Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

December 16, 2000 - Issue 25


Native Languages Slowly Dying

by Steven Mayer

 artwork: Leland Bell Storyteller

WELDON, CA — Once a week, Robert Gomez gets behind the wheel of his Ford pickup and follows the Kern River northeastward until he reaches this tiny mountain hamlet near the river's south fork — a location known by earlier inhabitants as Kudzbitcwanap Palap, or "place at the little water."

The weekly trip to Weldon is not just a matter of miles for the Bakersfield resident; it is a journey across centuries. Gomez, 55, comes here to learn the nearly forgotten language of the Tubatulabal, the California Indian tribal group from which he is descended. For thousands of years, the Tubatulabal fished and hunted, reared families, lived and died along the banks of the old river.

Sometimes identified as a branch of Paiute, or by the aboriginal name Pallegawanap, the Tubatulabal were forced off the ancestral lands in the latter half of the 1800s when American Manifest Destiny became a local reality. This popular view of the time held that all land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was destined to become American land — specifically, white American.

"Our culture and language were nearly destroyed," Gomez said of the devastation unleashed by the gold rush and the invasion of Indian lands by white settlers, soldiers, farmers and businessmen.

"Now, there are only a few speakers left," he said. "Without language, our culture cannot survive."

After decades of language repression, cultural assimilation, death, prejudice and poverty, few are left who speak the original languages of the indigenous peoples who once occupied the valleys, mountains and deserts of California. While efforts are under way to save these languages before the last of the speakers are gone, few in Kern County have the resources to make it happen.

Jim Andreas, a lifetime resident of the Kern River Valley who spent most of his life "cowboying" on area ranches, is one of a dwindling number of speakers in Kern County. It is the 70-year-old Andreas who tutors Gomez in the Shoshone-based language of the Tubatulabal.

"It's all my mother spoke to me growing up," Andreas said. "But I hardly talked to nobody (in the old language) since 1950."

Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is one of the leaders of an expanding effort to recover lost American Indian languages and preserve those in danger of being forgotten. An organizer of Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, Hinton has been involved in several language revitalization efforts.

"It is a catastrophic loss for the Native American communities because the language is the main carrier and transmitter of their culture ... and the symbol of their identity as a people," Hinton said. "These languages are being lost involuntarily, due to the residual effects of oppressive and genocidal policies of the 19th and 20th centuries."

Before the Spanish missionary presence in the 1700s and the later American expansion, about 100 native languages were spoken in California, Hinton said.

In a survey published in the periodical "News From Native California" in 1994, Hinton determined there were about 50 indigenous languages that still had speakers. Of the 50, most had fewer than a dozen speakers, all of whom were elderly.

Since the survey, several of those elders have died, including Andy Greene, a prominent speaker in Kern County who worked with a number of researchers over a period of several years in language preservation efforts. Greene died last year.

"Without the participation of speakers like Andy Greene, nothing more can be learned about these languages," said Pamela Munro, a professor of linguistics at UCLA, and the co-author of a dictionary and grammar of Kawaiisu, one of the languages indigenous to Kern County.

"When the last speaker dies, the language dies, except on paper or a tape," Munro said. "This is really a tragedy. A record in a book can never replace a real speaker. I was privileged to meet Mr. Greene on several occasions, and I mourn his passing."

"With every speaker who dies, irreplaceable knowledge dies with him," Hinton agreed. "There might be others who still know the words and grammar of the language, but even if there are, there are probably stories and songs and important kinds of linguistic knowledge that are gone forever with the death of the individual."

Time is running short, but language revitalization efforts through school programs, language camps, and mentored language learning are on the increase. Even programs for reviving languages with no speakers are active in some areas.

Still, it's an uphill battle and no one knows that better than the people who are still fighting for the survival of their cultural identity.

The Wukchumni, a foothill Yokuts tribe whose ancestral lands include the area around present-day Exeter, Lindsay and Three Rivers, have been active in language revitalization efforts for a number of years, said Darlene Franco, a language preservation activist with the tribe.

