What does it take to reawaken a Native language?

This is a question that hardworking, dedicated tribal staff throughout California and many other regions are living every day. The ongoing efforts of my friends and colleagues Julian Lang in Karuk territory, Loren Bommelyn in Tolowa Dee-Ni, Nakia Zavalla in Samala[Chumash], and Jennifer Malone for the Wukchumni, are accompanied by hundreds of other people in tribes and tribal communities.

The story of how teachers partnered with linguists in the Round Valley School District to bring back Wailaki and Yuki – languages with no living speakers – is particularly poignant and inspiring, given that all the schools in the district now offer both languages, and the teachers are doing everything they can to stay one step ahead of the students.

What does it take to revive a language? Your entire life.

My latest article for PBS SoCal (KCET News) focuses on the challenges, hurdles, and successes of Native teachers in California, assisted by the visionary nonprofit. Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival and recently passed legislation.

URL: https://www.kcet.org/news-community/what-does-it-take-to-reawaken-a-native-language

During the editing process, my editor challenged me when I stated that California has more than 100 federally recognized tribes and 100 non-federally recognized tribes. She was citing internet sources that were inaccurate, that listed only 55 non-federally recognized tribes (a figure that’s been tossed around long enough even for tribal leaders, who should know better, to repeat it), or only 81 non-federally recognized tribes (a number based on which tribes are in a bureaucratic process to try and prove themselves, a ridiculous endeavor that costs tens of thousands of dollars, years, heartache, and stress).

Only Wikipedia cares enough to make a full list of Unrecognized Tribes in the United States.

I counted 110 tribal communities on that list.

The first third of the list. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unrecognized_tribes_in_the_United_States#California

Home to over 200 tribes and tribal communities speaking over 80 distinct languages,
California is both a biocultural diversity hotspot and the epicenter of a linguistic crisis.

What few of us realize is how many Native languages are threatened, endangered, or “sleeping” (tribes avoid the use of the word “extinct” – with all its horrible connotations), just within California.

Every. Single. One.

We are just as likely to lose a language as we are to lose a species.

Yet very few of the conservation organizations I have belonged to, or worked for – the Center for Biological Diversity, The Nature Conservancy, Worldwide Fund for Nature, Conservation International, etc. – concern themselves with language loss. Some of these organizations are coming around to recognize traditional ecological knowledge, and the value of protecting cultural resources, but nowhere with the intensity or on the scale that we need.

This is an all-hands-on-deck crisis.

Once again, tribes are leading the way, with spirit and verve and creativity and blood and sweat and tears. Most of us don’t hear about the work, because it takes place on reservations, or in remote school classrooms, or in invitation-only workshops, or during one-on-one lessons.

I am grateful to KCET for the many articles they’ve sponsored on California tribes and tribal communities, and for helping me get an article written that I’ve been working on since 2015, when I was teaching a San Jose State University and my students were creating animated videos featuring stories in Native languages. (The full playlist is on this link.)

So which organizations are focusing on addressing the language crisis?

There are four nonprofits I support – three on the West Coast, and one on the East Coast [of the Americas] – that have recognized the indigenous language crisis and are committed to addressing it.

Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS): “Helping Native communities create new speakers.”

Terralingua: “Our vision – A just, equitable, sustainable world in which the biocultural diversity of life is valued, protected, and perpetuated for generations to come.”

7000 Languages: “We envision a world where all communities have the resources and opportunities to reclaimstrengthen, and revitalize their endangered languages.”

Global Oneness Project: “We are a free multimedia platform for educators and students. Through our immersive storytelling and curricula, we explore the deeper issues facing humanity. “

We can all contribute to keeping endangered languages alive.

Just learning a few words in the indigenous language of the First Peoples’ whose territory you now live on, is a first step.

Ron Montez, tribal elder and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, teaching us to count to ten in Eastern Pomo.

If learning a new language as an adult seems too daunting, well, welcome to the world of every tribal member in California.

Another step every one of us can take is to forego one instance of buying more stuff for ourselves or others, and instead make a donation to one of the organizations I listed above. (And yes, even a one-time donation of $50 helps.)

As Carly Tex, the executive director of AICLS notes: “It is also important to support the Breath of Life and Seeds of Language Mini-Grant fund. It is a great way for communities to acquire access and copies of archival documents relating to their own languages. Participants visit a university like U.C. Berkeley where they team up with a linguistics mentor to learn the grammar, the ethologies, and to hear audio and video recordings of elders from their families and communities. After participating in this program, these communities are able to continue working together in their homes homes, to acquire their languages at their own pace and, with hope, share what they’ve learned with their communities.”

Ron is one of the recipients of Breath of Life scholarships who has returned to their communities to bring their Native language back to the Rez through classes, games, videos, and retreats.

I’m learning Eastern Pomo now.

One word at a time.

One thought on “What does it take to reawaken a Native language?

  1. Congrats- Interesting, informative and obviously well researched article. Really great to read about the efforts and multi-generational learning underway. Cc

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