
A devout Christian, he took his kids to church every Sunday. If they also went on Wednesday evenings, his daughter recalled, he’d buy them each a root beer float.
Known for his beaming smile, he said farewell to most visitors with a “You be good now.”
He is survived by seven of his eight children, 29 grandchildren, 72 great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren.
At his memorial at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds, a traditional Yurok feast of eel and salmon cooked on outdoor grills was served to a crowd of more than 400.
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