Pomo Language

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Wed May 25 22:43:18 UTC 2005

American Indian Youths Preserve the Past
By Shadi Rahimi, Pacific News Service
Posted on May 16, 2005, Printed on May 25, 2005

Eighteen-year-old Kristin Amparo, a tribal member of the Big Valley
band of Pomo Indians, lives with her parents and five siblings in a
large house on their reservation in Clear Lake, about three hours
north of San Francisco. She likes bouncing on a trampoline to slam-
dunk a basketball in her back yard, zooming past the creamy white
Konocti Vista Casino in a yellow all-terrain vehicle and, now,
speaking Bahtssal with her 14-year-old sister Felicia.

The flat and green Big Valley reservation sits two miles from tiny
downtown Lakeport on 153 acres encircling the banks of Clear Lake,
whose blue-green waters host international bass-fishing tournaments
and traditional Pomo tule boat races. On sunny days, kids fish for
bluegill and catfish from the dock near the tribe's Konocti Vista

Only a few elders of the Big Valley tribe are fluent in Bahtssal, a
tribal dialect that began to fade after settlers forced Northern
California Pomos off their lands. Today, Amparo and her sister are
among a small group of young people on the 470-member reservation who
are learning to speak the dialect as part of a newly formed language

"We tell our mom stuff in Bahtssal, like, 'I have to go,'" says
Amparo, who had never heard the language spoken before she began
studying it under the new initiative. "It's really fun to learn."

According to tribal historians, the decline in fluency in Bahtssal
dates back to 1852, when the United States Senate refused to ratify a
federal treaty that had promised the Big Valley tribe 72 square miles
of land on the south side of Clear Lake. Settlers began claiming
plots of land the following year, making private property of the
areas where Big Valley ancestors had gathered food for more than
11,000 years. As tribal members began working in fields and on
ranches owned by settlers, and their children began learning English
in white schools, Bahtssal began to fade.

James Bluewolf, who directs the language program, sees it as an
exercise not just in cultural preservation, but also in healing.
"People are still suffering from post-traumatic stress after being
forced to give up everything they had," he says. "But every culture
comes to a point where they are ready to make a change."

In Clear Lake, the epicenter of that change sits among piles of scrap
metal, wood and rusty cars, in a building that looks like it has
dropped from the sky. It is tiny and tidy, and painted a bright
swimming-pool blue. Inside this building, which houses the tribal
language program, young mothers watch their chubby-cheeked toddlers
play in a preschool class held by the nonprofit Lake County Tribal
Health Consortium.

In a cramped office past the play area, James Bluewolf smiles at the
children's squeals. A stocky, soft-spoken man who once ran a
landscaping business, Bluewolf has been using technology tribal
ancestors could not have imagined to preserve and promote the tribal
language. Bluewolf records hours of Bahtssal spoken by elders, which
he edits into half-hour audio segments that air on the community
radio station, and are available free on CD to tribal members.
Bluewolf is also writing a curriculum for a 15-week course in Bahtssal.

In a program Bluewolf directs, local teenagers perform skits that
teach words and phrases such as "Chiin the'a 'eh" ("How are you?")
and "Q'odii" ("Good"). Bluewolf videotapes the skits and makes them
into videos that are played on the Lake County television station,
and made available on DVD.

In the play area, Alisha Salguero, 21, rocks her 5-month-old daughter
to sleep while her 3-year-old son Brian plays. Brian has learned
several words in Bahtssal in the preschool class, where Bluewolf uses
hand puppets to teach the language.

"He's really picked it up," Salguero says with a smile. "I don't
really know it, so I think it's good for him to learn his language."

While traditional song, dance, and tule boat races have always been
part of the cultural life of Big Valley children, holding on to their
tribal language has been more difficult, says Marilyn Ellis, 21.
"That's why this language program is important," says Ellis, whose
father, Ray, was the spiritual leader of the tribe.

Before he died several years ago, Ray Ellis revived the tribe's "Big
Time" spiritual celebration. The gathering, held every September on
the grassy banks of Clear Lake, includes prayer, dancing and singing
-- and now, perhaps, the sound of children trying out their ancestral  

"Our language is part of us," says Ellis, who does not speak the
tribal dialect herself, but whose daughters can now name their cat
and dog in Bahtssal. "If we don't know it, we're pretty much dead."

Shadi Rahimi, 24, is the co-founder and an editor of Seventh Native
American Generation (SNAG) magazine, and an associate editor of YO!
Youth Outlook, www.youthoutlook.org.

© 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/22011/

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