The Language is Life Conference for California Indian Languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Nov 8 14:34:31 UTC 2008

Murmur, whisper, pray, sing, joke, shout ….The Language is Life
Conference for California Indian Languages

By Alison Owings

"If I can learn it, anyone can learn it," said Richard Bugbee, getting
a roomful of laughs at the Marin Headlands Institute.  Although he is
Luiseno, he was talking about learning to speak Kumeyaay.  "Immersion
is the way to go." The sentiment was repeated often in the early April
three day Language is Life Conference sponsored by AICLS: Advocates
for Indigenous California Language Survival.  Immersion – especially
using AICLS's "master apprentice program" — is one of the best ways to
learn.  To eat, you better learn the words for food.
Bugbee, a member of the AICLS board of directors, was one of dozens of
speakers who addressed hundreds of participants – students and
scholars and teachers who are working passionately to preserve – and
in some cases, trying to restore — California's Native languages.

The mood throughout this 8th Language is Life conference held under
sunny skies seemed a mixture of pleasure (teaching toddlers to talk
their tribal language… even when mom and dad are only a step ahead
themselves), frustration (why are casinos not funding Native language
efforts more?), and a race against time.  Nancy Richardson Steele
(Karuk) said when she was young, there were some 200 Karuk speakers in
her tribe.  Recently, only 11 were left. Not only are such treasures
dying out, they – and people who manage to learn their Native language
later – face the indignity of not being officially credentialed by
Calilfornia authorities as language teachers.  (See Sidebar,
"Certification of Native Speakers.")

Nobody (at least in the sessions I attended) said learning a Native
language is easy, that is, if you are no longer a toddler.  Leo Canez
(Karut/Yurok/Tohono O'odham) recalled making "excuse after excuse
after excuse" not to learn, until one day hearing elders speaking
among themselves, and realizing he did not know what they were saying.
 He was thinking of all his good Native deeds, including working for
the Seventh Generation Fund, but the elders were apparently
unimpressed.  They wanted to know, What are you doing for your own
people in your village?

"I call that the `elder hammer,'" he said to more laughter.  As a
consequence, Canez made three hours of recordings with one elder, put
them in ipod format, and is now teaching Yurok at Humboldt State
University.  Elders!  They are the repositories of the languages, yes,
but they certainly can be intimidating, said Stan Rodriguez,
instructor of Kumeyaay at Kumeyaay Community College.  He recalled
talking first with his tribal elders, before starting to teach.  "I
got roasted and basted."  They also paid little attention to his
curriculum plan.  "Shut up, and listen to how we talk."  Finally, he
developed his own style, such as having students read Dr. Seuss books
in Kumeyaay.  To learn the language of cooking, he brought in Coleman
stoves, and had students prepare a meal of "Spam and commodity
cheese."  He even had students play Jeopardy in Kumeyaay, as well as
also Family Feud.  "We called it rez rumble." He brought in a vacuum
cleaner and sheets, so students could learn the language of cleaning a
house.  That was a problem: no word for vacuum cleaner.  He huddled
with the elders, who came up with a word that means "thing that sucks
up dirt."

While Rodriguez stressed innovation, and repetition, other speakers
touted technology.  Dan Harvey, a non-Native software designer ("I get
computers to do stuff.") demonstrated, to oohs and aahs, a free
downloadable program he developed to teach students not only to learn
their own language, but to develop their own multiple-choice lesson
plans.  As an aside, Harvey urged Native youth to consider careers in
computer science, "a good field" in which Natives are

Inee Slaughter of the Indigenous Languages Institute demonstrated her
group's programs, adding that her "language geek guy" was able to
design keyboards and fonts for each language, and could also
transcribe the marks developed by linguist/anthropologist J.P.
Harrington.  "Wowwwww," breathed the audience.

