Those who say you can’t take it with you when you go obviously never met Hazel Sampson.
Three days ago, Hazel Sampson passed away in Port Angeles, Washington at age 103. This is not a surprising occurrence, given that the number of 103-year-olds that are still hanging around is relatively small. However, Sampson’s death is the end of an era. She was the last native speaker of Klallam.
I hadn’t heard of the Klallam language before today, nor the Klallam people. As it turns out, they are related to the Salish and their territory straddles the borders of the USA and Canada, with communities on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Like many other Native American languages, Klallam was thought of as inferior to English and survived the government’s attempts at elimination. The 1990s Native American Language Act helped the Klallam cause, gaining the interest of scholars such as University of North Texas professor Timothy Montler, who operates a compelling website for the language. According to Sampson’s obituary, written by Jonathan Kaminsky, the majority of Klallam people today do not speak their language, although due to the dying-out of speakers (Sampson, of course, being the last), has been added to the curriculum at Port Angeles High School.
Language loss is a problem, even in the 21st century. People are beginning to embrace cultures whose members are dying out and trying to recapture days gone by, when the British, French, Americans, et. al., were trying to impress their own culture and drive out anything else. Fragments and even whole books of some languages without native speakers still exist, but it’s not enough to make up for centuries of forced linguistic genocide. I wouldn’t be surprised if several languages die out each year – or each month, for that matter – and Hazel Sampson’s story is no different. Back in 2008, a similar story emerged with the death of Marie Smith Jones of Alaska ending the line of native speakers of Eyak, an indigenous Alaskan language. Even though Eyak is still spoken and taught, it is officially on the list of dead languages – a club in which Klallam is now the newest member.
Just like peoples and cultures die out, I suppose that languages have lives too. Klallam has served its purpose, and now is a language of the heavens, along with millions of others. However much we may have of it, we’ll never have a native speaker, someone who learned it first, before any another language; someone who can compose love songs and secrets; someone to think and to dream in it.
Rest in peace, Hazel Sampson, and rest in peace, Klallam. Or, as Hazel might say,
(Goodbye, my friend.)
Kaminsky, Jonathan. “Last native speaker of Klallam language dies in Washington state.” Reuters.com. 6 Feb 2014. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/07/us-usa-klallam-death-idUSBREA1605W20140207>.