Farrell Cunningham, a Maidu Indian traditionalist who taught Maidu language classes in several northern California communities, walked on August 11 at his home in Susanville, California. He was 37. The cause of death is pending.
A poet and painter who spoke seven languages, Farrell’s thirst for his Native culture launched a life-long quest that began when he was 13. Too young to drive a car, he telephoned the few remaining elders who could speak Maidu to ask for words. “He would practice them all week long, then call back and ask for more words,” Joyce Cunningham, his mother, said.
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 Farrell learned Maidu culture, especially the interrelationships among plants and animals and the sacred connections throughout the natural world. These values formed the bases for several land-management plans he developed.
At the time of his death Farrell 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.
Farrell 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 that left us.”
The youngest of eight children, Farrell was born March 20, 1976. He grew up in Indian Valley and attended Plumas County schools. After graduating from Greenville High School in 1994, he 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. Farrell 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 Native American techniques.
Farrell 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 visits with the Kiliwa Tribe, originally from the Sierra San Pedro Martir in Mexico, established an international connection among Native people who shared similar ecosystems and values.
Farrell’s 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. He was the youngest leader of the local spring ceremony, where he danced the part of the bear for over 10 years.
In addition to teaching Mountain Maidu language classes in Greenville, Susanville, Nevada City and Auburn, he worked with the Maidu Theater in Nevada City producing skits and performances in Maidu exploring economic, ecological and social justice themes.
In 2003, Farrell 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 Company. Farrell 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. “He preferred natives, and when the deer ate them, he planted them again,” his mother said.
In addition to his mother, Joyce, Farrell 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 was held Saturday, August 17 at the family home near Taylorsville.
This article originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee and was reposted with permission.