Former Salinan chairman Gregg Castro demonstrated how to access the
Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives and retrieve data for
language instruction.  He cautioned, in compressing CDs to mp3 files,
sometimes compression loses changes in tone and  inflection.  It's
still worth the effort, he said, adding that he has five grandchildren
under the age of four, and is the first person in a half a century in
the family to sing them a lullaby in their own language.

What of languages with no more Native speakers at all?  That dilemma
is addressed in the "Breath of Life" program, initiated by L. Frank
(Tongva/Ajachemem).  In various sessions at the AICLS conference, she
was in turns serious and joking, saying at one point, as she and
others try to learn a Native language for which there's no Native
speaker, left,  "Nobody knows if you're not saying it right."  And,
"you don't worry about Native speakers dying out."  (See Sidebar, The
Keynote Speakers.)

Participants to the conference came from all over the state and
beyond. Conference director Marina Drummer counted some 25 tribal
affiliations, including Miwok, Maidu, Nisenan, Wintun,  Wiyot, Washoe,
Tongva, Lakota, Elem Pomo, Luiseno, Yurok, Salinan, Ohlone,Chumash,
Wukchumni, Tachi, Kawaiisu, Wailaki, Yowlumni, Achumwai, Hupa, Karuk,
Cherokee, Quechan, and Mono.

Amid many, many stories, and simple ideas (tape the word for "teeth"
on your bathroom mirror), the overarching sentiment was simple.  The
effort to learn one's language is important, the timing urgent.  And
as Stan Rodriguez reports, the effort works.  "It's like planting
seeds, it may take months, but all of a sudden you have a little
plant," he said, remembering a time when he "realized all of a sudden,
I was speaking Kumeyaay for two and a half hours!"

Education, and the right for Native languages to be a part of it, is
one of the biggest issues facing language revitalization.  Sarah
Supahan and Carole Lewis gave a presentation on the problem of
certification for speakers, virtually none of whom have teaching
credentials.  The "No Child Left Behind" policies are making it
increasingly difficult for these language teachers, who have the
rarest and most valuable knowledge – their tribal language – and yet
are at best second-class staff, and at worst, not allowed to teach at
all.  Supahan, Lewis and their colleague Marnie Atkins are fighting a
battle now to follow several other states in establishing alternative
credentialing procedures for Native language teachers, and to keep the
current policy of allowing Native American languages that are taught
in the schools of Humboldt County to fulfill the "foreign language"
requirement for college entry.  (Changing the term "foreign language"
would also be a good idea, they argue!)  Unfortunately, they are
meeting with opposition from the California Commission on Teacher

One of the conference's keynote speakers was Cody Pata, who is part
Hawaiian and part Nomlaki, and has done credit to both his languages.
A well-known Hawaiian singer, Pata is also the Nomlakis' tribal
linguist (as he said humbly, "No-one else was interested – that's why
I got to hold that title.")  Beginning at one of the early "Breath of
Life" workshops, Pata became a skilled linguist, gathering all the
information he could find on Nomlaki, and using techniques of
linguistic reconstruction through comparison with related languages to
expand the available vocabulary further.  The audience was impressed
with Pata's linguistic accomplishments, but for encores they wanted
more Hawaiian chants.

The other keynote speaker was Ryan Wilson, past president of the
National Indian Education Association.  "There is a fight now about
who controls Indian education," he said, "And language has a lot to do
with it."  Wilson was one of the the people responsible for the
development of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages
Preservation Act, which would support Native American immersion
schools, the best hope of developing a new generation of fluent
speakers.  When one senator placed a hold on the bill, Wilson and
other proponents spoke to the Navajo code talkers, who were going to
Washington.  The code talkers visited the senator, and one said "Years
ago our country asked us to use our language as a weapon to help fight
a war to save the liberties that we ourselves didn't even have.  We
raised the flag at Iwo Jima.  Now we are asking you to lift up our
language like we lifted up the flag."  The next day, the senator
lifted the hold, and the Senate passed the bill.

(c) News from Native California, Fall, 2008
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