After pandemic hiatus, Native American Language Survival Workshop returns to campus – India Education | Latest Education News | World Education News
In the mid-1990s, Quirina Geary was a cashier at a Safeway store in Madera, California, and a young mother of two. Growing up in a tribal community in California’s Central Valley, she didn’t speak her ancestral Mutsun language and wanted to resolve this issue.
Intimidated, but determined, she headed with her sister, Clara Luna, to UC Berkeley to attend Breath of Life, a biennial workshop in which Native Americans in California join with linguists and other scholars to revitalize Indigenous languages by sharing personal stories, knowledge and archival materials.
There, Geary teamed up with Natasha Warner, then a Berkeley graduate student in linguistics. The two went on to co-author an English-Mutsun dictionary, among other publications. Mutsun is one of the primary languages of the Tamien Nation and other tribes whose respective homelands stretch from southern San Francisco to Monterey Bay and San Benito County. Ascención Solórsano, the last speaker of the first Mutsun language, died in 1930.
“Coming from a rural community with only a high school diploma, we would never have set foot in a university,” recalls Geary. “But when we got to Berkeley, the archivists and everyone there made us feel good.”
Better than okay.
“Without Breath of Life, there would be no Mutsun dictionary,” she added. “We wouldn’t learn our language.”
Breath of life returns
This Sunday, May 22 marks the in-person return of Breath of Life to the Berkeley campus. Now in its 27th year, it was last held at Berkeley in 2018. It went live in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through May 28, the event is sponsored by Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS) and the Berkeley Department of Linguistics. More than 90 people are expected, including Geary, who is a member of the AICLS board of directors and president of the Santa Clara Tamien Nation.
Berkeley professor emeritus of linguistics Leanne Hinton, who co-founded AICLS in 1992 and Breath of Life three years later, is looking forward to meeting members of the Indigenous language revitalization community face-to-face after a four-year hiatus.
“While AICLS and campus archivists have done what they can to virtually bring people together with their languages during these early COVID years, we are so looking forward to meeting in person again for the first time since 2018” , Hinton said.
Indigenous languages represented at the conference will include Chemehuevi, Central Sierra Miwok, Chochenyo, Concow Maidu, Eastern Pomo, Karuk, Lake Miwok, Northern Miwok, Mutsun, Nisenan, Nomlaki, Northern Paiute, Northern Pomo, Patwin, Pacific Coast Athabaskan, Ramaytush, Rumsen, Southern Sierra Miwok, Tachi, Tamien, Tiłhini, Tongva, Washoe and Western Mono.
Their survival is remarkable, given California’s colonial history.
Prior to Spanish colonization and the founding of Mission San Diego in 1769, some 90 native languages and 300 dialects were spoken in present-day California. Subsequently, many tribes were decimated and, over the generations, fewer and fewer members spoke their language.
In recent decades, however, there has been a revival of Indigenous language and culture, thanks in large part to the determination of tribal communities and resources such as Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and Museum of Anthropology. Phoebe A. Hearst, as well as the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, a Berkeley research center that houses the California Language Archive, one of the largest collections of native language materials in North America.
“Learning an ancestral language from documents and records that may have been made by your grandparents and great-grandparents can be rewarding, not only for Native Americans in California, but also for archivists and linguists who dedicate their time to working with the native language. teams,” said Andrew Garrett, a linguistics professor at Berkeley, director of the California Survey and Other Indian Languages.
“It’s that kind of community involvement that makes working at Berkeley so meaningful,” he added.
At Breath of Life, participants will have access to audio tape and wax cylinder recordings, field notes, and other Berkeley language documents and artifacts. For their final project, they can recite poems or prayers, sing songs or perform skits with the words they are learning in their ancestral languages.
“People may not learn a language fluently, but they can gain a strong sense of connection by coming together for certain rituals that take place in their ancestral language,” said Zachary O’Hagan, Director of California Language Archive and Berkeley alumnus with a Ph.D. in linguistics.
A return to the roots of the Native Americans of California
It was this language connection that Geary yearned for when she and Clara Luna ventured north for their first Breath of Life workshop after finding a flyer about it at a local language revitalization event.
They sought to address the cultural alienation they felt as children who spoke no words in their tribal language.
“A lot of people want to learn more about their tribal language and culture when they have kids,” she said. “They want to pass on something to them that they didn’t have, and that was part of my motivation.”
It wasn’t until they started attending Breath of Life that they were able to piece together their linguistic history.
For example, they learned that Josefa Velásquez, their great-great-great-grandmother, had worked with scholars in the early 1900s to preserve the Mutsun language.
As fate would have it, the mentor assigned to the sisters in 1997 didn’t show up, so they teamed up with Warner, then a Berkeley graduate student in linguistics who also wanted to learn Mutsun.
“We eventually had someone with some language training to help us understand the materials we were finding,” Geary recalls.
After the lecture, she carried on a decades-long correspondence with Warner, then a professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona. This resulted in the co-creation of an English-Mutsun dictionary which was published online in 2016.
During this time, Geary became a leader of the Santa Clara Tamien Nation, a linguistics scholar at UC Davis, and a strong advocate for native language revitalization. She also teaches mutsun and writes children’s books. Her husband, Robert Geary, is from the Elem Indian Colony reservation of the Pomo Indians in Lake County, California, where the couple lives. Between them, they have 10 children, aged 11 to 30.
Her schedule is packed, but she’s not too busy to attend next week’s Breath of Life workshop. After all, that’s where it all started.
“This program has really made a difference – not just for me personally, but for us as an Indigenous community that has been scattered and broken apart since our lands were taken from us,” Geary said.
“When you go to Breath of Life, especially as a beginner, you are going to cry with emotion at some point, because you find out that your own grandmother or great-grandmother left information that contributed to the survival of your language, a language you can revive.