When it is difficult to single out any one artistic skill of an individual for recognition, that person is often referred to simply as a "tradition bearer." Loren Bommelyn is such a person for the Tolowa people. The Tolowa are northern California Native Americans who numbered around 2,400 prior to European contact but by 1910 had dwindled to 121 people in the Smith River and Crescent Bay region. Bommelyn has preserved, practiced and promoted Tolowa cultural traditions including its language, native regalia, ceremonial dances and songs, and basketmaking. Bommelyn has played a significant role in the Tolowa community, according to Brian Bibby, editor of The Fine Art of California Indian Basketry. "As a performer, Loren is a singer of traditional Tolowa songs whose voice possesses a power and quality that is held in the highest regard," he said. "As a ceremonialist, Loren has taken on the responsibility of a dance maker, raising the level of participation in traditional ceremonies dramatically. He is by far the largest single maker and contributor of men's and women's dance regalia in the Tolowa community. As a basketmaker, he has a reputation throughout the northwestern part of the state as the supreme baby cradle maker. And as a speaker and teacher of the Tolowa language, he is today the single most knowledgeable individual of the indigenous language." In 1994, after several years of gathering materials and contributing his own financial resources, Bommelyn finished a Tolowa ceremonial house on his family property to host dances and tribal meetings. This was the site of the first complete Tolowa ceremony of genesis since 1925.
NEA: Why do you think that you were drawn to or chosen, if you want to say that, to be a Tolowa leader?
MR. BOMMELYN: I just remember the committee association would have gatherings on 4th of July and Christmas and at other times. There would be pot lucks and the community would get together. The other kids would go swimming, but I would be pulled aside and told by several of the elders, "When you grow up you will be a teacher. We need you to learn these things because you're going to teach them to the children." And I'm thinking, "Whatever, I'm eight. I'd rather be swimming so please leave me alone." You're a kid and you want to be swimming with all your friends and cousins. Then they'd say, "No, sit down here because we have things to tell you. We want to show you how to make things." And so on. I don't know why they chose me. I don't know if it was because I was willing. I don't know if it was because my parents were so actively involved in the community and the community association - they fought for legislation at the state level to protect our burial sites, for creating a California Indian Day and other things with the association. My parents were also very deeply touched and moved by religion. My father was always talking about our role in life and the genesis of mankind and the rules we were supposed to live by and so I was deeply entrenched in theological thought most of my life. But I don't know why I was chosen. It must have been a combination of things.
NEA: Can you speak about difficulties that you see that a young Tolowa would face in trying to continue the culture?
MR. BOMMELYN: Compared to the '70s, which was the renaissance period for Native Americans in Northern California, I see a little bit of lethergy and complacency. It's like the young people have inherited this amazing experience from us and their grandparents and great grandparents and they have the room now to take it for granted.
I grew up in hyper-speed because I needed to learn about our culture before it disappeared. We knew that when these elders left us that would be it. We knew history wasn't accurately written. We knew there was no anthropology representing our world viewpoint. We knew that we had been relegated to the past and were supposed to be forgotten about. It was my generation and particularly myself that had the vision that we needed to pursue and understand these things. This happened amongst the tribes all throughout Northern California. I remember being in the third grade and opening up the sociology book to a chapter called "The Vanishing American." There was a picture of a Navajo woman sitting at a loom and the chapter was about this bridge they built across the canyon to bring civilization to these poor desperate Navajos and how wonderful it was that America was bringing such change to these poor downtrodden people. I remember sitting there and actually having the sensation of transparency, that I was not significant enough to be honored or represented in the curriculum. I'm not a Navaho, but as an Indian it was such a condescending experience. It just riveted me. I looked across the room and there was one other Indian in the classroom, a girl named Debbie. I looked at her and then it was just like a piece of me either kind of went to sleep or went someplace else. I thought to myself that I didn't deserve to be there as an Indian. I needed to be an American. I was being told that I needed to change, needed to evolve, needed to not be who I was. We grew up in that time. We grew up transparent, we grew up invisible, we grew up expected to know that we were secondary citizens.
