(Fair warning: extensive discussion of Native California languages ensues; further fair warning: this is not the full story, I can't possibly tell the full story here, but I don't want anyone to think that I'm short-changing this one without knowing it, and I don't in any way claim to speak for any Native people -- this is about my experience doing this thing I'm doing.)
Once upon a time, before anyone of any sort of Indo-European descent came to what is now California, there were a lot of people living here, speaking a lot of languages. How many? Well, easily over a hundred. And I'm not talking dialects here, where people all understood each other (think the difference between California and New York Englishes), although all of the languages had their own dialects. I'm talking languages. Related languages as distinct as French and Spanish. Other, more distantly related languages (think English and Hindi). And many languages that were in no way related at all (think English and Mandarin). Some have argued that this diversity made pre-contact California the third most linguistically diverse area in the world (extra points for those who know what the first two would be).
This linguistic diversity existed for a very very long time. In some parts of what is now California, completely unrelated languages existed side-by-side for milennia, each changing at its own rate and in its own way, each with speakers who were living in peace (and often sharing all kinds of cultural ceremonies) with one another. Each of these languages was and is the product of thousands of years of cultural heritage, of a people who have a history, an ethnobotanical system, medical and religious practice, stories, jokes, songs, a way of living in and with their worlds.
Things have changed. Of those 100+ languages, fewer than fifty now have speakers. And in most cases, the languages that are lucky enough to have speakers only have a handful, and those speakers tend to be elderly. What happened? Well, I'm guessing that a lot of you know some of the history of how the indigenous people of what is now the United States were and are treated, although I'm always surprised to find how little my students know of the details (for example, almost none of them know that, until the beginning of the 1900's, the U.S. government reimbursed people's expenses if they went hunting Indians; guns, ammo, food, horses, everything; they don't teach that in fourth grade California history). What a lot of people also don't know is how long some of the more drastic government policies regarding Native Americans and their languages and cultures went on (and, in some cases, can still be said to be going on). I have worked with elders who were taken forcibly from their parents and brought to government-run boarding schools. They remember being beaten, or made to kneel on broomsticks, for being caught speaking their languages on the playground. A huge proportion of those students refused to carry their languages on, so desperately did they desire to prevent their children from experiencing such painful abuses. Seeing signs on restaurant windows that read, "No dogs or Indians allowed" is the kind of thing that goes far towards dissuading people from openly speaking a language which identifies them as an outcast.
This history of language loss is not unique to California. Of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today, linguists estimate that 90% will become endangered in the next century. And 50% of those languages will be moribund, meaning that no children are learning that language in the home; once intergenerational transmission is interrupted, there is one generation left to circumvent language loss. This kind of linguistic decimation is unprecedented in the documented history of humankind.
During the 1800s and 1900s in the U.S., anthropologists and linguists (they were once really the same thing) felt it was their duty to document these "disappearing" languages and cultures. I put the "disappearing" in quotes, because so many times Tribes who were labeled as "dead" by, say, Kroeber, were not. It's one of the dark humor jokes that I've heard many times over the past 15 years, "We're not dead yet!" It's like a bad Monty Python skit.
Twenty or so years ago, a number of groups coalesced (not just here, but world-wide) around finding ways to break the cycle of language loss, and of working with the last speakers of California's languages to help them to teach those languages to another generation of Tribal members. The same linguistic diversity that makes California such a unique area in the world also made the revitalization process much more difficult than it's been in places like New Zealand and Hawai'i (and Israel), where the states in question had one language to focus on. Here, there are at least 50. There are some amazing programs in place that have been tremendously successful, but that's a story for another day.
This week is about a different group of people. It's about those people whose languages of heritage have no speakers. Almost twelve years ago, a woman who had been involved in language restoration programs, whose own language had no speakers, asked, "What about us?" And one of my advisors, working with a group called the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, came up with an answer. That answer is the workshop I'm at. The first year we did it, it was called The Lonely Hearts Language Club, but that was deemed too depressing, and it's now called the Breath of Life Language Restoration Workshop. The goal of the week is to introduce people from California's Tribes to the insanely extensive holdings of the UC Berkeley archives (arguably the largest collection of linguistic and material artifacts drawn from Native Californians in the world), and to teach them what they need to know to interpret and use those materials in their efforts to learn and pass on their languages.
And it's beautiful.
The first year of this workshop, I was a raw graduate student, serving as a mentor to a man who was working to gather materials on his language. We went to the Bancroft Library (where you can only bring in a single pencil), and the Berkeley Language Center, and the Hearst Museum. At each place, the archivists were, for the first time, able to share their archives with the descendants of the "disappeared" cultures. I don't know who or what they were expecting, but it wasn't what they got. Instead of quietly grateful folks, coming hat in hand to see the artifacts held in trust for them by an intimidating University, they got people who were simultaneously touched to the core to hear their languages spoken on crackling wax cylinder recordings, to see baskets woven by their aunties and grandmothers, and pissed as hell that they didn't grow up hearing their parents speaking their languages, that they couldn't touch the baskets with their bare hands. They were angry that these treasures were sleeping in the dark, words unspoken, regalia unworn. That these vital, living parts of their cultures were treated as artifacts, treated with mercury, untouchable and untouched for years. They cried to see them and hear them, and they were crying from joy and anger. I don't think that was at all what anyone had expected. But it was powerful, and moving, and it started something that has grown with each passing year.
If I had a penny for every time someone has asked me, "But wouldn't the world be a better place if we all just spoke one language", I'd be a rich woman. But of all the people who have asked me that question, none, not a single one, has ever intended that universal language to be anything other than the language that they grew up speaking. Never. No English speaker has ever walked up to me and said, "I think that we'd all get along better if we spoke the same language, and frankly, there's a heckuva lot of Mandarin speakers out there, so I think we'd better go with that." It's hard, for anyone who has grown up speaking a dominant world language like English, to truly understand what it would mean to never be able to speak or hear your language again. I tell my students to imagine knowing that all of the stories of their youth, with their puns and their inside jokes, could no longer be told as they had heard them. That the prayers that mean so much to them, if they practice a religion, would never be understood by anyone else. That the lullabies that their mothers sang them would be nothing more than untranslatable sounds to their children. Given that there are people who live in my part of the state who pitch fits at the thought that their child might have to take a Spanish class, or hear Spanish spoken in a classroom, due to the (imagined) threat that Spanish poses to English (and there's excellent evidence that English in the United States is in no way threatened by any language), I have no idea why anyone would think it's reasonable to assume that Native people would be any more sanguine about losing their languages.
Because it isn't.
And they're not.
Next time: What can we do about it?