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Casino Money Is Fueling Chumash's Interest in Past

The tribe has hired an expert to teach them their native language and is promoting other cultural activities such as ceremonial dances.

June 16, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

SANTA YNEZ, Calif. -- There is one class every two weeks for the adults, another for children. They all have their reasons for being here, slowly building their knowledge of a language that had almost disappeared.

The kids are in their seats now in the Tribal Hall at the Chumash reservation in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley, a dozen of them gathered on a Monday afternoon to learn that "cayas" means "path" and "c'iwis" means "rattle" and "wot" means "chief."

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash, a 157-member tribe that for years was far too poor for cultural luxuries, is sponsoring a 10-week course in the ancient Chumash dialect of Inezeno for tribe members and their children.

And the children here today are learning more than words. They are learning about their history and how it came to be that so many Indian languages like theirs were lost.

With gambling money pouring in from the Chumash Casino and an expansion that promises even greater takes in the future, the tribe hired Richard Applegate this year to teach the Chumash their own language.

Applegate is a researcher at Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California and has been studying Chumash dialects since 1968, helped in large part by the pioneering work of John P. Harrington, an earlier scholar who spent a lifetime slowly recreating a language that had never been written down.

The Chumash had eight regional dialects, from Malibu to San Luis Obispo, he said. "Throughout the country, there were at least 100 Native American languages spoken at the beginning of the century," he said. "There may be 50 now."

The courses are just one of the new cultural activities at the Chumash reservation these days, from basket-weaving to ceremonial dances. The money from slot machines is bringing with it a lot more than a new car or a bigger bank account. It's bringing a sense of pride in Chumash history.

But you get what you want to out of things like this.

Frances Snyder, the tribal spokeswoman, is one of the adults taking the Chumash lessons. She was working in her garden the other day, and suddenly she found herself singing in a language she never knew before.

"Do you know that song, 'Dog and Butterfly?' " she asked. "I was in the garden and my dog was running around and then I saw a butterfly and I started singing it in Inezeno. It's 'hucho' and 'ayatulutul' in our language."

Some of the children -- such as Chris Unzueta, 11 -- put their new knowledge to more practical use.

"I wanted to come in to learn," he said. "I think the language is cool. One of the best words we've learned is 'mucuma.' It means 'fathead.' "

Applegate, 58, calls his 10-session classes on the reservation "a dream come true." He has now completed the first three sessions. And he hopes the program will be expanded next year, possibly even to the community outside the reservation.

"I mainly focus on vocabulary and some simple sentences," he said. "We have reconstructed enough that people can proceed from there and teach themselves the language. That is what I would love to see, a community of speakers who don't need me."

The last Chumash elders on the reservation who spoke much of the language died in the 1970s, Snyder said.

"This isn't exactly a lost language," she said. "It was a forbidden language during the missionary period in California. Our ancestors were not allowed to speak our language during the Spanish rule."

"Americans were even worse than the Spanish," she added. "It wasn't a very pleasant experience being an Indian in this country, so the Chumash stopped speaking their own language and focused on Spanish, trying to pass as Hispanics.

"Now it's okay to be proud again," she said. "And the revenues from gambling make it possible for us to do this. We are literally getting our own past back."

Adults take classes on either Monday nights or Tuesday mornings, depending on which works best for the 22 students. The adult students echo Snyder's sense of pride.

"I know I won't be speaking fluently," said Caren Romero, 28, a community outreach coordinator in the tribe's health clinic. "But I think it's great.

"You can see it in my own family," she added. "My name is Caren. My 6-year-old son's name is Almiyi Hwit. That means 'condor dancer.' My grandfather used to dance the condor dance."

Lila Corbi, 31, is another of Applegate's students. She remembers the reservation when it was shacks and dirt roads, with no running water. Survival was a higher priority than learning old customs, she said.

"But this is our heritage and now we have the money," she said. "It's fun. It's not hard. And it is great for the children. They have a tremendous desire to learn about their history and our customs."

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