EUREKA, Calif. - Foreign language is a current requirement at many high schools across the North Coast. At Eureka High School, instead of taking common languages such as Spanish or French, students have the option of learning a language that has local cultural significance, the Yurok language.
The language classes at the high school are part of an ongoing effort by the Yurok Tribe to preserve their native language. The language is being offered at four high schools across the North Coast, including Eureka High.
James Gensaw, the Yurok language teacher for Eureka High and Yurok tribal member, said the language is an essential part of his culture.
"To me, the Yurok language is a way of life," he said. "It's everything that our people have. It was our past, our present and it's our future."
According to Gensaw, the decline of the Yurok language had been going on since the tribe made contact with white settlers in the 1800s. The use of English decreased when tribal members attended boarding schools as they would be beaten for using the native language. Eventually, the use of the language dwindled to only a handful of elders.
Gensaw said only two people speak Yurok as their first language. There were about 20 conversationally fluent speakers who were second language speakers, including him. That means, English was the first language for these speakers and learned the Yurok language later on.
The irony of teaching Yurok in a public school setting is something Gensaw had noticed.
"[It's] really ironic that the education system is responsible for taking away the language and now it's a tool we can use to bring back the language," he said.
His students said they enjoyed learning the language in his classes.
"It's actually a really fun experience. James is an awesome teacher," Sarah Jewell, a junior taking Yurok I. "He doesn't like us to write it necessarily but hear it because it uses a different part of the brain and it sticks with you better if you hear it."
Jewell hoped her fluency would improve over time as she eventually wants to hold a conversation with a tribal member entirely in Yurok.
"I want to be able to have a full conversation with an elder," she said. I want to be able to not speak in any English, and I want to use solely Yurok."
Bailey Fales, a junior taking Yurok III and a Yurok tribal member, said learning the language helped her be in touch with her native roots.
"I find myself trying to teach my family different things because no one in my family can speak it," Fales said. "I feel really proud that I'm able to learn this language that not many people know."
Gensaw said overall he was happy with his students and hoped to leave a mark with them.
"If all I get out of teaching here at Eureka High School is three or four people that are passionate, that want to take this language and own it and have it becomes theirs and use it, use it in their home, use it out with their friends, bring it to teach their children. That's important," he said.
Through students like Jewell and Fales, Gensaw hoped the language would continue to live on.
"I can only save this language for another 50 years," he said. "Maybe 60 years...but them. They're younger. They can hold this; they can bring this language in for another 60, 70 more years."