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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 15, 2002 - Issue 63


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Swirls of Butterflies
Language is Life Conference

by Marina Drummer, Administrator

March 8th-10th, the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival sponsored the 5th Biannual Language is Life Conference held at the Marin Headlands in Sausalito, California. Over 250 participants representing over fifty California languages and a smattering of out of state tribes spent three days attending workshops, participating in panels, listening to keynote speakers and in general, networking around language like never seen before! As always, the logistics of bringing together folks from the far corners and remote regions of the state, made the actual assemblage a sweet reunion for friends and acquaintances that rarely have a chance to see each other and opened the possibility of making many new friends for many others.


Listening to snatches of language coming from every room and every grouping of people was like watching swirls of beautiful butterflies being released. O.K. ... a few people were left at the airport, there weren't any towels, the first full morning of the conference was marred by the closing of the park to facilitate the Park Service's "Run for the Seals" and our traditional Saturday night songs and stories around the fire pit was rained out. Amazingly enough, none of those things seemed to disturb anyone. There was such an overwhelming air of excitement, anticipation, camaraderie, such a consuming desire to share and to learn that even my ingrained German inclination to see only the problems was completely eliminated.

People started arriving by plane, van, train, car and taxi on a clear, but cold and windy Friday afternoon at the Headlands Institute, a conference center run by the National Park Service. The natural beauty of the site, nestled at the foot of windswept bluffs, next to a natural lagoon, with a long expanse of beach and the Pacific Ocean stretching out to the horizon all in view of dorms and meeting rooms was a miraculous addition to the ambiance of the conference. Friday afternoon started out with a special workshop on audio taping techniques and protocol. Melissa Nelson, Phil Klasky and Colin Farish of The Cultural Conservancy led participants through the lessons they've learned in working with various tribes on culturally sensitive material. L. Frank Manriquez and China Ching shared short "digital stories" with the audience that they have been created in trainings with Native Americans led by Third World Majority.

The first dinner held in the common dining room set the standard for delicious and abundant food prepared and cheerfully served by the Headlands Institute chef and staff. The excellence of the food was no small unifying measure throughout the remainder of the conference. Participants looked forward to each meal and returned to work afterwards refreshed, nourished and very happy. After dinner Friday, with most late arrivals accounted for, everyone made their way down to the Conference Center and after introducing themselves and talking a bit about why they were attending, Loren Bommelyn (Tolowa), shared with participants his efforts in revitalizing Tolowa in his community and the enormous progress that has been made. By the time introductions and Loren's talk were over, it was already 10PM and most everyone was ready to settle in and get some rest for the following day's full schedule.

Saturday morning dawned windy and cold again, with quite a few threatening clouds scudding across the sky. What seemed like a few thousand runners, garbed in t-shirts and shorts and numbered jerseys milled around the conference area, waiting to start their "Run for the Seals". Ignoring the general chaos of loudspeakers and runner's entourages ( including lots of dogs!) participants filed back to the Conference Center after a fulfilling breakfast and settled in to the days activities. Saturday's keynote speaker was Jessie Little Doe Fermino (Wampanoag) who graduated from MIT's linguistics program, had the honor of working with the late Ken Hale and who is deeply involved in efforts to revitalize Wampanoag.

Jessie took her shoes off and proceeded to pace, circle and jump during her moving presentation about her efforts to bring Wampanoag back and the absolute necessity of bringing the language back. Jessie exhorted the group to remember that language had been created for them, not made by them and that as long as the people took care of the language, the language would take care of them. She implored listeners to ignore those that would tell them their language is dead saying that as long as the elders who passed were in the ground and you lived on the ground, the language was there. The electric energy of her presentation and her obvious passion for the work completely engaged the audience. No one wanted Jessie to stop, but finally it was time to move on to the days scheduled workshops.

The co-occurring panels on Language Revitalization and Awakening Sleeping Languages were an impossible combination - everyone wanted to attend both! Tears and laughter mingled together with lots of hope and new inspiration. After lunch choices became a little easier as the panels divided along funding strategies and using language in daily activities and language in stories. The long day of panels ended with a wonderful dinner and then the fire was lit outside in preparation for an evening of story and song. Just when Eddie Sartuche began the fireside sharing, the rain began to come down hard enough to move everyone inside to the far less inviting neon-lit meeting room. In spite of the lack of ambiance, songs and stories were shared into the night and participants had the opportunity to listen to songs from Chippewa's, Rick Smith and Dan Miller and one of Jessie's Wampanoag students and to share the very different songs and stories from California tribes with them and each other.

Sunday morning the sky started to clear and the group settled in for their last day of the conference. Sunday's keynote speaker was Chris Simms (Acoma Pueblo) a linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico and one of the founders of Linguistic Institute for Native Americans.

Chris delivered much of her two hour presentation entirely in Acoma and really showed the audience how to use total physical immersion in the transmitting of language. The amazing thing about Chris' presentation was that everyone understood her, even though they didn't understand Acoma- it was the most brilliant display of masterly technique and Chris left little doubt about why her program is such a success. After being completely inspired and renewed by listening to Chris and watching how she worked, the group was ready for the final panel of the conference. The plenary session was titled "Tribal Leaders Forum on Language Revitalization" and even though a few tribal leaders were unable to attend at the last minute, those that did more than made up for their absence. Alvis Johnson, Chairperson of the Karuk tribe; Greg Castro, former tribal chair of the Salinan Nation and Steve Banegas, Chair of the Barona Luisenos all shared with the audience their thoughts on the challenges of supporting language efforts through tribal government. It was a wonderful session, one that bears repeating in the future and it brought lots of audience question and answer at the end. Chris Simms shared one of the strategies she used in getting tribal support - teach the young people a prayer in language and have them go to the tribal council, share the language and ask for support. Sounds like a winning strategy!

