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California Tribe Tries to Save Its Language


Nearly half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world are in danger of extinction. And leading the world's epidemic of disappearing dialects is the U.S. state of California. This weekend, members of 40 tribes from around the state met with linguists to discuss the challenges of saving those endangered languages

More than half of the over one hundred native California tongues have disappeared. Many others have only a few, aging speakers. When this last fluent generation dies, languages spoken by Californians over centuries, will also die. At a recent gathering of some 200 Native Americans struggling to maintain their dialects, Robert Geary remembered driving in his car, listening to a tape of his long-deceased great uncle speaking the native Elém Pomo language. "I was so lost hearing my language that I was doing 80 [mph] and I didn't even know it. I got a [speeding] ticket, yeah, I got a ticket."

Geary decided he had to learn his ancestor's language and immediately ran into a pervasive problem for California's Native Americans. "There is only one speaker left," he explained. "Her name is Loretta Kelsey. With her also not having anyone to speak it to, the language is even getting lost with her."

At the shoreline of the Pomo reservation on Clear Lake, Loretta Kelsey parts some tule reeds, looks over the blue-green waters to where Mount Konocti reaches for the clouds, then turns toward Geary. It's not a struggle for her to bring back memories of the lake of her childhood; it is a struggle to tell Robert about it, in Pomo.

"Amah ko set. Kuchinwallit. Mecha wee hah ket kay." She pauses, and finally gives up. "Help me out, Robert." He thinks a moment. "She was saying something about eating tules." She nods. "Where we're at now is where I was raised. We'd go down to the water, we'd eat the tules."

The two have spent the last five years recovering the language. Now they teach it to others in their tribe. But it's been an agonizing process. Pomo was never written down, there are no dictionaries, no materials to teach the language. Geary and Kelsey are inventing those as they go. "Now we're just having to do it the way classrooms do it," she says.

The wind blows off the shore of clear lake as 20 native Americans from 7 to 70 gather along a row of picnic tables, watching Robert write on an old grade-school blackboard. He points to the words as he says them, and the class responds. "Tichen, aweyah. Eee. Tzama, Tzama."

Elizabeth Jean, 68, spoke Pomo as a child. "We spoke very poor English when I went to school," she recalls. "We needed to go to the bathroom and we didn't know how to say it in English." Jean did learn English, and she lost her Pomo.

But with only one remaining Elém Pomo speaker, who herself struggles with the language, it may be beyond recovery.

Jocelyn Ahlers, an assistant professor of cultural linguistics at California State University in San Marcos, is here at the class. She's been studying the attempts to revive the Pomo language. "Most linguists would come to a situation like this and say, 'I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do, in terms of making this a vibrant speaking community again. It's over. I'm sorry.'"

In today's class, students struggle to learn greetings and names of foods. If the goal is to revive the language in daily life on this reservation, success may be far away, or impossible. But Professor Ahlers thinks the common bond of learning the language may be enough. "People tend to define linguistic community strictly as this place where everybody speaks the language all the time," she says, adding that it doesn't have to be that way. "I think your language community could be the people who share a desire to learn your language with you, people who say hi to you or pray with you."

At dusk, the class winds down and the students gather in the ritual roundhouse to dance and pray. "The center of it is a pole that's sticking up. It's kind of like our gateway to God," Geary explains. He says that even the limited Pomo now spoken on the reservation is of value, most of all, in prayers to the spirits. "It makes me feel that much more special to be able to talk to the creator in the language that he gave us. That's irreplaceable."

Loretta Kelsey stands at the shore, amid a tangled mass of tule reeds. When she hears the others speaking Pomo, she feels both ancient burden, and new possibility. "It seems like I haven't carried it on the way I should have. Which was wrong. Because it's not really dying. I refuse to say dying."

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