When Joseph Dupris was contacted in 2021 by Taylor Tupper, Modoc descendant and citizen of the Klamath Tribes, to work on a short film set in their shared ancestral homelands, he was intrigued. Two aspiring independent filmmakers from California State University Northridge were looking for someone to integrate Modoc language into their film about a pivotal moment in the history of the Modoc Nation and Modoc peoples.
“[It became] a way that we can carry our language beyond our local region and inform people,” said Dupris, a visiting assistant professor in linguistics and ethnic studies at CU Boulder and citizen of the Klamath Tribes of Modoc and Klamath descent.
Recently screened on the CU Boulder campus, the film This Is Their Land depicts several days of the Modoc War of 1873 from the perspective of the Modoc people defending their right to live on their homelands in northern California and southern Oregon 150 years ago. The film was shot on site at the Lava Beds National Monument in California.
This short film is also likely the first ever scripted and filmed in maqlaqsyals (a tribal name for Modoc and Klamath languages). Dupris translated and transcribed portions of the original script and coached actors on the language before and during filming.
“We're using our language in the same land that we were exiled from. Those actors are helping to bring language back into our lands, while spreading it across the nation,” said Dupris. “And at a local level, this helps to initiate a turn toward land, language and equity.”
From script to subtitles
Attended by several dozen students and members of the campus community, the 20-minute film was preceded by a showing of the documentary Modoc Nation: An Untold Story of Survival and followed by a Q&A with Dupris, This is Their Land executive producer Román Zaragoza (Akimel O’odham descendant) and writer-director Michael O'Leary (non-native).
Dupris explained the process of making the Modoc language come to life on screen.
Rather than translate lines of the script word for word, Dupris wanted to know what the lines did for the story. Due to the relatively free word order within maqlaqsyals, he could create variations on the original lines while keeping their original intent. The actors then worked with Dupris to decide which version of the line most accurately conveyed the emotion and aesthetic of the scene. The post-production crew determined which English subtitles would be most accountable to the original line, functional equivalents in translation and what the actor ended up saying.
Dupris worked with the actors for as many as 20 hours on Zoom and for two days on-set in person to help them make the lines their own.
The actors, however, weren’t the only ones learning the language. O’Leary (the director) sat through all the language rehearsals so he could understand the actors’ lines in real time. Then as the film editors and producers put the pieces together and scripted the subtitles, they found themselves not even needing to look at their computer screens to understand the scenes they were working on—sometimes quoting them verbatim.
While it was a positive experience for Dupris, it was not always an easy one. He is not only a linguist and maqlaqsyals user but a member of the community deeply affected by the historical events depicted in the film.
“Translating these historical issues can bring its own version of trauma to you,” said Dupris, who used government-sponsored ethnographic materials, Modoc accounts of the war and word lists collected from Modoc prisoners of war throughout the process.
A costly, consequential war
Between 1850 and 1870, many Modoc were killed by U.S. military forces and murdered by European settlers in genocidal expeditions sponsored by federal, state and local governments. Survivors negotiated a treaty that promised freedom of movement and equitable access to wage labor, but that treaty was wholly rejected in favor of one that implemented segregation and forced labor on a joint reservation with the Klamath and Yahooskin Paiute tribes in southern Oregon.
After years of frustration, in early 1865 a Modoc leader named Keintpoos, also known by settlers as Captain Jack, led a group of tribal members off the reservation and back to their homelands in Northern California.
The U.S. government gave orders for the military to return these Modoc to the reservation, by peace or force, in November 1872. War broke out, and 60 Modoc men and their families held off 1,000 soldiers for eight months using the lava beds within their ancestral lands to their advantage—resulting in what is likely the costliest Indian war ever fought.
This Is Their Land focuses on a moment in the spring of 1873 when General E.R.S. Canby requests to meet with several Modoc leaders under a white flag. However, the Modoc remembered that raising a white flag was used by Captain Ben Wright and his troops just two decades earlier in 1852 to lure out and murder as many as 90 Modoc men, women and children.
Canby refused Modoc efforts to reserve a place for themselves in their homelands and would not compromise—he would only accept unconditional surrender and expatriation of the Modoc to the lands of their neighbors on the reservation in Oregon. For this he was shot in the face and killed under a white flag (the only U.S. general to die in an Indian war), and Modoc peoples were launched into infamy.
Not portrayed in the film, four Modoc leaders were court-martialed and hanged at Ft. Klamath, where their bodies remain buried for display. Modoc men, women and children were made to watch the public execution and prohibited from expressing their grief.
In fall 1873, the remaining 155 captive Modoc were forcibly shipped by rail, in box cars normally used to ship cattle, to the Quapaw Agency in Oklahoma, where they were left with no shelter or supplies. A journey of about 1,650 miles (2,565 kilometers), the Modoc suffered one of the longest single instances of forced removal from their homelands in U.S. history. The citizenry of Modoc Nation, based in Miami, Oklahoma, is constituted by those exile survivors and their descendants, who are revitalizing language, culture and economic opportunity in their respective communities.
Revitalizing language, revitalizing communities
Language revitalization is generally understood as the practice of increasing the number of speakers for a given language. But this academic approach can sometimes lead to a small set of people having authority over the “correct” way to use and speak the language and can end up curtailing its use. Even though he is an academically trained linguist himself, Dupris is more interested in the rights of communities to use languages. This approach aligns with language reclamation, an internal approach to language work in native communities that has gained visibility through the work of Wesley Leonard, associate professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California Riverside.
This semester, Dupris and assistant professor of linguistics Ambrocio Gutiérrez Lorenzo (Zapotec descendant) have been creating a graduate-level course on language revitalization that incorporates this community-centered concept.
“When we're talking about revitalizing languages, we're not looking at trying to revitalize grammatical structures [for their own sake]. We're trying to revitalize the community, kinship and relational structures that enabled [the use of] those languages to flourish in the first place,” said Dupris.
The March 14 showing of This Is Their Land at CU Boulder was sponsored by the Center for Student Involvement, Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies (CNAIS), Department of Ethnic Studies, Department of Linguistics and STUDIO Lab.
For more information about the Modoc War and the upcoming 150th anniversary remembrance event that will be held in Tulelake, California, at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds on April 15 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., visit the remembrance event page.