As the group slowly left the conference room and headed back for a last shared meal, we stopped to look at the cordoned off trees where the Park Service had told us a horned owl was nesting and after fruitlessly searching in the tops of the trees, came face to face with a very alert looking horned owl mama, sitting in her huge nest almost at eye level in the crotch of one of the first trees. From there we came upon a restive group of folks all dressed for serious hiking, waiting for Sage La Pena to lead them on a native plant hike through the Headlands, identifying the plants in language and sharing their healing properties. Many participants had to pack up and wend their long way home after lunch and it was a time of mixed emotion, so happy to have been together and seen each other and so sad to say goodbye and know it would most likely be quite some time until we all met again. As L. Frank pointed out, watching the faces of participants from the front of the room throughout the conference was the most moving experience of all. The faces of the audience were filled with a desperate hunger and yearning, perfectly beautiful in their open desire to absorb as much of the knowledge and information as they could to save their languages.

After all the goodbyes were said and the dorms cleaned up and papers packed up, we made our way to the Headlands Center for the Arts, right up the road, where the grand finale of the Conference would take place. Sunday evening was planned for a public presentation of stories and song in language for a broader audience. The Headlands Center for the Arts staff co-sponsored an evening performance with a dinner afterwards at the Center. Two performances were planned; John Moreno and Georgiana Valoyce Sanchez ( Chumash/O'odham) shared the Chumash story of the Dolphin and the Rainbow Bridge in song and story accompanied by their magnificent "Ocean" drum that L.Frank Manriquez played in the background. The drum is round and arms width wide and as you slowly move it from one side to the other, it sounds for all the world like the tide rushing into shore and back out again. The 120+ people in the audience were enraptured!

After the Chumash story, Clarence Hostler and Charlie Thom along with Phil Tripp and with a special guest appearance by Brian Tripp, told the Yurok basket story against a beautiful backdrop of projected slides of the Klamath River area that Deborah Bruce had added basket designs to. The story was compelling and the dance and song completely mesmerizing, but the show was completely stolen by Clarence's eleven year-old granddaughter, Chalisa Hostler. Chalisa came out during the show in full regalia and sang in accompaniment to the story in what was the most crystal clear, pure and hauntingly beautiful voice that any of us had heard. We were all sad to see the performances come to an end, but it was a joy to share the extraordinary loveliness of the culture and the language with a whole new group of people. The Art Center prepared a fabulous dinner and conversation between audience and performers was lively. Staff at the Headlands Center for the Arts told us that this was the largest audience and most engaging event they'd had in quite some time and there was no doubt in our minds that we need to be doing more cultural sharing of this type.

If the conference participant surveys and the audience surveys from the performance and the many, many calls and cards of thanks and appreciation we have received are any indication, the Language is Life Conference was a huge success. Now it is up to all of us that attended to keep the momentum going and carry the work forward so that for the 6th biannual Language is Life Conference we'll need to find a space twice as large to hold all people that are carrying on this most critical aspect of cultural work- keeping the language alive and release the butterflies again.

"Finding Our Voices"
by Robin "Tetawin" Carneen 3-11-02
(For L.I.L circle and Rick~)
I saw you standing facing West
Lips moving
But I could not hear the words...

In one hand you held an offering
The white smoke curling
And carrying
Prayers from your heart
To the Creator's

The ocean hears your soul's wishes
And will wash and shape the shores
With them
And will let the tides be the catalyst
For a global cleansing
And will let the waves shape them
Into a song that always says...


You slowly turn North
And face the headlands
I note your strong back
And obsidian colored hair...
And that the curve of your shoulders
Is not unlike the ridge you gaze upon...
We have had so much
To bear as a people
Sometimes we sag and nearly crumble
From it all
But not this day

You offer a blessing to
Where my people come from
I silently join you
In Spirit
And am honored you remember us
As well

From the East a white egret
Lifts off the water
And delivers your prayers
For that direction
Into the new day
You raise your own arms
Mirroring the effort
To carry the messages home

An Acoma woman, far from her Pueblo
Shared her language with us from the South
These last few days
You remember her people as well, in your
Morning greeting
To all our relations

Others pass us with smudge
Of sweetgrass, tobacco, sage
On their way to the mountain
Or ocean shore
They will speak to the Creator
In their own remembered tongues

And a question & an answer come to me
At the same time:

Without our tongues
That were tied up so quickly
By our Government
Where would our people be today?


Someone said

And we manage to continue rising up
Like the tireless sun
And welcome the day
Asking for another chance
In a new millennium
To awaken sleeping words

We are like the ancient Redwoods...

Forcibly removed in so many ways
From our families...our groves
From our ancestral lands...our soil
And from our culture...our roots

But it has only been a temporary
Relocation and "de-forestation"
Of our Indian nation
We have found each other
Like seeds on a spring wind
Or like escapees from a boarding school
And we will grow
Once again
In a forest of sovereignty
And united strength

No longer will our lips be sealed
Our tongues tied by fear
Our hair & power cut off
Our people starved out and maimed
Or victims of genocidal warfare

We will not go down quietly
This time
In the face of continued oppression
Or for the sake of suffocating progress


We have found strength in each other
But more importantly
We have found our voices once again

And will learn to speak for ourselves
And for each other
And teach our children
So they can teach their children
And converse and live in the language
Of our Elders
That will even revitalize
The Spirit of the ancient ones...
Human or otherwise
Forgotten nevermore~

Funding for the Language is Life Conference was provided by the Ford Foundation, the California Council for the Humanities and the Fund for Folk Culture.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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