Victor Golla died at his home in Trinidad on April 24, 2021 of end-stage Parkinson’s disease and the after-effects of a stroke.

Victor was born in Santa Rosa on February 10, 1939 to Anne Lou and Victor Golla. His family settled in Mount Shasta for most of his childhood. His father was a funeral director, and his family lived above the mortuary on Chestnut Street. Victor loved to tell stories about his unusual childhood. He said his father was always on the lookout for dog hair inside the showroom caskets, that being his dog Tippy’s favorite place to hide, especially when there was thunder.

Victor Sr. was an avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish. His dreams of sharing these pastimes with his only son ended the first time he took young Victor Jr. hunting. As a buck came into view and the elder Victor raised his rifle, young Victor put his hands over his ears and screamed, “Run! He’s trying to kill you!”

Victor always had a soft spot for animals.

Victor’s family moved to Oakland when he was in high school. At Oakland High, Victor met his life-long friends Stephen Davis, John Westfall and Joe Weinstein. He earned all of his degrees from U.C. Berkeley, obtaining a Ph.D. in linguistics in 1970. His dissertation topic was a grammar of the Hupa language.

Victor’s academic career was long and distinguished. He held positions at the University of Alberta, Columbia and George Washington University before returning home to California to take a position at Humboldt State University in 1988. He also had a professional affiliation with U.C. Davis. 

As one of his colleagues put it, Victor did more to revitalize American Indian linguistics as a scholarly field than any other person. He co-founded the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, and was SSILA’s secretary-treasurer and newsletter editor for 25 years. SSILA established the Victor Golla Prize in his honor in 2010. He was the author of several books and numerous articles on American Indian languages. He was also a co-principal investigator of the J.P. Harrington Database Project. (A recent documentary being shown on PBS stations across the country, Chasing Voices—The Story of John Peabody Harrington, includes excerpts from an interview with Victor.)

Locally, Victor was especially known for his work on the Hupa language. He created the Hupa Practical Alphabet and collaborated with the Hoopa Valley Tribe on a number of educational and reference materials, including an English-Hupa bilingual dictionary. He co-edited with Sean O’Neill a 1120-page compendium of Hupa materials that Edward Sapir had collected in 1927.

Victor’s first two marriages ended in divorce. Victor met his third wife Ellen through a mutual friend in 1990. He asked her to marry him two months after they met. “Are you out of your mind?!,” she exclaimed. “We’ve only known each other two months! If we still know each other in two years and are still speaking, ask again.”

They married two years later at the home of close friends, coincidentally near Victor’s mother’s hometown in Washington state. They were devoted eccentric soul mates who went on numerous adventures together through the years.

For a long time, Victor had thought about writing a book—a “brain dump,” in his words—of all he knew about the Native languages of California. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 2000s, he felt a sudden pressing publishing deadline: he needed to get that book done before his eventual incapacity. And so he spent the next several years working long, grueling hours on the book while still teaching at Humboldt State. The result was California Indian Languages, which was published in 2011. It earned Victor the Leonard Bloomfield Prize from the Linguistic Society of America in 2013.

Victor was preceded in death by his parents, Victor and Anne Lou Golla, his dogs Tippy and Frazer, and several adored cats. He is survived by his wife Ellen and his cats Dominic, Stephen, Natasha, and Jeffrey. The cats were a great comfort during his last days, especially Dominic who rarely left his side.

Ellen would like to thank: Victor’s former home health nurse Heather Campbell, for her compassionate care and for caring; Victor’s caregivers from Visiting Angels, especially Sam and, most especially and deeply, Sandra; his caregiver Matt; the E.M.T.s from Arcata-Mad River Ambulance, who were always outstanding and kind; the members of Westhaven Volunteer Fire Department and staff at the Trinidad Cal Fire station for their help during Victor’s last years; veterinarians Dr. Sarah and Dr. Desen and staff at Healing Spirit Animal Wellness Center, who not only cared for our cats, but cared about us; our gardener, helper, and friend, Merrie; and all our friends near and far who’ve reached out, offered compassion and help, and got us through some of our darkest hours. Thank you so much, all of you, with deep and sincere gratitude.

Due to the lingering COVID situation, a memorial is not being planned at this time.


The obituary above was submitted on behalf of Victor Golla’s loved ones. The Lost Coast Outpost runs obituaries of Humboldt County residents at no charge. See guidelines here.