Why preserve native languages?

11/25/2015

In the pre-colonial period, there were over 1,000 different tribes in California with over 500 distinct languages. Today, all these languages are highly endangered and some might even be called extinct.

It’s a profound loss. Language is culture and culture is cosmology, and when we lose languages, we lose the worldviews reflected in ancient ways of speaking and a window into the indigenous understanding of reality. In many native tongues, the word for “people” applies equally to plants, animals, streams and mountains, as well as the Earth herself. Before he returned to the ancestors, Coast Miwok and Kashia Pomo wisdom keeper Lanny Pinola, a ranger at the Point Reyes National Seashore, spoke eloquently about honoring the “Weya,” or animating life force that permeates all aspects of the natural world. 

Given the need to resolve the environmental crises now threatening the planet— including global warming, resource depletion, over-population, violent conflict and the litany of planetary dilemmas—a wealth of wisdom lies embedded in the very structure of native speech. Preserving original languages offers immediate access to a lifeway that stood the test of time and successfully sustained traditional peoples for countless generations. That is not to suggest that gatherers and hunters were without their own dark side, but the minimal impact these folks imposed upon the environment speaks for itself.

In the languages that have come to dominate human discourse in just the past five or ten millennia, such as English, contemporary human beings are perceived as separate and above the natural world. Herein lies the heart of the problem. Even the Biblical Eden myth speaks to our having been cast from the primeval garden of plenty, made to multiply and toil in the fields and directed to exercise domination over all other living things. While the accomplishments of science, technology, medicine and all the toys of civilization loom large in the modern mindset, a realistic appraisal of the planet’s present condition does not bode well for the future of our grandchildren.  

In addition to keeping native cultures alive, these first languages hold promise for at least one lens through which modernity might view a path toward conscious transformation and a blueprint for a more sustainable relationship with the Earth. If we sensed a deep and heartful connection with the plants and the animals and the land and the waters, we might refrain from destroying them. Injuring any one element would be experienced as an injury to oneself. 

Gratefully, there is something of a renaissance of native language among California Indian tribes supported by such groups as Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (A.I.C.L.S.), which recently held its biennial “Language is Life” conference in Sanger. This group encourages Master and Apprentice programs, provides resources and teaching activities that serve to revitalize native languages.

As some tribes are getting back on their feet financially, they can afford to support linguistic investment. Several groups have hired professional linguists to help build dictionaries, transcribe old wax-scroll anthropological recordings and help crack the code on unique grammatical rules.  Perhaps even more encouragingly, we see communities investing in programs that teach Native language to the children and young adults.

One of the challenges in the preservation of traditional tongues is to find a way to use the speech on a day-to-day basis. Sky Road Webb has a friend who has covered her home in post-it-notes with the words for things in the Pomo language. A.I.C.L.S. recommends translating activities, such as gathering basket making materials or preparing food, and practicing the expressions for those activities while conducting them.

Another strategy for language revival is to write prayers and compose songs in the old tongue, which provides portability and accessibility to the oral tradition.  One of the songs Sky has been sharing is the “Seven Direction Prayers” in the Tomales Bay dialect of Coast Miwok. 

 

Sky Road Webb, a Sacramento resident, is a descendent of the Tomales Bay Miwok, one of the three primary Coast Miwok linguistic groups that also includes Bodega Bay Miwok and Marin Miwok. John Littleton, a Point Reyes Station resident and a retired educator, is a board member of the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin.