Chochenyo, the language of the Muwekma Ohlone people, has
been silent since the 1930s, but a handful of tribal members working
with mentors from the University of California, Berkeley's linguistics
department are bringing it back to life.
Chochenyo is being heard once again in conversation and song, and
can be seen in written communications and a guidebook being prepared
to help teach others.
chair Rosemary Cambra and Monica Arellano, co-chair of the Muwekma
Ohlone Language Committee, will share the Muwekma Ohlone success
story at the "Breath of Life: Silent No More" conference
at UC Berkeley as it opens this Saturday, June 5. The five-day program
is for California Indians determined to revitalize their dormant
and endangered languages.
feel very privileged to have been allowed the opportunity to be
a part of the awakening of our native Chochenyo language. It has
truly been a very fulfilling experience," said Arellano, also
vice chair of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe.
Professor Juliette Blevins, shown wearing a Yurok cap, is working
with members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe to revive their language,
Chochenyo. (Photo by J.P. Blevins)
"The Chochenyo experience gives us all great hope," said
Juliette Blevins, a visiting professor and researcher at UC Berkeley's
Department of Linguistics, who has been leading weekly Chochenyo
lessons with Muwekma Ohlone hailing from Richmond to San Jose.
Hinton, chair of the linguistics department, which is in the College
of Letters & Science, said she is always excited by the Breath
of Life conference, which every year draws more interest. This year's
conference is attracting approximately 60 people from about a dozen
tribes from throughout California - others were turned away as organizers
were unable to accommodate everyone interested.
Thursday, June 10, over 300 language educators and others will attend
the four-day "Language is Life: the 11th Annual Stabilizing
Indigenous Languages Conference" that also is being held on
Muwekma Ohlone, the indigenous people of the San Francisco Bay Area,
will be featured guests at both conferences. At the second event,
they will offer a Chochenyo welcome to conference attendees from
across the United States and Canada, and as far away as Taiwan and
Australia, who want to learn more about how to revitalize indigenous
languages in their states and countries.
important chapter of the Muwekma story got underway in Blevins'
undergraduate course, "Languages of North America." Student
Jon Rodney wanted to translate a Chochenyo song on a recording from
the Smithsonian Institution. To do so, he relied on linguistics
anthropologist J.P. Harrington's field notes, replete with information
about California Indians, including Spanish and English translations
of their languages as spoken around the beginning of the 20th century.
When Rodney finished his paper, he shared it with several Muwekma
got a wonderful response, saying they just started a language committee
and wanted to revive Chochenyo," Blevins said, "And, could
recordings of Chochenyo contain only songs, many without words,"
she said. "So, when this all started, there was a very hard
question to answer: What does the spoken language actually sound
help put the puzzle together, Blevins tapped Harrington's notes,
his good ear for language and penchant for phonetic detail, and
listened to all of his Chochenyo recordings. Blevins then listened
to all Miwok and Yokut recordings available at the Berkeley Language
Center, because their sounds and structures are believed to be similar
to Chochenyo. To develop a concrete sense of Harrington's phonetic
symbols for Chochenyo sounds, she compared these with the ones he
used for another California Indian language, Yurok, which she knows
well. Like most indigenous languages, Chochenyo never had its own
written system - until last year, when the Muwekma Ohlone Language
Committee adopted the new Chochenyo alphabet.
important resource in the Chochenyo saga is The Bancroft Library,
repository of some of the oldest written records about such Coastanoan
languages as Chochenyo, Mutsun and Rumsien. The library has original
manuscripts from the 1800s, including Father Felipe Arroyo de la
Cuesta's impressive transcriptions of hundreds of Mutsun sentences.
and Rodney officially launched their language lessons last spring
at a Muwekma Ohlone cultural campout at Del Valle Regional Park
near Pleasanton, sharing a Chochenyo word list and giving simple
group language lessons.
was a lot of enthusiasm after that, and the tribe asked if I would
give weekly language lessons," Blevins said. "I agreed,
but only by insisting that we were in this together, that we would
all be learning together."
lessons began in July 2003, and are still going strong. Five to
eight dedicated students attend the weekly three-hour evening sessions,
with attendance at quarterly tribal language workshops ranging from
30 to 50.
think they've made amazing progress in terms of being able to speak
the language," said Blevins. "Everyone has basic conversation
skills, and some have more. They can talk about their family and
home life. Because of the gaps in vocabulary, what you'll often
hear is a Chochenyo sentence with a few English words mixed in,
but with the appropriate grammatical structure for Chochenyo."
Chochenyo database being developed by the tribe contains from 1,000
to 2,000 basic words. To fill in vocabulary gaps, the Muwekma Ohlone
Language Committee is creating new words. An example is the new
Chochenyo word for minute, "ikka," formed with their own
word for "dust" and used for a small unit of time.
next step, Blevins said, is to expand outreach in the Muwekma Ohlone
community, possibly through language classes in area schools and
the Master Apprentice Program conceived through UC Berkeley's Linguistics
Department and the Advocates for Indigenous California Language
Survival, a California native organization devoted to revitalizing
the state's indigenous languages, about 70 teens have learned approximately
25 native Californian languages. They've had help from mentors working
with them 10 to 20 hours a week over the past three years.
the 175 indigenous languages in the United States, children are
speaking fewer than 20 of them at home, said Hinton, and the demand
for help to save endangered languages is outpacing the resources.
a heritage language isn't just a form of communication," she
said. "It's a deep part of a person's identity and view of
also is an increasing awareness among tribes of the resources available
- like those at UC Berkeley - to help save endangered languages,
in language revitalization is something that's growing around the
world," said Hinton, author of "How to Keep Your Language
Alive" (Heyday Books, 2002). "Nationalism and globalization
are constant and growing threats to the existence of indigenous
societies, and partly as a response to that, there is more and more
movement by indigenous people to maintain their identities and not
get melted into the big melting pot."
Muwekma Ohlone say it this way:
mak-noono ya roote 'innutka, mak-'uyyaki_,
Nuhu, mak pekre ne tuuxi,
'At mak roote 'innutka hu_i_tak."
culture and our language are the way to our past,
From it we embrace the present,
And follow the road to the future."