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Tribes reclaim languages once spoken in California

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.sacbee.com/topstories/story/1944799.html Tribes reclaim languages once spoken in California By Peter Hecht phecht@sacbee.com Published: Sunday, Jun.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 22, 2009
      http://www.sacbee.com/topstories/story/1944799.html

      Tribes reclaim languages once spoken in California

      By Peter Hecht
      phecht@...
      Published: Sunday, Jun. 14, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 4A

      Standing before a giant mossy rock and two Tsi-Akim Maidu bark houses,
      Farrell Cunningham gazes skyward to find the words and spirit imparted to
      him as a child.

      He directs his outdoor class of about 20 Indian and non-Indian students to
      the amber light piercing down into the forest of Nevada County.

      "Ekim pokom epinin koyodi kakan" – "the sun is in the sky" – he says in the
      Mountain Maidu tongue taught to him on nature walks by a tribal elder named
      Lilly Baker.

      She died at 96 a few years back. But now Cunningham, 33, is among a small
      legion of speakers trying to preserve California's endangered American
      Indian languages.

      Their efforts are about to get an official boost. Lawmakers are moving on a
      bill to create a special American Indian languages teaching credential to
      promote efforts to teach – and recapture – some of the nearly 100 languages
      once spoken by California Indians.

      The measure – Assembly Bill 544 by Democrat Joe Coto of San Jose – declares
      that "teaching American Indian languages is essential to the proper
      education of American Indian children."

      The bill would also allow fluent speakers to teach special classes in
      public schools as part of understanding California history and culture.

      The limited "eminence credential" could enable some tribal elders with
      little formal education to give lectures on ancient languages widely spoken
      before the Gold Rush.

      Passed by a 76-0 vote in the Assembly and now in the Senate, the bill is
      strongly backed by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in Santa Barbara
      County. It is seen as an endorsement of several tribes' efforts to
      rediscover long-forgotten languages.

      "For generations, native American children were taken from their homes,
      raised in boardinghouses and punished for actually speaking their
      language," said tribal languages researcher Richard Applegate. "It would be
      remarkable to revitalize what is left."

      Applegate, who holds a doctorate in linguistics from UC Berkeley, is
      working to help the Chumash tribe rediscover its mother tongue.

      The Chumash, a wealthy casino-owning tribe, is funding a major research
      effort using work of late ethnologist John P. Harrington. In the early
      1900s, he compiled extensive manuscripts and wax recordings of the tribe's
      Samala language.

      Harrington worked closely with a Chumash matriarch named María Solares, who
      died in 1923. Their work helped form a translated record of tribal stories,
      such as this selection from a 1919 tale of a hunting expedition:

      "They say that at Tashlipun there were many deer" or – in Samala – "sa'mip
      i tašlipun i w` hi wahaè."

      "He said to his wife, 'We're going hunting' " – "s'ipus a šta'lik,
      "nokišyaw`l."

      Even though the last known speaker of the Samala language died in the
      1960s, Applegate worked with the Harrington materials to help the tribe
      compile a 5,000-word dictionary, grammar and pronunciation guide.

      Five tribal members, who stand to become eligible for the state special
      language credential, have undergone three years of study to become "senior
      apprentices" in the Samala language.

      "What we find as we learn the language is that it opens up doors to our
      ceremonies, to our history and to our knowledge of who we are," said tribal
      member Nakia Zavalla, 35.

      Zavalla so immersed herself in language learning that she covered her
      kitchen cabinets in practice words from abalone – t'aya – to Zaca Lake –
      ko'o'. She is now teaching fellow tribal members a language many never
      heard spoken.

      Zavalla hopes someday that local high school students can study Samala to
      meet foreign language course requirements. The Coto bill includes no such
      curriculum provision.

      Meanwhile, Zavalla said she would be excited to offer special lectures on
      tribal language and culture.

      "Being able to have your indigenous language being offered in the local
      school district is an acknowledgment of the people who lived there for many
      years," she said.
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