By some measures, California is one of the most linguistically diverse places on Earth—but unless certain steps are taken, that could change.
“Estimates as to how many indigenous languages were spoken here before contact range from 80 to 100,” says the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS) website. “There are 50 indigenous languages that still have one or more native speakers, though these numbers are dwindling fast. There are also at least 30 languages with no native speakers left with descendants who desperately want to regain their languages.”
AICLS, a nonprofit founded in 1992, is one of a number of groups working to revitalize languages in the Golden State.
“Many of the California tribes were really negatively impacted by the Gold Rush and tribes were devastated and a lot of the languages have been lost,” Janeen Antoine, who teaches a Lakota language class at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, told OaklandNorth.net. “There’s a very strong effort within the California peoples to revive their languages.”
L. Frank Manriquez, Acjachemem/Rarámuri/Tongva, has been part of that effort for the past two decades. During that time she has been visiting the archives at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley to match artifacts with language. The museum has plenty of the former—about 1 million California American Indian artifacts, in fact, or about a quarter of the museum’s entire collection.
“It’s the most concrete tie to language that there is,” Manriquez told OaklandNorth.net. “These things have become, in my mind…all of these artifacts are my tribe. They hold the language, just as if they were a person holding the language. It’s up to me then to work hard to get that language out of them.”
Natives are not alone in their attempts to breathe new life into languages. Charli O’Malley is a non-Native studying the Lakota language under Antoine at the Intertribal Friendship House, established in 1955.
“It’s important to me to preserve their culture, their traditions, their history,” said O’Malley. “I know for a fact that if young people aren’t trying to learn it, it’s going to go extinct.”
Language revitalization hasn’t always been a major concern, according to Charlie Toledo, of the Towa Tribe. “Nobody within the United States was thinking about language; we were thinking more about survival,” she said. “The life expectancy of a Native American in the United States was 48. Those were the kinds of issues that were in our mind, not so much language.”
Dean Hoaglin, Coast Miwok/Pomo/Wailaki/Yuki, who works with Toledo at the Suscol Intertribal Council in Napa, sees a connection between language and spirituality.
“I was taught [that] the way we communicate through our prayers is most meaningful,” Hoaglin told OaklandNorth.net. “Not to say that we can’t offer those prayers in English; and if we don’t know the language, that’s what we do. But it’s about the spirit and intent behind our words. Words are words, but it’s about the spirit and intent. So language is very powerful.”
Manriquez, who sings while looking over the artifacts at the museum, agrees.
“I don’t know if we’re ever going to be [able] to have fluent conversations with each other. And looking at all this history—what are we going to put back together with all these little bits that language hooks up?” she asked. “Well, we’re just going to be able to make it to the land of the dead. We’re going to be able to pray, we’re going to be able to pray over our dead, pray for our children. You have to take it back down to what you can do, what one person can do.”
As Carl Sandburg once wrote:
Languages die like rivers.
Words wrapped round your tongue today
And broken to shape of thought
Between your teeth and lips speaking
Now and today
Shall be faded hieroglyphics
Ten thousand years from now.
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