[lg policy] California: With Casino Revenues, Tribes Push to Preserve Languages, and Cultures
haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jul 27 21:13:18 UTC 2012
With Casino Revenues, Tribes Push to Preserve Languages, and Cultures
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: June 16, 2012 29 Comments
A worksheet from a class on the language of the Chukchansi tribe, which
researchers at California State University, Fresno, are working to preserve.
COARSEGOLD, Calif. — Inside a classroom of some 20 adults and children
studying the language of their tribe, a university linguist pointed out
that Chukchansi has no “r” sound and that two consonants never follow each
other. The comments seemed to stir forgotten childhood memories in Holly
Wyatt, 69, the only fluent speaker present, who was serving as a living
Holly Wyatt, a member of the Chukchansi tribe, listens to a conversation
and translates it for researchers at California State University, Fresno,
who are working to preserve the language. “My mother used to call Richard
‘Lichad,’ ” Ms. Wyatt blurted out, referring to a relative. “It just popped
into my head.”
Using revenues from their casino here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the
Chukchansi Indians recently pledged $1 million over five years to
California State University, Fresno, to help preserve their unwritten
language. Linguists from the university will create a dictionary, assemble
texts and help teach the language at weekly courses like the one on a
The donation caps efforts in recent years by American Indian tribes across
the nation to bring back their tongues before the death of their sole
surviving speakers. With coffers flush from casino gambling, dozens of
tribes have donated to universities or have directly hired linguists,
buttressing the work of researchers dependent on government grants, experts
The money has given the tribes greater authority over the study of their
language, an often culturally fraught discipline. Some tribes wishing to
keep their language from outsiders for cultural or religious reasons have
retained researchers on the condition that their findings remain
unpublished. The control has also persuaded aging speakers — who grew up in
an age when they were often punished at school for speaking their language
— to collaborate with outside experts.
“There are more people out there who can talk, but they don’t come
forward,” said Ms. Wyatt, who with her sister, Jane Wyatt, 67, meets with
linguists twice a week. “I was like that, too. My daughter convinced me I
should do it.”
Nearly all the 300 Native American languages once spoken in North America
have died or are considered critically endangered. For many tribes,
especially the dozens of tiny tribes in California that spoke distinct
dialects and experienced dislocation and intermarriage like their
counterparts in other states, language is considered central to their
“The whole reason that outsiders even knew we were a people is because we
have our own language,” said Kim Lawhon, 30, who organizes the weekly
classes and started running an immersion class for prekindergarten and
kindergarten students at Coarsegold Elementary School last year. “Really,
our sovereignty, the core of it, is language.”
There was also a more practical matter. Tribes have asserted their right to
build casinos in areas where their language is spoken, and have used
language to try to fend off potential rivals.
The Chukchansi are opposing plans by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono
Indians, whose traditional land lies east of here, to build an
off-reservation casino about 30 miles southwest of here. In an interview at
the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino here, where he was introducing a new
game, Big Buck Hunter Pro, Reggie Lewis, chairman of the Tribal Council,
said Chukchansi and other tribes belonging to the Yokut Indian group in
this area shared common words.
“But the Mono language, it’s totally unintelligible to us,” Mr. Lewis said.
“You have to establish the cultural or ancestral ties to a place to open a
casino there, and language is a way to do it.”
The 2,000-slot-machine casino, which opened in 2003, yields $50 million in
annual revenues, according to the Tribal Council. Each of the tribe’s 1,200
members receives a $300 monthly stipend, with those 55 and older also
getting free health insurance and other benefits.
The gambling revenues have also intensified political infighting here as
they have in many other places. Violence erupted early this year after a
disputed election for the Tribal Council.
According to the National Indian Gaming Association, 184 tribes with
gambling operations took in $29.2 billion in 2010 and made more than $100
million in charitable donations.
Jessica R. Cattelino, an expert on Indian gambling at the University of
California, Los Angeles, said it was not “until the late 1990s that with
electronic games we begin to see revenues sufficient to allow tribes to
explore options for major philanthropy.”
Tribes have become increasingly sophisticated in their gift giving,
focusing on their culture and language while often setting the research
“Tribes can control their own intellectual property rights,” said Erin
Debenport, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has worked
with Pueblo tribes in the state, including those who do not allow
researchers to publish written examples of their language.
The Chukchansi, who had been donating about $200,000 a year to Fresno
State’s football program, will reallocate the money to the linguistics
“How do we justify supporting athletics when our language is dying?” said
Ms. Lawhon, the kindergarten teacher.
Ms. Lawhon had tried to restore the language with the Wyatt sisters and
some other community members here, but decided to reach out to Fresno
State’s linguistics department for help three years ago.
Chris Golston, who was the department chairman at the time and had been on
the faculty for 15 years, had long dreamed of working with one of the local
tribes. But given the sensitivity surrounding the research of Indian
languages, an older colleague had advised him that the only strategy was to
wait to be approached.
“After 15 years, I thought this was possibly the worst advice in the world,
but one day three years ago they just called up,” Mr. Golston said.
Four of Fresno’s experts, who had been working with the Chukchansi in their
spare time for the past three years, will be able to devote half of their
work schedule to the language thanks to the grant, the largest in the
On a recent afternoon at Fresno State, Holly Wyatt met with two linguists
to try to decipher a five-minute recording that they had found here a month
earlier. Two women were heard playing a local game in the 1957 recording,
which excited Mr. Golston because it was the “closest to conversation” of
the various examples in their possession.
As the linguists played snippets of the tape over and over, Ms. Wyatt
slowly made out their meaning. The game revolved around a man climbing up a
tree and taking care not to fall.
“What do you get out of that, Holly?” Mr. Golston asked about a difficult
“That one word has me confused,” Ms. Wyatt said. “I don’t know what it is.”
She cradled her head in her right hand and shut her eyes.
Maybe some words were already lost. The women on the tape spoke fast, Ms.
Wyatt said later. Her hearing was not getting any better, she said, and a
hearing aid did not help. The words the linguists kept introducing sounded
familiar, but some just refused to be extricated from her mind’s recesses.
“It’s pressure,” she said, “because they’ve come up with a lot of words
that I haven’t heard in years.”
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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