Chukchansi speakers gather to record and preserve their language
Speak now...or forever hold your peace
Rare Chukchansi speakers gather to record and preserve their language.
By Charles McCarthy / The Fresno Bee
COARSEGOLD -- A few Native Americans who still speak the ancient Chukchansi
language are preserving tribal words and songs with state-of-the-art
electronic translators inspired by military technology.
Jane Wyatt, 62, of Coarsegold, and her sister, Holly, 65, were among six
tribal members who gathered Friday across the street from the Picayune
Rancheria's busy Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino in Coarsegold to try out a
newly acquired "Phraselator."
The electronic translator was developed just a few years ago from
technology used for military translators, said Don Thornton of Thornton
Media Inc., based in Banning. Thornton Media is working with 70 tribes in
the United States and Canada to preserve native languages, he said.
"What's my name?" he asked the box in his hand. He pressed another button
and it replied in what Thornton said was Chukchansi.
The Wyatt sisters learned the unwritten Chukchansi language at home while
they were growing up in the Madera County foothills. Chukchansi is one of
many native California dialects considered to be nearly extinct.
"We're recording our language ... to save our language," Jane Wyatt said.
"I learned because my grandmother raised me. That's all we spoke."
She estimated that of about 500 Chukchansi scattered throughout the United
States, the six tribal members using laptop computers and a hand-held
military black-box recorder Friday at Picayune tribal headquarters were
probably among the few fluent enough in the language to teach others.
Jane Wyatt said she and her sister have been teaching the Chukchansi
language at the Wassuma Round House culture center in Ahwahnee.
Not all those recording Chukchansi for the electronic translator were
tribal elders. Dustin Johnson, 19, of Coarsegold said his grandmother
taught him the language.
The Wyatt sisters agreed that their tribe has lived "forever" in the
California foothills. But even communication with their Mono neighbors was
limited by language difficulties. Contacts with Spanish- and
English-speaking invaders influenced native languages.
For instance, the Chukchansi word for apple is pronounced "abbule" and the
word for mattress is the same as the Spanish word. Of course until the
tribe encountered outsiders, it had no mattresses.
Juanita Lahon, 37, of Coarsegold expected to record some songs from tribal
culture, such as one in which a coyote asks the creator's permission to
howl at the moon.
"There's a song for everything," she said. "Everybody has to ask permission
to do something."
Preserving language is important because it's intertwined with tribal
culture, artifacts and family life, Lahon said.
"That's the way we say what's what and what goes where," she said.
Until the white settlers arrived, there were no "cursing words" in the
tribe's language, Lahon said.
Even the name Chukchansi was bestowed by white settlers little more than a
century ago. Before that, the tribe was Yokut, meaning "the people," Holly
Picayune Rancheria tribal administrator Cornel Pewewardy said the tribe has
purchased three Phraselators.
They arrived Friday with Thornton.
The list price is about $3,000 apiece, he said. The three devices will be
kept to begin a language program, supported by tribal funds, to preserve
the language that has no books.
"The culture and language are hand in hand," Pewewardy said.
Without written records, it's hard to estimate the tribe's former
population or map exactly where they ranged. The Chukchansi homeland
roughly centered on the present casino location, but tribes didn't observe
strict cultural land boundaries.
Those arrived with the whites, Pewewardy said.
The reporter can be reached at cmccarthy@... or (559) 675-6804.