Native Americans work to revitalize California’s indigenous languages

California was once home to over 300 Native American dialects and as many as 90 languages, making it the most linguistically diverse state in the US. Today, only about half of those languages are still with us, according to the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, or AICLS.

“Many of the California tribes were really negatively impacted with the Gold Rush and tribes were devastated and a lot of the languages have been lost,” said Janeen Antoine, who teaches a language class at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. She teaches Lakota, which is spoken in South Dakota where she is from. “There’s a very strong effort within the California peoples to revive their languages.”

L. Frank Manriquez was a part of the California language revitalization movement, which began about 20 years ago, after many people noticed languages were disappearing with the eldest generation of fluent speakers. “We’ve been studied enough, now we have to learn,” said Manriquez who belongs to several Southern California tribes. “Sure there are scientists who are going to go deeper and deeper and find that vowel for us, but there’s enough out there for us natives to actually make language from.”

For over two decades, Manriquez has been visiting the archives at the Phoebe A. Heart Museum of Anthropology, which holds the largest collection of California Native American artifacts in the world, matching artifacts with language. She says it is common for many to become overwhelmed by the loss that these archives signify, but for her, she feels inspired to find each artifact’s meaning in her ancestors’ culture. She says she will look to neighboring tribes’ language if it something is no longer available in her own.

“It’s the most concrete tie to language that there is — these things, all of these pieces. Artifacts, they hold the language just as if they were a person holding the language,” said Manriquez. “It’s up to me then to work hard and get that language out of them.”

A work-in-progress map of California Native American tribes. Courtesy of L. Frank Manriquez.

The greater Bay Area alone is home to dozens of different Native American dialects. With many tribes no longer having fluent speakers, and because recordings of languages are sometimes kept private due to their containing personal information, reviving Native American languages can be challenging.

“You can get some members of the same family arguing over a pronunciation, and it will tear the family apart even further than it has been in these past 500 years,” said Manriquez. “We try to ease that by saying we’re kind of coming from ground zero here.  If we’re going to dance, then we are going to have to find those who are dancing. If we’re going to speak the language, we are going to have to find those who are speaking.”

For many Native Americans like Dean Hoaglin, who is the PEI (Prevention and Early Intervention) outreach coordinator at Suscol Intertribal Council in Napa, preserving language in prayer and traditional ceremonies are the most important.

“As a Native person, the way I was taught, the way we communicate through our prayers is most meaningful. Not to say that we can’t off those prayers in English and if we don’t know the language that’s what we do,” said Hoaglin, who belongs to the Coast Miwok, Pomo, Wailaki, and Yuki tribes of Northern California. “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 agrees. She says she prays in her native language when visiting the artifacts, as part of her offering.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to be fluent enough 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?” asked Manriquez. “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.”

You can find more information on reviving California Native American languages on AICLS’ website.

One Comment

  1. Elin Emilsson

    The whole point of language revitalization is the appropriation of the language by the holders of the culture that is identified with it. In this day and age, the lessons from indigenous cultures of the american continent are vital for our survival as a human race: the deep understanding of the relationship between humans and nature, as well as the understanding of the preeminence of cooperation, is vital not only to preserve the identities of the indigenous people, but also to instill in all cultures these perspectives.

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