Farrell Cunningham was called the youngest fluent speaker of the Maidu language.

Obituary: Farrell Cunningham spread love of Maidu language

Published: Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4B
Last Modified: Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 - 6:37 am

TAYLORSVILLE – Farrell Cunningham, a Maidu Indian traditionalist who taught Maidu language classes in several Northern California communities, died Sunday at his home in Susanville. He was 37. The cause of death is pending.

A poet and painter who spoke seven languages, Mr. Cunningham's thirst for his native culture launched a lifelong quest that began when he was 13.

Instead of meeting with the few remaining elders who could speak Maidu, he telephoned them to ask for words.

"He would practice them all week long, then call back and ask for more words," said his mother, Joyce Cunningham.

Malcolm Margolin, founder of Heyday Books and publisher of "News From Native California," met him "as a very young man in search of his language, carrying himself with an air of nonchalance that scarcely hid his insecurity, his eagerness, his vulnerability."

As he studied his native language, Mr. Cunningham learned Maidu culture, especially the relationships among plants and animals and the sacred connections throughout the natural world, his mother said. These values formed the basis for several land-management plans he developed.

At the time of his death, Mr. Cunningham was working on a grant-funded project interviewing Maidu elders and translating a variety of anthropological records to develop a curriculum designed to create other Maidu language teachers.

Mr. Cunningham carried the weight of being the youngest fluent speaker of Maidu uneasily, said Trina Cunningham, his sister.

"He struggled almost every day watching elders pass on, knowing the culture was passing on with each one who left us," she said.

The youngest of eight children, Mr. Cunningham was born March 20, 1976. He grew up in Indian Valley and attended Plumas County schools.

After graduating from Greenville High School in 1994, Mr. Cunningham studied cultural anthropology and linguistics at Humboldt State University, spending his senior year in China.

When he returned to Indian Valley he helped form the Maidu Cultural and Development Group, serving as its first coordinator. He wrote a proposal for a stewardship project that resulted in a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to manage 2,100 acres of federal lands using traditional American Indian techniques.

Mr. Cunningham was also involved in the activities of forest communities nationwide and attended the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

His commitment to preserving his heritage led Maidu elders to train him at an early age to perform the central ritual at their annual Bear Dance, his mother said.

He was the youngest leader of the local spring ceremony, where he danced the part of the bear for more than 10 years.

In 2003, Mr. Cunningham became a founding member and chairman of the Maidu Summit Consortium, which he described as "a northern Maidu Congress" that united a variety of tribes and organizations.

The group's primary project is acquiring Humbug Valley, now owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Mr. Cunningham was instrumental in writing a plan to manage the land based on traditional Maidu foods and medicines, plants and animals.

He loved to garden, and he put plants in the ground wherever he lived, his mother said.

"He preferred natives, and when the deer ate them, he planted them again," she said.

Besides his mother, Joyce, Mr. Cunningham is survived by his father, Marvin; brothers Ernie, of Greenville; Rodney, of Susanville; and Jack, of Albion; sisters Trina, of Chico; Dena, of Quincy; and Regina Hall, of Greenville; and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. He was preceded in death by a brother, Dwayne.

A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at the family home near Taylorsville.

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