Children today don't believe they're secondary citizens. Some of the psychological and emotional wounds of our experience are beginning to heal and the repression of the over- culture has lightened up on us. I think that Tolowa children today don't have the same needs that I had - they can focus on other things and still be very much who they are. They don't have to grow up asking, "Am I Tolowa or am I not? Should I try to assimilate and be ashamed of my culture?" They don't have to deal with those issues because we worked so doggone hard to try to change that.
Of course they have to compete with mass media, globalization, the awesome pressure of economics in the United States. I mean we're the most powerful nation on earth and we demand that our citizens behave in a certain way. The impact of that is absolutely amazing. Those pressures are intense, especially when you have a different theology or history or view. My own daughter, when she got to kindergarten, came home and said, "You know I can no longer speak Tolowa." And we asked, "Why?" And she said, "Because it will be easier for me if I learn English." Now, of course, in my home, we had never taught that kind of thinking. We never encouraged assimilation in that sense. We taught pride and participation and belongingness to a cultural experience that enriches your life. She just decided on her own, just realized that her primary language had better be English. What does that tell us? It tells us that the pressures, the demands put on us to be a part of the society are there.
But hopefully what's changed is that we no longer have to be ashamed of our culture, our language, or our religion. We don't have to forget and move on and become transparent in Americana.
NEA: I read that you worked to develop a curriculum in the public schools that would include Tolowa language instruction. Could speak about that and your work to keep the Tolowa language alive?
Lore MR. BOMMELYN: Prior to 1968, there was never really much work done in that sense. There were a few anthropological pieces written but we didn't have any kind of basic translator for our language. But then my parents and family got involved - again with the community association - in an effort to do language work because my mom and dad's generation knew the language and their grandparents and great grandparents spoke the languages of the area. They felt that my generation was missing out. So there was a great push to look at the language. That's when we came up with an orthography for our language. We spent about seventeen years with the folks from the older generations, picking their memories and asking questions about the language in order to document it as much as possible. I grew up right in the middle of that.
Then I was sent away to college. I was told by the older generation, "We've gone as far as we can. We need your help. You must go to college and then come home to do this work." So I applied and got in an went to college. None of my family had ever been. I ended up coming back to teach it at the high school. It can now be used for foreign language requirements. We did a lot work to bring it into mainstream experience. I have students across the basin that take my class. That's just been ongoing work. In 1995 I went back to do my Masters in linguistics at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I needed information. I needed ideas and concepts to extend my classes.
NEA: I was wondering if you ever felt pressure or felt overwhelmed by the fact that you're one of the youngest tradition bearers in the community?
MR. BOMMELYN: Every once in a while it wells up inside of me and just consumes me and then I've got to do something to overcome it. It rules my life a lot of times.
NEA: What do you do to overcome those fears?
MR. BOMMELYN: Pray and try to let it go into the cosmos. I do come around to the point where I tell myself that a person can only do what they're meant to do. It's ridiculous to keep asking myself to do more because I've done so much. I've worked so hard with regalia and on basketry and the language. I've worked so hard to train my voice and develop my knowledge about song and lyric and the history of all the songs. I've learned the protocols and formulae that go with the ceremonies. I've spent my life energy doing these things and at the same time getting a college degree, teaching daily in a public school , serving on the Council and raising three children. I've done a heck of a lot. Sometimes I think I need to forgive myself.
But just this morning as I was working on a baby basket, I got into the the same dialogue that goes on in my mind every once in a while. What if, in twenty-five,forty, fifty years from now when I'm dead and gone, some child or individual is reaching out to try to understand something about who they are or should be, but what they need is not there. That scares me. But then I go, "Stop that. Get off this and move onto the day and make your basket and stop thinking about it."
NEA: Do you believe that the focus of the community should be on educating the young Tolowa or do you think that education should also spread beyond the community and educate a wider audience about the traditions and the culture?
