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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 7, 2002 - Issue 69


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Pechangas Work to Save Their Language

by Agnes Diggs Staff Writer North County Times

California Languages and TribesPECHANGA RESERVATION ---- Beyond the view of hotel and casino guests, in impromptu classrooms set up at their government and senior centers, members of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians are learning to speak their ancestral language.

Luiseno is one of at least 100 tribal languages native to California. Half of them are now nearly extinct, experts say.

At the reservation, students of all ages gather to train their tongues to embrace the words their people were once beaten and shamed by white people for uttering, even to one another. And, ironically, the teacher who earnestly instructs them is a white man.

The tribe
The language classes began this summer under the guidance of linguist Eric Elliott, whose doctoral dissertation at UC San Diego became a 1,700-page bilingual English-Luiseno/Luiseno-English dictionary.

Among the students in a recent session was tribal member Gabriel Salinas, 31, who said he had been attending classes for about five weeks. Salinas, a financial firm vice president from Yucaipa, said he is eager to learn the language so that he can pass it on to his children, Cole, 8, and Alayne, 10.

"I think it's a great opportunity to get in touch with our heritage," he said. "You hear everybody saying 'I'm Indian, I'm Indian,' but they can't speak the language. Learning the language helps to understand the thought processes that went into creating it and how the ancestors communicated with each other," he said.

Rita Palmer, who lives on the reservation, has also been in the class for five weeks, she said. Palmer is treasurer of the elders' group called "The Silver Feathers."

"It's my heritage," she explained about her desire to learn the language. "You hear a few people speak it, but you don't hear very many. I want to learn, not necessarily to be fluent. But it's important to our people to learn it and carry it on ---- to not let it die."

Palmer said she likes that she is learning both to read and to speak the ancient language at the same time. Pronunciation is the hardest part, she said, because the words sound foreign to the ear.

"You go into a Spanish class and you've heard it," she said. "It's familiar to the ear. This is not familiar at all."

That can change now, with so many people returning to the reservation and the availability of the classes, she said. In recent years, it wasn't spoken so it wasn't passed along, Palmer reasoned about why the language slipped out of usage.

"Out in the general public it just wasn't spoken," she said. "Some of (the tribe members) have heard it. If it's used again, some of them ---- if they hear it---- they'll remember it again. It just has to be refreshed."

Diana Caudell, 54, is a Luiseno of Pala ancestry. One of the more advanced students, Caudell has been studying the language for about a year, spending up to four hours a day on homework, she said. She wants to pass the language and traditions on to her grandchildren, she said.

"The language was suppressed," she said. "The natives were punished for speaking their own language, especially if they went through the (educational) institutions. Spanish was more accepted than the native language. But it's coming back. It's not going to be suppressed anymore."

The teacher
Instructor Eric Elliot, 41, spent five years studying and documenting the Luiseno language under the tutelage of Villiana Hyde, a native speaker of its Rincon dialect. Hyde, now deceased, had written a book on the subject, which Elliott called "very user-friendly." After reading it, he looked her up in the phone book and called to ask her to teach him. Hyde was one of the last people to really do everything in her language, "like we do everything in English," he said.

Elliott's love of languages goes back to his childhood in the Coachella Valley, he said. He grew up in a desert community with many Spanish-speakers. In school, he studied what he calls the "typical white bread" European languages and, in a period of youthful alienation and rebellion, he went to Europe. But he didn't feel he belonged there either.

He found his niche in the study of indigenous languages.

"If you're interested in California and you're born here, then it's just natural to be interested in our history," he said. "And our history was written in Luiseno, until recently."

The indigenous people knew their own history, where they came from, he said. It was in their heads. Then about a hundred years ago the country ceased to be what it had been for millennia, Elliott said, and the native people realized they were on the verge of cultural extinction. Something that had served them so well for centuries was just thrown by the wayside.

The knowledge of the cruelties visited on the native people is, for him, the hardest part of teaching the language, Elliott said.

"I'm conscious of the fact that I am white," he said. "That's the hardest part for me because I know what we did. But everyone has been nothing but gracious and friendly to me. It's in my head, being white. I do that trip on myself."

Elliott is a grade-school teacher on his second year of leave. Last year nobody paid his salary, he said. This year, the Pechanga are paying it. Elliott has three children, Max, 8, Mariano, 7, and Victoria, 3. His wife, Sandra, is a fourth-grade school teacher. He commutes to the reservation five days a week from Chula Vista.

