In 1966, I was twelve years old when our elders began meeting at K’vsh-chu Redwood Hall every Saturday to teach the ‘baby-boom generation” Nee-dash Dance songs, prayers, our history, and stories. The elders were strict teachers making sure we learned it right. We listened quietly, obeyed their instructions, and practiced while the elders sang, recited prayers, and told age-old stories.
Dv-laa-ha~ what’s-up? /hello. Shxuu-shi’ Suu-daa-chu my-name-is Suu-daa-chu (no English translation). My English name is Sheryl Bommelyn Steinruck. I come from the Taa-laa-wa Tolowa Dee-ni’ ‘The-People‘ village of Nii~-lii~chvn-dvn Foot-of-the-riffle-place along Nii~-li~ Smith River in Fort Dick, California. Nii~-lii~chvn-dvn is a suburb of our Center-of-the-World, Yan’-daa-k’vt. My mother is Eunice Henry Bommelyn also known in Dee-ni’ ‘The-People‘ Wee-ya‘ Language, as Xash-wee-tes-na (no translation). And, I am the second-born daughter of four children to the late, James L. Bommelyn. My older sister is Vicki Luu-kvm-naa-ghe’ Blue-eyes Bom-melyn and two younger brothers: Loren Me’-lash-ne (no translation) Bommelyn and William Xwe’-nee-dvn (no translation) Bommelyn, Sr.
I remember one time after we (the baby-boomers) had been practicing real hard; we were allowed to dance in full ceremonial regalia. The rules we followed were to not look around at the audience or cut-up and to focus our eyes down at a pretend fire in the center of the dance area. I quickly glanced out at the crowd of elders watching our performance and all of the women were crying. Tears were running down their faces. The thought came to me, “Man, we are really going to get in trouble; we made them cry because our performance was so bad.” Actually, the tears were tears of joy and gratefulness that we had learned the dance right! They were crying because the last dance they held without repris-al was in 1906.
In 1906, all of our ceremonial regalia had been confiscated during a ceremonial dance and the dance was forbidden until now (1966). The elders were crying with joy and thankfulness for passing on our dance tradition for the generations to come. Thus, the revitalization of our cultural ways began in full force. Also in 1968, we started recording and writing Dee-ni’ Wee-ya’ in the Unifon Alphabet (more about that later).
I became determined to do all I could throughout my life to perpetuate our language, heritage, and culture. At a young age before I ever thought about a man or marriage, I made my mind up that one day when I became a grandmother I would receive my gvt’lh-de’sr “111” tribal tattoo on my chin. I had grown up all my life learning our history, culture and language and this would be a natural thing for me to do.
Only the women of our tribe received the “111” chin tattoo. Historically, before the coming of the non-Indian in our world, all young girls would get their chin tattoo upon becoming a woman and reaching the age of bearing children. One could tell how wealthy a girl was by her tattoo design. You could tell what village she came from as a grandmother might pass her design onto her daughter which was then passed on from generation to generation. In our tribe, the men did not have their faces tattooed.
All Indian tribal groups tattooed in the states of California, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest, and the Pacific Islands. Some tribes tattooed all or parts of the face and body.
During the 1920s, the state of California made it illegal for Indians to tat-too themselves. Consequentially, my grandmother and her sisters, my mother and her sisters did not get a “111” chin tattoo at the onset of womanhood. When I was a young girl, the only women that had a chin tattoo had been born in the late 1800s or the early 1900s. The women were very old with very wide and dark tattoos. For me, my “111” is an outward expression of my dedication to my language, heritage, and culture.
I got my “111” in October 2006 and my world and life improved and changed for the better. I became an apprentice in the Master-Apprentice Program (MAP) with my mother as the Master in the Smith River Ranche-ria Culture Department prior to my acceptance and attendance at the University of Oregon in 2009.
In May 2009, the Universe responded and the stars aligned allowing me to attend the University of Oregon Linguistic Department Language Teaching Specialization Master’s Degree Program. I am now equipped with knowledge and information to make a difference in perpetuating our heritage language in this generation and for the generations to come. I have learned how to develop curriculum to teach our language and cul-ture to anyone finding it in his or her heart to learn. I am committed to sharing all of my knowledge with anyone. I believe every person with a desire to learn and know his or her language, culture, family genealogy, and Dee-ni’ history, is a right given to us from K’wan’-lee-shvm God / Creator.
We hold dance regalia making and basket making classes every week in my home for all to attend. My invitation is open to all. You are welcome to bring unfinished necklaces, dance regalia, basket rattles, etc., to work on. We visit, share stories, sing songs, and speak Dee-ni’ Wee-ya’, too. My home number is 707-487-2100, if you would like to attend these learning and sharing sessions.
Language Note: Dee-ni’ Wee-ya’ words are typed in bold and the English translation is typed in italics or as (no translation), if applicable.
Submitted by Sheryl Steinruck, Language Specialist