Monday, March 2, 2009

"Breathing Language"

My sister Louise and I attended the "Breath of Life" Native language conference/workshop last June, and recently had our stories about that published in News From Native California. My friend Dean Radar posted the scanned first page above on FaceBook, so I "borrowed" it for this blog, as it seems to bring a lot of things full circle.

Here are the articles we each wrote. To read the poem I wrote at the workshop (in Esselen and English), see last June's post (Sunday, 6/18/08). It also appeared in this issue of NNC.

Breathing Language
by Louise J. Miranda Ramirez

I began thinking about my native language in 1997 with a Xeroxed copy of Kroeber’s notebook number 26. I felt so good reading those words, knowing that my ancestors could hear and understand me. Then one day I read an article about language with Wes Studi, the actor, teaching his children their native language. The article had several internet links and I found Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival.

I registered to attend the Breath of Life Conference. I was nervous since I had applied for a scholarship and was worried that I might be too old at age 55 to learn a new language - would I be wasting their money and time? I was tempted to back out but kept praying to the creator, ancestors, Josie and Tiara to help me, to give me the ability to learn, understand and retain what I would be taught.

I was advised in advance that my mentor would be David L. Shaul, so I started researching his name on the internet. I found several papers written by him and various others through the years. As I read them, my nervousness grew; I knew that I would never be able to understand the expert of my Esselen Language. I copied, and then read these papers over and over, having the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary next to me just to understand the English!

Finally the day arrived; on a Sunday in June 2006 my husband drove me from our home in San Jose to University of Berkeley. The welcoming session was interesting as we all tried to phonetically write our first name, our introduction to the strange alphabets and diacritical marks used by linguists in an attempt to capture exact sounds for each language. LeAnne Hinton, the guiding force behind Breath of Life, went over the jam-packed schedule for the week, which included group seminars, small group study groups, and trips to research facilities like the Hearst Museum, the UCB library special collections and microfilm rooms, the basket collection, and so on, where we could learn how to find still more language materials for our tribal groups. We all took time to introduce ourselves. But, after listening to each story it was unbelievable that many these people were California Indians and like me up in age and ready to learn their language.

Monday morning arrived and classes began; my mentor would not be in until after lunch so I sat and listened to everything happening. To me it seemed as everyone knew their mentors and knew their language already! I felt even more lost. David Shaul arrived after noon and I greeted him and gave him a gift. He said, “I’m here to teach you, so please ask questions.” And we were off on the most incredible week of my life.

I was amazed by his knowledge of my language; I was even more amazed that he spoke and taught in a way that I understood him. Other than 1 year of Spanish in high school, 40 years ago, I had never studied language, and the complicated linguistic materials handed out to us had seemed almost incomprehensible. But David wouldn’t let me be intimidated, and pretty soon I was determined to learn every single thing he could teach me.

It never occurred to me that I might not be able to do that in only one week. Everyday we worked hours beyond other students and their mentors. Since none of the information in the tour resources was about on Esselen (one of the California languages least researched), we did not take many tours; our time was spent working on language that David had already collected. The program gave us homework each day. When they asked for two words, we gave sentences; we were asked for two sentences, and we gave them a whole conversation.

During the evenings while most mentors were with other mentors, David and I worked long hours into the night. Other participants needing to complete their homework would come and ask David for help as well, he was ever so kind and always assisted. One night he shared his knowledge of cultural music with many of us.

The Esselen language is considered to be the first native language of California to have become extinct. Kroeber believed that the Esselen were culturally extinct, therefore many people assumed that our people were extinct as well. At “Breath of Life,” another mentor asked David, “Did you ever think you would be teaching Esselen?” David’s response was, “No!” I somehow think that he too, did not know that we are here, wanting to reclaim what was taken from us.

At the end of the conference David and I translated a prayer I wrote, plus we translated a 100 year old transcription of a Coyote story which I read to all the students, mentors, faculty and guest without David present, since his flight was on Friday night. He had more confidence in my being able to read and explain than I had.

I was exhausted at the end of the conference; I slept all the way home. Then the real work started.

My heart and head were filled with excitement. I lived and breathed language. My husband would leave for work and return and I was still working on language in my pajamas. I typed all of my notes and started to make a dictionary so I could work on translating other stories. I recorded every word I could find, even if I had a similar word but the spelling was different.