Language immersion classes for children and the use of traditional names and ceremonial naming practices are just some of the ways Franco has resisted the forces of assimilation present in the dominant culture.

"It takes a lot of time and dedication," Franco said. "But it can be done."

Irene Soto, a member of the Chumash Council of Bakersfield, said she would like to see the council begin a local revitalization effort. The stakes are high, she said. But so are the hurdles to getting started.

"We want our children and our grandchildren to understand the language and the culture," Soto said. "But we don't have anyone in Bakersfield who actually knows the language.

"To want to know, and belong to, the culture that you've lost — and not be able to," she said. "It's a very sad feeling."

Dee Dominguez knows that sadness, too. As a descendent of the Kitanemuk tribe, whose ancestral homelands include areas of the Tejon Pass eastward to about Lancaster, Dominguez has concentrated much of her energy in fighting against the development of commercial real estate and oil production on California Indian burial sites and culturally sensitive areas.

"We do have language concerns and one of our goals is to eventually have language education," she said.

But Dominguez understands just how difficult such an undertaking would be. Hinton's survey found no living speakers of Kitanemuk, and Munro said the language is "long extinct."

Nevertheless, the Kitanemuk have something many other tribal groups in California don't have: a dictionary that, at least in print, preserves the words and some of the usage of their language. But a dictionary isn't a living language.

"To a community, saving a language generally means training new speakers," Hinton said. A dictionary can be a valuable tool, but keeping a language alive means making sure there is always someone around who knows it.

Harold Williams, a Tehachapi resident and descendent of the Kawaiisu, a tribe that occupied the southern Tehachapi Mountains and areas north and east, has considerable knowledge of the language of his ancestors, but he doesn't consider himself a fluent speaker.

"I recorded my mother when she was alive," said Williams, who identifies himself as a southern Paiute. "She was an interpreter" who spoke the language fluently.

But not every speaker is able or willing to teach the language, and Williams is not currently active in a structured teaching program. In fact, no Kawaiisu teaching programs could be found.

Like the Kitanemuk, the Kawaiisu have a dictionary that could serve as a final method of preservation. But some see such an eventuality as a sterile sort of existence: language as a museum piece rather than as a living link to a rich and vibrant culture.

It is that sterile and innocuous fate that Gomez and his tutor, Andreas, want desperately to avoid as they struggle to save their language.

They have created a nonprofit organization, called Kudzbitcwanap Palap Arts and Language Institute, in hopes of acquiring private funding.

"This is a personal quest," said Gomez, who is a field coordinator for Cal State Bakersfield's teacher training programs when not working on language and cultural preservation.

"Our ultimate goal is to teach the little ones," he added. "Every Indian kid in this valley should have the opportunity to learn the language.

"My own kids are interested in learning the language," he said. "When children know these things, they can say, ‘That's my culture; that's my language.' They can take ownership of something that was taken away from them."

But is it already too late for those whose great-great-grandfathers walked the Sierra foothills and mountain valleys of California? Some think so.

Despite the publication of the 400-page Kawaiisu dictionary in 1990, the book's co-author, Curtis G. Booth, is not optimistic. "Kawaiisu, along with most of the native languages spoken in California, will simply die out," Booth said. "Very little will remain, and the culture will disappear with it."

Historians and linguists understand that languages around the world have been disappearing for millennia.

The Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland became casualties of the British conquest. And though ancient Greek and the once-ubiquitous Latin left behind a valuable and voluminous written record, common usage ended centuries ago.

Californians of native ancestry, Booth noted, work, attend school, watch television and live surrounded by English speakers. The passing down of native languages from one generation to the next has ceased to be a natural occurrence.

Even the speakers don't use the language with any regularity, and in most cases haven't since they were young adults.

"When the speakers die, it's gone," Booth said, his voice falling silent for a few moments.

"Should we be sad about that?" he asked finally. "Yes. It's not just the languages that go. It's the whole culture."


Language Map of the Kawaiisu



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