PORT ANGELES — The last person to have spoken the Klallam language from birth and the eldest member among the Klallam American Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest has died in Port Angeles at the age of 103, family and tribal members said.
Hazel M. Sampson was the last person who first learned Klallam, then learned English as a second language, said Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Jamie Valadez, who teaches the Klallam language and culture at Port Angeles High School.
Her death on Tuesday changes the dynamics of the culture, Valadez told the Peninsula Daily News in a story Thursday.
“In the U.S., this is happening all over Indian Country,” Valadez said. “They carry so much knowledge of our culture and traditions. Then it’s gone.”
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Valadez and Texas linguist Timothy Montler worked with Sampson and her husband, Ed, and other native speakers in the 1990s to compile a Klallam dictionary.
If Ed forgot a word or got it wrong, Hazel would come out of the kitchen and correct him, but she declined to be officially involved in the project, Valadez said.
Klallam is the language of three U.S. tribes: the Lower Elwha, Jamestown S’Klallam and Port Gamble S’Klallam, as well as the Beecher Bay Klallam in British Columbia. The three tribes on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula have a total of about 1,700 members, according to Census figures.
Sampson was born in the Jamestown S’Klallam band in 1910. Her grandfather was Lord James Balch, for whom Jamestown community near Sequim was named. She was married to Edward C. Sampson for 75 years until his death in 1995.
A private service will be held for family and close friends. No public memorial has been announced.
The Klallam are among a growing number of tribes trying to revitalize their languages, which in some cases are spoken by only a small handful of people. Linguists estimate about 200 Native American languages are spoken in the U.S. and Canada, with another 100 already extinct.
Montler developed a series of booklet guides and lessons in 1999 to help students learn the basics of the language through storytelling. The lessons are used in Klallam programs at Dry Creek Elementary, Stevens Middle and Port Angeles High schools, where the largest population of Klallam children are educated.
The Klallam dictionary was published by the University of Washington Press in 2012 and distributed to Klallam and S’Klallam families, local libraries and schools. The others who helped compile the dictionary have died.
Sampson’s death is a loss of not only her language knowledge, said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam.
“She was a strong spirit representing who we are as a people,” he said.