What I realize now is that most of what I had learned this first year was words and simple sentence structure. I was left with the desire to understand word structure and to be able to learn word creation since we have so few words recorded. My goal is to have written material available when my fellow tribal members are ready to learn, our language.

Second year Breath of Life left me confused and questioning what I had previously learned. David could only attend three days, and most of the time we worked on the dictionary. For the first time my sister, Deby attended the conference as well. Ruth, a student mentor, was assigned to assist us after David left. David provided us with a lesson plan from a book which I had found; he had worked on this book in 1992. The lesson plan was similar but different from his earlier teachings, and sometimes contradicted what I had learned before. I began to understand that this is why linguists are crazy: everything changes all the time!

I understand that the structure of our language is subject, object and verb (SOV) but in my own Esselen writing, I also use our words in English structure. I spoke with other BOL attendees and have found that adapting our languages to work today is a very controversial. Word creation is limited to combining words that we already have, such as; since we have no word for tear/s a combination of Esselen words for cry and water would make tear/s: shawa-asanax. One person said that her tribe had decided there would be no new word construction, so it makes it difficult to fit today’s experiences into their language. Others are working to create words to be able to speak about the contemporary world (much as the Navajo code-talkers did when they created words for use in WWII).

After much intensive studying of my language, I believe that it might be easier to create new prayers, stories and so on, using Esselen words in an English sentence structure. I also think that having a definite word for translation (rather than several words that change with various contexts) would be easier to teach. Yet, I also believe that sentences that already exist should be used also.

I believe that using the words differently from our ancestors doesn’t change the language. Do we choose not to change our own language for the satisfaction of a linguist to return an “extinct” language? Hasn’t the English language changed from all the thee’s and thou’s? All languages change throughout the years: new words are created, definition and usage change. One example in my day would be the word “thong,” which meant sandal, not exactly what it is today!

Breath of Life has brought all of this complexity and controversy to my attention. I never thought I would be studying language usage, even less trying to return it to my people. Spending time with other California Indians recovering their languages has made my language a quest, a gift that I can leave generations to come. The purpose and direction of my life has changed so much because of Breath of Life; I find myself using my language even when I’m alone. Just speaking or thinking in Esselen gives me a peace, an understanding of my people long ago. When I use it for reburials I believe that the Ancestors can actually understand that the words come from my heart. The meanings of my words mean more to me than speaking the same words in English. There is a strong spiritual bond that I have with the past and am creating with the future. If I do nothing more than return the words to my community, I will be happy.

As a federally non-recognized Tribe we do not have funds available to pay a linguist to work with us. Breath of Life is providing us with the knowledge of items that exist for the return of our language, without access to this information our research would be difficult. Breath of Life has shown me that language revitalization is possible.

I believe with work and continued guidance I can successfully bring back the Excelen Welel.

Lechs hesiha manu lex efexe! - We work for our people!

Learning How To Fish
By Deborah A. Miranda

A few Junes ago, my sister Louise left a message on my cell phone. “This is incredible,” she said, in a voice happier than I had ever heard her use before, “I’m learning new words every HOUR, I seem to understand them even before David explains what they mean, I wrote a prayer, we study all day and all night … I never thought this could happen, but our language is out there, we can learn it! I’m so excited!”

It was as if someone had given her the keys to the Universe and said, come on in, which door do you want to try first?

I’d heard about the Breath of Life Conference for years, and encouraged Louise to apply. After all, she lived in California, and I was way out in Virginia; after all, she was involved with the tribal council and meetings, and I was just a poet, an academic, dealing with the theories about indigeneity. After all, I thought, learning Esselen (or Chumash, our grandmother’s language) was about a billion light years beyond me, a woman who had almost had a nervous breakdown trying to survive three years of Spanish!

Let me explain right here that my sister Louise is brilliant. Two years after her first Breath of Life Conference (which is held every other year), she had compiled the first Esselen-English dictionary, co-authoring it with her mentor, David Shaul. Louise accomplished this not with an academic degree, not with government funding, not with a fellowship or grant, and not with any technical support or materials other than her own PC. She accomplished this mammoth task while sitting in her livingroom, sifting through research papers, copies of field notes, and with several short visits from her mentor, who was usually away working on an entirely different project. She accomplished this while running for Chair of the Ohlone-Esselen Nation, caring for a granddaughter, husband, elderly mother and managing a household both before and after knee replacement surgery!

And that is the miracle of Breath of Life, and the goal of LeAnne Hinton, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of linguistics, co-founder of the conference and author of the "How to Keep Your Language Alive" (2002), along with a faithful band of linguists and students who volunteer their time, expertise, and encouragement.

