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Home arrowInclusiveness arrowInterview with Loren Me'-lash-ne Bommelyn Tolowa Dee-ni'

Interview with Loren Me'-lash-ne Bommelyn Tolowa Dee-ni' Linguist and Tribal Historian, tradition bearer, teacher-- Tolowa Dee-ni' Nation, Smith River, California

Loren Me’-lash-ne Bommelyn is a tradition bearer for the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. He has dedicated himself to preserving traditional Dee-ni’ songs, language, and basketry. He is the foremost ceremonial leader of the tribe, and its most prolific basket weaver. Me'-lash-ne served on the Tribal Council for 25 years for the federally recognized Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation. He is Tolowa, Karuk, and Wintu. He remains a Tolowa Dee-ni’ language proponent and cultural advocate. Mr. Bommelyn is a fluent speaker and publisher of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ language and taught for 34 years at Del Norte County Unified School District in Crescent City, California, having recently retired in 2014. He earned his Master’s Degree in Linguistics from the University of Oregon. After years of studying with Tolowa Elders, he published lexicons and educational materials about the Tolowa Dee-ni’ language. He played a role in convincing the University of California system to accept Native American languages as part of entrance requirements for World Language. He has advocated for the use of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ language in modern technology, including Facebook and texting. Mr. Bommelyn helped establish Taa-’at-dvn Indian Magnet Charter School in Crescent City, where his wife, Lena Bommelyn retired from. Of his work at Taa-’at-dvn, he says, “It’s important for students to know they can move about freely in American society and that they can be open and successful. We try to provide them opportunities for expansion and exploration.”

What led you to your field?
The Tolowa Dee-ni’ community observed that the new generations of Tolowa Dee-ni’ was not able to speak the Tolowa Dee-ni’ language. Many members of the community were themselves passive speakers who understood the language but responded in English. This observation led to the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Language program. First attempts started in the late 1950s. The English alphabet was the structural wall for the writing of Tolowa until the introduction of the Uni-Fon Alphabet in 1969. The meeting with and recordation of the elders began. I was reared during the Tolowa Dee-ni’ language and cultural renaissance.

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
Historic, linguistic, and ethnographic documentation and the inter-generational sharing of this data saved our history and cultural lifeways for the future and its generations to follow.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
In the case of the Tolowa Dee-ni’, as American Indigenes, where their history has been removed from the historic record, history is the only link to develop an understanding of how we who have been marginalized to transparency can return to a state of lucidness. Without context of one’s existence, one surrenders themselves to a loss of self, and from having a meaningful existence in a culture whose goal was or is to eradicate them from their lengthy tenure on the North American Continent. Historic research can help fill the “emptied cultural vessel,” with data and information to balance this misrepresented imbalance of American Story.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Many courses have been removed from academia since the 1970s. One would need to find a university that has maintained Native American Studies. This will probably be difficult. The study of Federal Indian Law would shed light on this subject. Studies in Social Welfare could broaden understandings of the malaise left on the American Indigene from this grinding attitude of Americana. Studies in the American Genocide, aka The American Holocaust, are emerging.

Do you have a favorite preservation project?  What about it made it special?
My long-term project is the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Wee-ya’ Program, the language program. Other projects are Tolowa Dee-ni’ spiritual and cultural practice efforts. These areas have assisted my development and assist others in their self-esteem and identities.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
I am importing linguistic data into the FLEx Database to share out in Bombastic for the language hunters learning and using Tolowa Dee-ni’.

How do you think the national historic preservation programs help your community?
These projects lead us toward a deeper historic self-understanding and the documentation of this growth to avail our succeeding generations.

Do you have advice for novice preservationists?
For Native Preservation, most Indigenous Communities are reserved due in large part to the American Experience. I feel being open to these communities as the leaders of the study and leaving behind data from that community for their use and growth is paramount. It is un-nerving when an academician negates its study community and interprets their data only from their singular perspective. 

The ACHP’s mission is “preserving America’s heritage;” can you give us an example of how your community is preserving its heritage?
Language Data, Repatriation, Ethnographic Data Recovery, Intergovernmental Co-Stewardship and Management, Agency Relationship Development, Source Historic Tribal-Federal Data, Support of Traditional Art, and Spirituality.

How does language reclamation play a role in historic preservation?
Language Reclamation or Preservation returns the “Worldview” expressed by the language. Each human language uniquely describes the universe as no other language does or can. Preservation corrects misinterpretation in meaning and pronunciation of the language. It restores to the Indigene that his language is more than simple undeveloped prattle. Preservation reveals the grammar that assists in the expansion of the lexicon to meet the demands of contemporary life. And, perhaps best of all, one gets to choose to be a speaker or not, a luxury that was stolen from their past generations.

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