Oldest Member of Yurok Tribe Walks On, Leaves Lasting Language Legacy
Archie Thompson wasn’t just vital to the revitalization and preservation of his tribe’s Yurok language, he was also the single father of his eight children and a World War II veteran.
Thompson was born on May 26, 1919 in Watek Village, now known as Johnsons on the Klamath River. He was sent to a boarding school in Hoopa at the age of 5 where he was discouraged from speaking his language. At the age of 8, he was sent to live with his grandmother in Klamath, California. Living with her was how he came to speak Yurok so well.
“She didn’t speak English, and I used to make fun of her all the time, but that’s how I learned,” Thompson told TurtleTalk.org in 2009. “She spoke to me every day. I learned (Yurok) as I went along. She’d teach me as I went.”
Learning his language paid off for his entire tribe, which numbers nearly 6,000 members. He was a part of a group of elders who learned Yurok at a young age and volunteered for the Yurok Language Project.
The group of elders made a number of recordings for the language project, taught Yurok in classrooms and now the language is taught in public schools across Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
“Our people will forever be indebted to him and the others that worked to preserve the Yurok language for the Yurok nation,” Yurok Tribe Chairman Thomas O’Rourke, who is married to Thompson’s daughter Sherry, told the Del Norte Triplicate at Thompson’s funeral on March 30.
Thompson was the last of the elders to pass away. He walked on March 26 at a hospital in Crescent City, California. He was 93.
“He was the last fluent speaker that we worked with in our program,” Barbara McQuillen, assistant coordinator for the tribe’s language program told the Del Norte Triplicate. Now when a problem with pronunciation or syntax comes up, there won’t be a first-language speaker to call. “We always had someone to call.”
But the recordings he and the other elders made will live on forever—just like his legacy will live on through his children.
After graduating from Del Norte High School in 1939 he attended Sherman Institute in Riverside, another Indian boarding school, where he learned metal-working and welding, which led to working in shipyards in Los Angeles and being drafted into the Navy at the beginning of World War II.
After the war he returned to Klamath and married Alta McCash in 1952. But tragedy struck in 1968 and Alta passed away after a fall, leaving Archie with eight children to care for—four sons and four daughters—the youngest still in diapers.
“You can’t work and raise them, no way. So I stayed home and cooked and washed clothes,” he told TurtleTalk.org in 2009. According to the Los Angeles Times a work injury in 1966 left him unable to walk. He had been pinned between two redwoods while working in the logging industry in Klamath.
This did allow him to care for his children though, and in 1979, he received the Del Norte Father of the Year award. That wasn’t the only distinction he got in his lifetime. He was the first Native American to have his name on the Del Norte High School Coach’s Cup, a yearly award for excellence in multiple sports. He had lettered in football, basketball, track and baseball.
A more recent honor was in 2009 when he traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive the Silver Honor in the Mentor Category from the MetLife Foundation and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. He was nominated by Kim Yost, a Yurok tribal member, who knew Thompson through the Del Norte Foster Grandparent Program.
“When he went to classes, he brought his great smile; he has that upbeat, zest-for-life personality,” Yost told the Del Norte Triplicate.
At his funeral, the Del Norte Triplicate, reports his granddaughter Alta Thompson said there are just two things he would want from his people: “Learn your language and always smile.”