NORTH FORK, Calif. — Just uphill from an authentic cedar tepee, four children sat down for a lesson in a language on the cusp of being lost.
Volunteer teacher Barbara Burrough, one of the few people left who still speaks Mono, held up a cue card with the word "kah-why-you."
"Horse," the youngsters said.
Next was "moo-nah."
"Mule," they said.
Burrough's mother, 81-year-old Gertrude Davis, smiled as she watched the recent lesson unfold.
"I speak it, and I have no one to talk to, because no one knows how to speak the language or understand it," she said.
In classrooms, Mono cultural sites and private homes in the North Fork area, Burrough and a few others are working hard to change that, one child at a time.
Before contact with Spanish and English-speaking cultures in the 1800s, an estimated 5,000 spoke Mono in a territory that stretched from the San Joaquin River south to the Kern River. Today, Burrough estimates that no more than 17 people around North Fork can converse in the native tongue and not all of them are fluent.
North Fork Mono Rancheria Tribal Council treasurer Maryann McGovran's son Cody, 13, has been one of Burrough's pupils for about two years. She said he isn't fluent in Mono, but he knows a few words.
Preserving the language is important, she said at tribal headquarters, because the language reflects the culture.
"It's the heart of our tribe," she said. "It shows who we are and what our people are about."
Mono is among 50 Native American languages in California that are considered endangered, said Leanne Hinton, professor emeritus in the linguistics department at the University of California at Berkeley. Another 50 already have disappeared since the early 1800s, she said.
"When you lose a language, it's a symptom of losing a whole culture," said Hinton, who has written three books devoted to endangered languages.
But saving a language is no easy task, especially when so few people still speak it.
A nearby tribe — the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians near Coarsegold— also is trying to save its language. The Chukchansi are preserving tribal words and songs with state-of-the-art electronic translators inspired by military technology.
Tribal elders demonstrated the device last month. The "Phraselator" stores Chukchansi words electronically. When a person speaks into the device in English, it responds with the Chukchansi translation.
But at $3,000 apiece, the devices aren't in the Mono Rancheria budget.
Mono tribal officials say the decline of the language began as early as the 1810s with the arrival of outside cultures and languages.
A series of broken treaties, land grabs and the integration of much North Fork Mono tribal land into the Sierra National Forest left the native residents little choice other than to join mining, lumber and agricultural economies.
In school, children were discouraged from speaking Mono. As late as the 1970s, Native American children in Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools were punished for speaking their native languages, said Andre Cramblit, Northern California Indian Development Council operations director and chairman of the Karuk tribal language restoration committee.
Burrough said that her family escaped boarding school because her grandmother told her children to hide whenever a car came up their driveway.
"That's why we were able to hang on to our language," Burrough said.
The North Fork Rancheria Tribal Council does not have the funds for a formal program to preserve the Mono language, said council Chairwoman Jacquie Davis-Van Huss. The 1,652-member tribe relies on volunteers like Burrough and the support of educators who incorporate Mono lessons into programs in public schools.
Burrough teaches children as part of its Indian Education Program in North Fork Elementary School. Such programs also provide for classroom tutoring in subjects other than language and culture for Native American kids, Principal Stuart Pincus said.
The California Department of Education lists the North Fork Elementary School program as one of eight such programs statewide that it sponsors for schools where at least 10 percent of the students are Native American. The courses, intended for children in grades kindergarten through fourth, are designed to increase reading, language and math skills, along with self-esteem.
Contributing: Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service