For 100 years anthropologists have recorded cultural
memories of Indians
BERKELEY – Quirina Luna-Costillas grew up thinking the language of her Mutsun ancestors was gone, lost in the flood of disease and destruction that ravaged California Indians.
With the language went identity. Other children would ask her, with the bluntness of youth, “What are you?” She’d tell them and get a blank stare: “What’s that?”
She later stumbled across a book by a Spanish missionary that listed hundreds of Mutsun (moot-SOON) phrases.
It might as well have been Greek.
Luna-Costillas turned detective, hunting for echoes of the almost vanished dialect. The trail was pretty cold; the last fluent speaker of Mutsun died in 1930.
But there were clues to be found in the vast archives of the University of California, Berkeley, where for nearly a century anthropologists have been recording the cultural memories of Indians who survived the disasters of colonization and the Gold Rush.
Six years after she began her quest, Luna-Costillas and a small group of other Mutsuns have scraped together a nodding acquaintance with their ancient language, putting together a dictionary with the help of a linguistic professor and translating the Dr. Seuss classic “Green Eggs and Ham” to read to their own children.
This weekend, Luna-Costillas and fellow language detectives gathered in Berkeley to mark the 50th anniversary of the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, a project dedicated to saving the language of California’s past.
“When people lose a language they lose, we all lose, a body of knowledge and a way of looking at the world that’s really important,” says Leanne Hinton, survey director. “To the participants themselves, language is a symbol of their identity and so it’s a symbol of survival against all odds.”
The race to save dying languages is going on across the United States. Tribes are videotaping elders and, in a few cases, children are being taught their ancient tongue in immersion programs.
In California, 85 California languages are believed to be endangered or dormant.
It’s no mystery why.
The ranks of native speakers were decimated as tribes were forced from their land, ravaged by Western diseases brought by immigrants and hunted down for bounties. Some estimates put the pre-European Indian population in California as high as 300,000. In 1900, census figures recorded fewer than 16,000.
For survivors, Indian languages were taboo, stamped out as children were sent to live with non-Indian families or dispatched to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking anything but English.
Berkeley has targeted 50 endangered languages, running weeklong language restoration workshops every other summer for the past 10 years.
The workshops offer a crash course in linguistics and match language learners with a mentor, usually a graduate student.
The workshops also show participants how to search through the stacks and stacks of field notes filed by Berkeley researchers over the years.
The history of Berkeley’s Indian research is not without controversy. This is where Ishi, the man known as “The Last Wild Indian in America,” was taken in by pioneering anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1911. Ishi lived in a university museum for the four years until he died of what was believed to be tuberculosis. He had asked that his remains not be autopsied, but scientists did it anyway, sending his brain to the Smithsonian, where it remained in storage until California Indians reclaimed it two years ago.
Hinton says it’s likely the earliest linguists and anthropologists saw their work as pure research. Their legacy is a nuts-and-bolts guide to the past for descendants of the people who talked to interviewers about everything from tribal myths to favorite recipes.
“The notes did more for us than just the language. It connected us and it helped us culturally understand some of the things that our ancestors practiced on a daily basis,” says Lisa Carrier, a Mutsun working with Luna-Costillas on their recently formed Mutsun Foundation.
One day, Luna-Costillas found her great-great-grandmother, named in the archives as one of the interview subjects.
“It was wonderful,” she says.
Luna-Costillas, Carrier and four other Mutsun Indians were in Berkeley this week for the fifth session, which leads into the weekend conference with participants presenting some of the things they’ve learned.
The Mutsuns, with the help of their mentor linguist Natasha Warner, now a professor at the University of Arizona, are now working on a coloring book for children.
In an interesting side note, their work was aided by a 1977 dissertation on Mutsun grammar by Marc Okrand, a Berkeley linguist who went on to create the Klingon language for TV’s Star Trek.
The Mutsun Indians, part of the larger group of Ohlone, were among the many tribes that lost all their land; they are now petitioning the federal government for recognition as a tribe.
That makes having a common language even more important, says Carrier.
“I remember being in school and my friends — they were Aztec — we had show and tell and they could bring things. We didn’t have anything to share.”
Luna-Costillas isn’t fluent in Mutsun, but she speaks phrases and tries to speak Mutsun to her four children as much as possible. “It gives them identity. They know they’re Mutsun.”
Like many protective mothers, one of her mantras is “don’t touch,” which sounds like “ek-way ta-tay” in Mutsun.
A few years back, she says, something extraordinary happened.
Her third child, Jonathan, spoke his first word.
It was “ta-tay.”