Go Tule (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Tue May 18 16:42:14 UTC 2004

Preserving a native tongue

By Sarah Villicana, The Porterville Recorder

Christina Jaquez is on a mission, one to save a dying language and in
the process preserve a piece of the Valley's culture. To achieve her
goal, she's enlisting an unlikely set of burgeoning experts:
preschool-age children from the Tule River Indian tribe. "What do we
see and hear with?" Jaquez asks a roomful of youngsters. "We see with
our 'sahsah' and hear with our 'took,'" says Jaquez as she points from
her eyes to her ears.

Every Friday morning, Jaquez teaches a couple dozen pre-school age
children words in Yowlumni, the native language of the Tule River
Indian tribe.

The lessons take place at the Tule River Child Care Center, run by the
Tulare County Office of Education.

"We keep the lessons short," Jaquez said. "We go over colors, numbers
and everyday objects and then we finish by telling a story or singing
songs in the Yowlumni language."

After 10 minutes of instruction, the children start to become restless
so they are read an adaptation of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" in
Yowlumni - with porridge replaced by acorn mush.

Jaquez, who has been speaking Yowlumni for 11 years, was part of a
master-apprentice program. Her instructor, Jane Flippo, one of the few
master speakers left, died last March.

"The youngest master speakers are in their 70s," Jaquez said.

"I always wanted to learn the language but it was difficult to find
people still willing to teach," Jaquez said. "It's really very
beautiful. There are no bad words in the Yowlumni language."

After the story, the day's lesson wraps up with a sing-a-long of "The
Deer Song."

"Ho-yeh-nah, Oh-chip-nee," sang Denise Peyron, an instructor who teaches
the children songs that the Yokut people have been singing for hundreds
of years.

Peyron has been speaking Yowlumni words her whole life but has only
studied the language for the last two years.

"I started learning by singing through church," Peyron said. "When
you're troubled, the words can be soothing to your soul."

"It's important for the kids to hear the words, retain them and keep
them in their heart. The whole philosophy of a culture is in the
language," Jaquez said. "We are trying to keep our past alive, but the
language is near extinction."

Before the children leave, Peyron takes out a special surprise.

"Be very careful children, this was a gift I received for learning my
language," said Peyron as she hands over an eagle feather with a
brightly beaded handle. She was given the feather for saying a prayer
in Yowlumni at a recent ceremony.

There are only a few people left at the reservation who are fluent in
Yowlumni. Jaquez estimates that maybe a dozen elders still speak the
native language.

"I work on learning my language every day," Peyron said. "I know 200
more words than I knew before I started. Teaching the kids really
helps. It wasn't until I started teaching that I learned all the words
for numbers and parts of the body."

On Saturdays, the teachers become the students and attend a language
class open to all ages on the reservation.

"There is so much to learn," Peyron said. "One word can have 20
different meanings, depending on how you say it."

"If we don't teach it now, once they're gone there will be no one left
to remember. Yowlumni is one of the most unique indigenous languages in
North America," Jaquez said. "Linguists have come here from all over to
study it because it contains sounds that you won't find anywhere else
in the country."

Jaquez and Peyron have found children are perhaps the best hope to save
the tribe's native language.

"I have three grandchildren and one niece that I'm teaching Yowlumni,"
Peyron said. "They pick it up so quickly. My granddaughter learned how
to count in Yowlumni before I did."

"My dream is to open an immersion school," Jaquez said. "These kids are
going to go on to surprise everyone. This generation will be the one
that finally saves our language."

Contact Sarah Villicana at 784-5000, or
svillicana at portervillerecorder.com

This story was published in The Porterville Recorder on May 178, 2004

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