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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 29, 2002 - Issue 64


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Conference Breathes Life Into Native American Languages

by Jennifer Kline-Daily Cal Staff Writer
credits: Staff/Ian Buchanan
Kathy Sandoval belts out a native song at the 50th anniversary celebration of the survey of California Native American languages.
"Makke amakma polsonmak".

Meaning "colors of our people," these words, reborn out of a language not spoken fluently for over 70 years, finally reached ears at a conference Saturday to revive California Native American languages on the brink of extinction.

The Breath of Life Conference, held every other year since 1995 at UC Berkeley, seeks to provide resources and help to those trying to learn California Native American languages. The languages explored are either difficult to research or hardly spoken or remembered.

"This is not a science to us," said L. Frank Manriquez, who studies the Acjachemem language. "This is not the science of linguistics to us. This is the breath of life very simply."

Quirina Luna-Costillas, who has attended the Breath of Life Conference since it began, is piecing together the Mutsun language that hasn't been spoken fluently since 1930. Mutsun was just one of the 29 languages explored.

The conference allowed Luna-Costillas and other Native Americans to gain access to materials, including dissertations by Mark Okrand, who used the Mutsun language as the basis for his creation of the Klingon language, spoken in the cult-classic "Star Trek."

"(The conference's purpose is) to assist California Indians who are trying to either revive their language or help it survive by helping them find materials linguists and anthropologists have compiled over the years and help them use it for language learning and language teaching," said UC Berkeley linguistics professor Leanne Hinton.

Gordon Bussell, a conference attendee, started learning Mattole through a book he deciphered at a Breath of Life Conference. The last speaker of Mattole died around 1954. Bussell's background in Hupa, another Native American language similar to Mattole, helps him considerably in his work.

"There are no speakers of Mattole," Bussell said. "We're trying to bring it back."

Attendees also shared information they had gathered. Luna-Costillas used both English and Mutsun to deliver a PowerPoint presentation exploring Mutsun culture. At the last conference, Luna-Costillas and other members translated Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham" into Mutsun, substituting "green acorns" and "salmon" as a Native American twist.

Other conference members chanted songs and prayers in their native languages and performed conversational skits.

Robert Geary and Gary Thomas, enthusiasts of Elem Pomo, a language of the Southeast Pomo, identified pieces of traditional dance outfit, and John Moreno and Georgiana Sanchez told a tribal story in Barbareño Chumash about their tribe's relation to dolphins.

The conference also provided networking tools for attendees.

"It's comforting to know that other people are in your situation," Luna-Costillas said. "Without this program we wouldn't know how to say hello. There are no words to explain how thankful we are."

The conference provides archives for people interested in written records of languages, Hinton said. Conference members may also read phonetic transcripts to learn grammar and then learn how to develop teaching materials.

Luna-Costillas plans to take the lessons learned at the conference one step further. Not only does she hope to ensure the survival of the Mutsun language by speaking it to her children, she has also started a foundation with her cousin, Lisa Carrier, to educate other tribe members.

"We started it up in September of 2001," Carrier said. "Our reason behind it was first and foremost to revitalize the language and teach language classes."

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