“Give a person a fish, and she’ll eat for the day,” LeAnne says, “but teach her to fish and she’ll feed herself and her family forever.”

Breath of Life does not – and could not – teach California Indians their tribal languages in one week. What Breath of Life does do is even better – it presents hungry people with the tools and materials they need to learn how to fish for themselves.

I know this first-hand, having accompanied my sister to Breath of Life this past June.

Every fishing hole has its quirks, little tricks to finding the best fishes, special hooks that work there but not over here, and secret techniques passed down only to a lucky few. It’s the same with trying to learn a California Indian language: some libraries have certain field notes; others don’t. One linguist’s field notes are on microfilm but only at one particular branch of one particular school; another linguist’s research has been processed and published as articles, but in obscure journals. Some “field notes” are actually letters and journals kept by explorers, missionaries or entrepreneurs, and are scattered all over the planet in various museums, collections, libraries. Some primary materials – the actual notes themselves – are available at some tiny nondescript place you’d never suspect.

But the one thing that is guaranteed? It’s never all in one place, it’s never all perfectly clear, and it’s never going to be easy.

So LeAnne and her magnificent crew of volunteer linguists, students and museum/archive/library staff give those who wish to learn a crash course in how to do research on California Indian languages, with specific focus on your language and the materials close at hand in California, especially UC Berkeley. Conference goals are:

(a) to guide participants to the university resources available for their use;
(b) to help the participants identify and locate the published and unpublished notes and audiotapes made by linguists and anthropologists on their languages;
(c) for participants to learn the fundamentals of linguistic analysis, including how to read phonetic writing;
(d) for participants to learn ways they can use linguistic materials and publications to create materials for language restoration.

Not on that list but definitely accomplished: the revitalization of California Indian lives – human beings whose hearts and souls are renewed, woken up, given the means to express ourselves. This past June, BOL welcomed over sixty participants representing more than 25 different California Indian languages and major dialects of languages. That’s a lot of Indian souls literally given the “breath of life,” and taking it home to their communities and families. That’s a lot of joy and empowerment to spread around.

Each of the conference’s seven days are planned for maximum exposure to language and cultural resources, starting with the conference location at UC Berkeley, which according to LeAnne Hinton, has the largest collections of California Indian language and cultural materials in the world. What I called “how-to tours” to major collections always included not just a general introduction to the materials, but hands-on instructions for using those materials to research a specific tribal language and/or culture. The Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, an archival information site at Doe Library, the Berkeley Language Center, and the Bancroft Library’s extensive collection of microfilms were all on our list of field trips.

My sister Louise hadn’t gone on these tours her first year, being totally immersed in the language materials her mentor brought with him; this year, she accompanied me to the Survey room and together we discovered a folder full of Esselen words and phrases not even our mentor had found.

We looked at each other across the table, hands full of papers, grins on our faces. Ha! We landed that sucker!

The whole week was like that. A general daily schedule started off with breakfast together in the seminar room, followed by a lecture about linguistic analysis, with homework due the next day. At noon we broke for lunch, then headed off to various tours and study groups till dinner time; in the evenings, study groups (frequently led by our mentors and their assistants) went on late in to the night. Meanwhile, we also worked on our individual projects to present to the whole group on the last morning.

Did I say we were hungry Indians? We were starving! Starving for our languages.

In the course of seven days, I heard California Indians using their languages to speak prayers, sing songs, create original poems and stories, retell oral histories, croon lullabies, make jokes, invent picture books, family scrapbooks – one woman even reveled in finding an expression of extreme displeasure in a colloquial phrase! I realized later that virtually every aspect of culture was present: religion, music, oral and written literatures, linguistic play … don’t try telling a Breath of Life participant that our cultures are dead.

We know now: you just gotta know the right place to drop that line.

The Breath of Life Conference is sponsored by UC Berkeley's linguistics department and its Survey of California and Other Indian Languages research center and archive, in partnership with the non-profit group Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. For more information, go to or email LeAnne Hinton at . The next BOT will be held in June 2010 at UC Berkeley, but other language events are ongoing.

Useful books for those interested in language recovery:
Saving Languages, by Lenore Grenoble and Lindsay Whaley (Cambridge
University Press)
The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, by Leanne Hinton
and Ken Hale (Academic Press)
Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages, by Leanne Hinton
(Heyday Books)

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