Loren Bommelyn was groomed from an early age for his role of practicing and teaching the traditions of the Tolowa, a Northern California tribe that had dwindled to 121 members by 1910. His parents were deeply involved in their community and fought for legislation to protect tribal burial sites and to create a California Indian Day.
“I grew up in hyper-speed because I needed to learn about our culture before it disappeared,” Bommelyn told NEA interviewer Mary K. Lee. “We knew that when these elders left us, that would be it. … 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.”
Bommelyn and his family worked to develop a curriculum in the public schools that included Tolowa language instruction. “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,” he told Lee.
At the urging of tribal elders, Bommelyn became the first member of his family to go to college. He returned and taught his native language at the local high school. “It can now be used for foreign language requirements,” he said. “In 1995, I went back to do my master's in linguistics at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I needed information. I needed ideas and concepts to extend my classes.”
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.
"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," said Brian Bibby, editor of The Fine Art of California Indian Basketry. “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."
Bommelyn said his work has been emotionally overwhelming at times, but he sees it bearing fruit. “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,” he said. “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.”
Bibby, Brian, editor. The Fine Art of California Indian Basketry. (Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum/ Heyday Books, 1996.)
Bommelyn, Loren, and others. Songs of Love, Luck, Animals & Magic: Music of the Yurok and Tolowa Indians. New World Records, 1992, available on CD and cassette
Bommelyn, Loren, and others. Music of the Native American Indians. Arc Records, 1999.
Givón, T. and Loren Bommelyn. “The Evolution of De-Transitive Voice in Tolowa Athabaskan.” Studies in Language 24:1, 41–76, 2000.
Loren Bommelyn, 2002 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Loren Bommelyn, courtesy Maidu Heritage Foundation
Loren Bommelyn answers the question 'How did you become involved with basketry?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Loren Bommelyn answers the question 'How are the band's different vocal parts arranged?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Loren Bommelyn answers the question 'Who taught you how to sing?' Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar
Loren Bommelyn explains the origin of his song and performs a traditional chant song, Arlington, Virginia, 2002, interview by Alan Govenar