Student video revives ancient language

Animated videos posted on YouTube are helping to revive ancient languages, nowadays spoken mostly by tribal elders. Hupa, Pomo, Miwok, and Wukchumni are among hundreds of languages native to tribes and tribal communities throughout California. According to criteria set by the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), every tribal language in California is considered threatened or endangered.

One such video, “Animal Gamblers,” a story from the northern coastal tribe of Kashaya Pomo, involves over a dozen different mammal, bird, and insects playing a traditional hand game, one still played among tribes using bones or shells. The Native language spoken in the video and the native species featured in the story exemplify biocultural diversity: the combination of biological and cultural variation. California, with its hundreds of tribes, tribal communities, and ecosystems is a biocultural diversity hotspot.

Students Lisa Crane, Shifa Molla, and Anna Shein co-produced the video, based on a traditional Kashaya story told and sung by elder Herman James and recorded by ethnographer Robert Oswalt in 1958. Each animal featured in the film – grizzly bear, skunk, coyote, kingfisher, hawk, blowfly and others – is portrayed by a shadow puppet accurately representing a carefully researched native Californian species. “We figured our professor would know the difference, so we had to be on our game!” laughs Lisa.

The elegant design of the video allows viewers to experience the film in three different ways: watching the story performed through shadow puppetry, hearing the animal voices and the story line spoken in Kashaya Pomo, and reading the translation in English accompanying each scene.

The students came up with the idea of using an ancient storytelling technique – shadow puppetry – to honor the ancient roots of the Kashaya language and to inspire viewers. “We really wanted people to feel immersed in the language,” says Lisa, “the repetition in the story really helps people [become] familiar with the language, by feeling it and being a part of it.”

“One of the main audiences for our film is children, since they are the key to restoring lost languages in the future,” explains Shifa. According to UNESCO, the primary criterion determining whether a language will persist is intergenerational language transfer: from grandparents to parents to children. In California, many tribes and tribal communities are working year-round to provide language classes: by offering Native languages online, in evening classes, through apprenticeship programs, and in the case of the Yurok and Tolowa (Smith River Rancheria) tribes, in high school curricula.

The student filmmakers produced the video while enrolled in a general education course offered at San José State University entitled “Nature and World Cultures,” taught by ethnoecologist Dr. Jeanine Pfeiffer. The course educates students on the threats to biocultural diversity – such as cultural assimilation, climate change, and invasive species – and requires students to contribute to solutions to overcome those threats.

Hundreds of Dr. Pfeiffer’s students, working with tribal representatives, have produced micro-documentaries, Wikipedia articles, and bilingual animated videos that directly contribute to conserving biocultural diversity. “After watching our video, we hope people will be interested in learning more about the Kashaya. These are people who are part of our history too,” notes Anna.