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Chumash recover their 'alishtaha'n

Armed with a trove of scattered notes, linguist saves ancestral tongue from brink of extinction.

April 20, 2008|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

SANTA YNEZ — A generation ago, the ancient Chumash tongue of Samala was all but dead, its songs and sagas buried in a university basement beneath mountains of yellowing research notes.

But now Samala is the talk of the reservation.

Thanks largely to a non-American Indian graduate student who was working for pocket money 40 years ago, the tribe has unveiled the first major Samala dictionary, a key moment in the language's rebirth.

At a lavish event in the Chumash casino's concert hall Friday night, most of the tribe's 150 enrolled members lined up for copies of the long-awaited 608-page book.

"This is awesome," said Nakia Zavalla, the 33-year-old cultural director for the Santa Ynez band of the Chumash, handling the volume as gingerly as a sacred text. "We won't have to constantly go searching for our culture -- now it's right here."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 23, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Chumash: A photo caption accompanying an article in Sunday's California section about efforts to save the ancient Chumash language of Samala described Mati Waiya and Luhui Isha as members of the Santa Ynez band of Chumash. Although they are Chumash, neither is a member of the Santa Ynez band.

The dictionary's 4,000 entries sound as foreign to most of the tribe members as they were familiar to their ancestors. It's a tough language for English speakers, filled with sharp interruptions called glottal stops. Some words don't quite roll off the tongue -- qalpsik is to braid the hair tight -- and more than 100 prefixes can dramatically change the meaning of verbs.

"There are so many rules," moaned Zavalla. "Just a glottal stop -- it sounds like uh-oh -- can change the meaning of ma from 'the' to 'rabbit.'

The last Chumash fluent in the language died in 1965. For years, speaking Samala carried a stigma, even on the reservation. At the American Indian boarding schools attended by students in past generations, use of native tongues was a punishable offense, a serious violation in an environment that aimed to minimize the value of being Indian.

More recently, some parents saw the language as a needless burden for their children -- a reminder of an identity it sometimes seemed better to hide.

"I would never even tell people I was Chumash," said Sarah Moses, 66, the head of the tribe's education committee. "I would say I was Mexican."

It was the same story in other tribes. About 30 of the state's American Indian tongues have no speakers left and another 50 have only a few. Fueled in some cases by revenue from their casinos, tribes have hired linguists to help them bring back languages now limited mostly to guest appearances in scholarly publications.

"There's a huge resurgence of people wanting to get their languages back," said Leanne Hinton, the retired head of UC Berkeley's linguistics department and a consultant for several tribes. "This Samala dictionary is going to be an extremely important reference, particularly with no native speakers left."

At Friday night's ceremony, state education secretary Jack O'Connell called the dictionary's unveiling "a truly historic, monumental occasion," and the crowd burst into applause.

Servers circulated from table to table offering gift bags stuffed with small mementos: A tin of M&M's stamped with the Samala words for good -- choho -- and hello -- haku; a deck of 52 illustrated flash cards with words like watermelon (santiya), donkey (wulu), to be half-dark (unatixivi); and a butter cookie topped with a four-color reproduction of the dictionary's cover on sugary, edible paper.

Guests dined on prime rib and lobster. They sipped lemonade from crystal flutes. They listened to speeches. Through a veil of sweet-smelling sage smoke, they watched dancers clad in a cascade of feathers, shells and hides. At evening's end, many stood before linguist Richard Applegate, asking for his autograph on the volumes they would tote back home.

He signed book after book with a smile, advising his fans to be of good cheer -- 'alishtaha'n -- even if they had to wrestle with two glottal stops and a throaty, rasping 'h' to do it.

"You've given us a wonderful gift," said Elaine Schneider, a Chumash elder. "The first thing I'm going to do is look up the words for my daily prayer: 'Creator, protect us.' "

In his tweed jacket and wire-rimmed glasses, Applegate looked like the academician he's been for most of his life. What he didn't look like was the world's foremost speaker of Samala -- a language he'd barely heard of before casting around for a part-time job at UC Berkeley in 1968.

As a graduate student there, Applegate earned money sorting through endless boxes of notes by John P. Harrington, a brilliant and eccentric anthropologist who had poured himself into the study of California's American Indians. A pack rat, Harrington stuffed 1 million sheets of paper -- along with random pieces of laundry and half-eaten sandwiches -- into crates that wound up in basements and warehouses all over the West.

But Harrington was a meticulous observer, and what Applegate discovered was a trove of invaluable information on Chumash life and the half-dozen languages of the Chumash groups along California's coast.

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