Wintu Words (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Jun 14 19:21:20 UTC 2004
State's Indians uncover the past

By Jack Chang


BERKELEY - In front of hundreds of indigenous people and linguists from around the world, California Indian Bill Combs held a sheet of paper in front of him Friday and nervously spoke the lost language of his ancestors.

While his cousin Norma Yeager translated, he read the Wintun words for frog, deer and other animals, complete with the glottal stops, or deep-throated clicking sounds, that he had practiced all week.

The 34-year-old man wearing a T-shirt and shorts finished his presentation by looking up at the audience gathered in UC Berkeley's Pauley Ballroom and telling them in Wintun what he had recently learned to do after being denied the opportunity all his life.

"I am speaking my language."

Since last weekend, the university's linguistics department has been helping about 50 California Indians learn to read, write and speak their languages, many of which have not been used for decades and are considered "dead languages."

For many "Breath of Life" conference participants, the experience has been emotional as they dig through the university's archive of language recordings to find traces of their lost tongues.

In some cases, they have come across recordings of grandparents and other family members speaking their languages decades ago into the microphones of UC Berkeley anthropologists.

Some have become the first people to speak their ancestral languages since the early 20th century.

Mike Lincoln, who lives on the Round Valley Indian Reservation on the edge of the Sacramento Valley, said he hopes to raise from the dead the language of his father's tribe, the Nomelaki.

"I look at it as something missing," Lincoln said. "(The U.S. government) took it away from us. They didn't let us have it. It's part of our culture. Without it, you're lost."

Throughout the 20th century, the federal government aggressively tried to stamp out the languages, sending Indian children to boarding schools where only English was permitted and prohibiting the teaching of the languages in public schools.

Mamie Elsie Powell, a 72-year-old resident of the Grindstone Indian Rancheria in Glenn County, said she grew up without speaking her native tongue of Nomelaki, although she remembered hearing her father and other relatives speak it while growing up.

As it turns out, her father who died at age 101 in 1987 was aware of the importance of his language and made hours of recordings of himself speaking it.

"I am one of the few people around who remember what my language sounds like," Powell said. "I have my father's tapes."

Lincoln pointed to Powell, who was sitting next to him in a UC Berkeley cafeteria.

"She is going to help us a lot to learn our language," Lincoln said.

Since the 1980s, the campaign to rescue dying or dead languages has become a movement among American Indians, said Leanne Hinton, chairwoman of UC Berkeley's linguistics department.

Language has become an integral part of American Indians shedding harsh stereotypes imposed on them and rediscovering their heritages, Hinton said.

"The languages had been crushed so badly," she said. "Only in a more tolerant era on the part of the government has this opportunity to rediscover arrived."

Still, many California Indians remain apathetic about their culture, and getting them excited about it is often an uphill battle, said Yeager, also from Grindstone.

"If they show interest, we'll teach them," he said.

On Thursday, UC Berkeley launched a companion conference, "Stabilizing Indigenous Languages," drawing several hundred indigenous people and linguists from around the country and the world to learn how to rescue their own fragile languages.

The two conferences merged Friday morning, and Californians such as Combs and Yeager nervously climbed onto the Pauley Ballroom stage to show what they had learned during the week to the international audience.

Among the crowd were young people such as 26-year-old Michelle Martin, an Aborigine from northwest Australia who said she has been trying to preserve some of the 25 indigenous languages spoken in her part of the world.

Her motivations were the same as the California Indians'.

"It's who we are," Martin said. "You can say you're an Aborigine, but what it really means is your culture and your language."

Martin said many of her elders still speak the old languages although few try to pass on their knowledge.

That's why Martin is working to preserve the languages while there's still time by recording them onto tape and creating dictionaries for them.

In that way, what she has seen so far in California has been a warning to her.

"If my people don't take an interest now," she said, "we'll be in the same situation as you."

Some Nomelaki words

Transcribed by California Indian Norma Yeager and UC Berkeley graduate student Jenny Lederer. Nomelaki was spoken among Northern Californian natives.

tree -- mee

deer -- nopoom

flowers -- kalal

bear -- waymahl

jaybird -- chiek-chiek

rabbit -- patkeelee

Part of a Nomelaki prayer using the words:

Hlesin mem mee nopoom kalal way

Hlesin mem waymahl chiek-chiek patkeelee

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