His doctoral dissertation, the bilingual dictionary, was the result of 13 years of research on the Luiseno language. He has also documented the Mountain Cahuilla dialect of Cahuilla and the Serrano language spoken by one remaining native speaker residing at the Morongo reservation in Riverside County.

The task
The language program came about when the Pechanga tribal elders and cultural leaders, alarmed by the threat of extinction of their language, formed a partnership with the University of California at Riverside to develop a teaching model that would not only revitalize the Luiseno language but become a model that other tribes could adopt to preserve their tribal languages.

The program's goal is to record, document and preserve the language, teach it to the children of Pechanga, produce new Luiseno materials and train tribal members to be teachers in Luiseno.

"Now that we have more time and we're settling some of our other pressing issues, like sovereignty and economic security, we can start taking care of some of the more important issues like culture," said Gary DuBois, Pechanga's director of cultural resources. Language is inseparable from culture, he said, and it's a way of interpreting the world through a different lens that is disappearing.

"We have a very small window," said DuBois. "Native speakers are almost gone. This is our opportunity to save what we have. Save it from extinction."

The timing couldn't be more critical for this project to take off, said Joel Martin, holder of the Rupert Costo Chair of American Indian Affairs at UCR. There are about 6,600 languages in the world, and 6,000 of them are endangered, Martin said. UCR has the largest second-language program in California, teaching teachers to teach language.

"The idea is to make this language learning a thing that can endure and last when we're all gone," Martin said. "Make it so we're never in this position again where languages are endangered. The tribe is strongly affirming that they want (the language model) to be significant to all endangered languages. This can have international repercussions. If we can revitalize the language here, we can help others."

Pechanga has taken the lead, Martin said. They are supporting the program financially and seeking ways to ensure that the project continues.

"We couldn't have done it without them," Martin said. "It's their initiative, their challenge and yes, their funds that got the whole thing started. It has grown and is still growing."

The Pechanga project is designed for one year, for starters. The paper work took more than a year, but Luiseno is now officially recognized as a language.

"French was a language, Spanish was a language," Elliott said. "More people knew Hebrew than Luiseno in Southern California."

Several children come to Elliott's classes, even when they don't have to, he said. About 30 adults are enrolled in the current round of day and evening sessions.

"I think juggling their lives is the biggest hurdle for the adults," Elliott said. "Just making time to get to class. Their willingness to make the time for classes shows their commitment."

Elliott's energetic teaching style includes lots of visual aids and humor. it took a lot of trial and error and the help of a laptop to hit on the right teaching combination. He is using as a tool the familiar fairy tale "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," with the ultimate goal of having students be able to read it to a child, but he plans to incorporate Luiseno stories into the curriculum.

"The next one will be a genuine Luiseno story," he said. "The Western culture is more familiar right now, but (Luiseno) will become familiar."

Elliott's students have high praise for him and the program.

"For him to be able to spend this time with us to share this knowledge is an incredible opportunity for whoever takes advantage of it," said Gabriel Salinas. "I wish there were more tribal members here. Eric has the knowledge and he mixes that with great presentation skills. He makes it fun. It's not a burden to come to class."

Temecula is named after the ancestors of the Pechanga people, the Temeekuyam (Temecula Indians), who lived at the Temeekunga, the place of the sun. Spanish missionaries from the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia named them among the Luiseno Tribes, those who were forced to work at the mission. In 1881, tribe members were forcibly evicted from Temecula and dumped in the hills south of town, The place was called Pechaa'ang after a spring that sustained them. And so they became known as the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians ---- people who live at Pechaa'ang.

Today they call themselves the Pechaangayam, which means Pechanga people.

Here is a sample of the vocabulary that Pechanga language students are learning. Please note that there are two versions of the letter "s." One is called a "whistling s" and is typed with the $ keystroke to differentiate it because of the limitations of traditional typewriters.

'ataax person
kiicha house
nawitmal girl
tawwilash chair
to'wish forest
heelaqu$ was singing
hamu' tap the end
hunwut bear
kupu''ilash bed
$sunnganwish medium sized
temet day
yot big
'a$o'$ush yellow
Pechanga IR Map
Maps by Travel

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