MR. BOMMELYN: I've been involved in education for the last twenty-two years and I've gone through a lot of different approaches. You know, there's a part of the Tolowa community who are looking that information and that information sustains them. Then there's those Tolowa who have chosen assimilation as their bible - they're ashamed of being Tolowa and they don't want to be reminded that they're Tolowa. They're glad that their mom married somebody who's not an Indian and they're intending to marry non-Indian just to get out of this whole business of being Indian. And then there are a whole bunch of people who are not Indian but are very interested in this stuff.
I've learned learned that, for example, if you have to go to the county board of supervisors and they're ignorant about your history, culture, concerns and issues, they're not going to be able to do anything to help you. They won't know how to help you because their only reference point is their perspective. That's why I think it's actually important to share certain things about who we are with everybody. The formula for ceremony or the inner sanctum of spiritual existence are nobody's business. But I think other aspects of our belief systems, ideas, and practices should be shared to a large degree. When I teach my language class, which at Level Three is a Tolowa language, literature and culture class, I expose the students to a lot of different things because I want them to understand where we're coming from.
We just went through the mascot issue here about five years ago at this local high school. People just couldn't understand why there were individuals in the community who didn't want to be represented by the stereotypical "woo, woo, woo" stomping Indian. They couldn't understand that. What they were seeing is not part of our ceremonies, people doing flips and carrying on like fools and saying that they're Indians. It was a huge thing that went on for several years but it was finally resolved.
I taught basketry here a few years ago at local events and and in schools and colleges I had a lot of students and quite a few of them became pretty good basket makers. But I got a lot of criticism from local reservations nearby. They just could not believe that Loren Bommelyn was teaching the art of basketry to these non-tribal people. And my first thought was, "Okay, then you produce fifty or sixty or a couple hundred basket weavers and secure this process of basket making. Then I won't have to teach it to anybody. If you want to complain about it then start dealing with it by participating." I'd rather see information be shared and transmitted to someone else rather than just evaporate.
NEA: That's understandable. The baskets of yours that I've seen in photographs are beautiful. I was reading about how each basket has it's own spirit and how much effort is made sure that every basket is useful as well as pretty. Could you talk for a few minutes about that?
MR. BOMMELYN: In terms of baskets being alive, that goes back to a basic principle. Things of genesis - which is everything - would promulgate together and the spirits were called together and then they became physical forms in our genesis. That means that a basket or a piece of regalia has its own existence, its own spirit. As I'm making a basket, my energy and my spirit is shared with the basket. We were taught that if you're not in the right place, if your heart is not in the right way, then you shouldn't make baskets that day. You'd be putting bad energy into the basket. Things won't work out right and you'll get frustrated and angry, which you're not supposed to do when making a basket. Especially when making a baby basket because there's going to be a baby sleeping in there and there needs to be good energy in the basket. So it kind of comes from the theological side. It also comes from this idea that we have energy and it has energy and you try to work together. You want the basket to have symmetry, you want it to have balance, you want it to be the best that you can do. The saying that I was taught goes, "Never ever say ah, that's good enough. Always say it was the best that I could do." It's the same for regalia-making, for basketry, for living your life. Don't go, "Yeah, that was good enough and who would know the difference and anyway I got my money out of it." You're supposed to do the best that you can do and then no one can criticize you, not even the creator or the spirit or the basket. You want a kind of marriage there between practicality, the function of practicality of the piece but you also want it to be stately and beautiful and symmetrical, strong and proud for it's sake, that it exists.
We were also taught growing up that you're not supposed to leave a basket unfinished. You're not supposed go half way with it and then just throw it in a corner and forget about it. That brings badness or negative energy toward you. You need to finish what you start because it's alive. It has a purpose and a function.
NEA: Could you speak a little bit about what you're looking forward to most about coming to D.C.?
MR. BOMMELYN: It's going to be wonderful to meet the other artists and learn what they're doing, what they're involved in. That's going to be a blast. And the idea of getting together, to share with other people the idea that a body of people evaluated me and looked at my life's work and thought "This guy represents something. We choose to honor this individual." To think that somebody that I don't even know, took a look at my work and said, "This person is doing something, is a part of something." That's an honor to me.