SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – He’s been called a modern-day Merlin – a teacher who uses magic and language to keep his Native American culture alive. He’s also this week’s Jefferson Award winner.

On a recent visit to the classroom, students sang along as Tamaka Bailey led them in a song he says his ancestors sang in the Trail of Tears, when the U.S. government forced them to relocate in 1838. Today, he’s teaching a language class in San Francisco for Native Americans like him who want to keep their culture alive.

Bailey teaches a weekly Oklahoma Choctaw language class at the Friendship House Association of American Indians. When he started the course three years ago, he was inspired by his mother and a growing problem with many tribes.

“A lot of their elders were dying off and nobody knew the language,” he remembered. “The government was saying, ‘You’re not going to be federally-recognized anymore because technically you’re not here.'”

Although Choctaw code talkers helped the U.S. military foil German eavesdroppers during the World Wars, Choctaw families didn’t pass on their language. For Ron Rowell, Tamaka’s class helps him reclaim his heritage.

“I learned French. I lived overseas. I learned Dutch. I learned German,” Rowell explained. “At one point, I studied Albanian and it struck me, ‘this is ridiculous! I don’t even know my own language!'”

Bailey has learned – and now teaches – both written and spoken Choctaw. Before his class, his cousin Ida Wilson could only speak it.

“It means a lot to me to be able to read it now,” she said. “I can get my Bible out, and I have it in Choctaw.”

Outside of the classroom, Bailey staged magic shows as part of the Linking Rings Performing Arts nonprofit he co-founded in 1994. The free shows benefit Native American and veterans groups. He uses magic to bring Choctaw stories to life.

In the end, he said he hopes he will leave this legacy behind: “That he did something not for myself, but for the tribe.”

So for his work in keeping the Choctaw language and culture alive, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Tamaka Bailey.

If you’re interested in the language classes, you can contact Tamaka through his website for Linking Rings Performing Arts:

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