Peace in a pod | Society

‘Language keepers’: The last custodians of California’s indigenous tongues

There are the rare occasions, in our overscheduled and detailed lives, when we find ourselves having taken an unplanned turn, and looking up, we have the opportunity to encounter something profound. So it was one lazy afternoon when I clicked, in desultory fashion, on one of the numerous forwards that come my way...and I found myself deep in the redwood forests of California, listening to the music of lost languages.

“I never dreamed that I would finally be... the last fluent speaker... at some point I turned around, and I was alone.”

That’s Loren Bommelyn, the sole remaining fluent speaker of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ language of the indigenous peoples of Northern California.

Imagine that you are the very last speaker of a language that holds your history, the words that contain the tastes of the foods and the shapes of the customs you hold dear, the feelings and textures of the relationships that bind you to nature and community. Imagine there is no one to receive those words, to share in those meanings.

Even as the earth loses all manner of living things — plants, insects, animals, landscapes, habitats — we’re also losing knowledges, cultures and the many different languages that contain them.

Threatened diversity

Language Keepers is a six-part podcast series produced by Emergence Magazine about the indigenous languages of California, believed to be among the most linguistically diverse regions of the world. The series follows efforts to revitalise four of these languages: Tolowa Dee-ni’, Karuk, Wukchumni and Kawaiisu.

In the first episode, ‘Colonizing California’, Emmanuel Vaughn-Lee, editor of Emergence Magazine and host of the podcast series, says, “200 years ago, as many as 90 languages and 300 dialects were spoken in California. Today, only half of these languages remain.”

It’s a story that isn’t unfamiliar to us. In India, Prof. Ganesh Devy has been recording the diversity of the country’s linguistic landscape as part of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which has archived close to 800 languages and 68 scripts, many of which are rapidly vanishing.

The podcast describes how four endangered California languages are being revitalised by individuals, families and small communities. The first episode offers deep context, tracing the heartbreaking history of how Europeans occupied the lands of the indigenous peoples of North America. “California’s ecosystems were inhabited by indigenous peoples sustainably for at least 12,000 years,” says Vaughn-Lee, “and as their relationship with the land evolved, so did their languages.” This relationship was severed when the tribes were evicted from their lands and forced to assimilate.

Yet there is laughter in the voice of nonagenarian Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni, as she describes how the tribe became “Americanised”. Like many others of her generation, she left her language behind when her parents died, and it is only now, with younger people wanting to reclaim their linguistic heritage, that she is drawing back into her memory for the words, stories and songs.

“When elders pass away, lots of songs are gone, it’s like watching all the species of birds die,” says Julian Lang, a Wukchumni speaker.

“Language is the key to revitalising our culture,” adds Julie Girado Turner, of the Kawaiisu tribe.

Language Keepers is not for casual listening, but it draws you in; It’s immersive in the way well told stories are. And of course, it is much more than a good story.

The Hyderabad-based writer and academic is a neatnik fighting a losing battle with the clutter in her head.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 6:38:00 PM |

Next Story