In this film, we meet two of the last fluent speakers of Kawaiisu. The Yaatiip Valley, at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada in California, has been home to the Nuwa—or Kawaiisu—for up to fifteen hundred years. Though still unrecognized by the federal government, the Kawaiisu culture originated among the Tehachapi Mountains. Nuwa abigip—the Kawaiisu language—is a Southern Numic language of the Uto-Aztecan language family.
The Kawaiisu largely avoided the effects of colonization and the Christianization of California by Spain and then by Mexico. But in the mid-nineteenth century, following the gold rush, American ranchers moved into the Kawaiisu homeland. Cattle overtook the meadows and wetlands were drained to serve as hayfields. In the late nineteenth century, the Kawaiisu were forcibly relocated by the American government. By the early twentieth century, Kawaiisu children were attending English-only schools. The Nuwa language began to disappear rapidly, and with it, traditions of music, songs, and knowledge of sacred sites.
Luther Girado and his sisters, Betty Hernandez and Lucille Girado-Hicks—born in the 1940s—were raised in the Yaatiip Valley as the last children of their generation to be taught Kawaiisu at home. After Betty passed away in 2014, Luther and Lucille became the last fluent speakers of Kawaiisu. Luther teaches the language and remaining traditions of the Nuwa while Lucille has been teaching language classes for over sixteen years. Luther's daughter, Julie Girado Turner, has been working with her father and aunt to document the Kawaiisu language. With only two fluent speakers remaining, Julie is attempting to document the language that lives within her elderly father and aunt so that it may be passed on and learned by others.
Julie, now fifty-three, has spent sixteen years recording and archiving thousands of hours of Kawaiisu stories, songs, and conversations so that, even after her father and aunt are gone, people can learn the language. She knows that the future of Kawaiisu will rely on both Kawaiisu tribal members—like her cousin Brandi Kendrick—and those who are not Indigenous. In today’s Kawaiisu classes, Luther, Lucille, and Julie sit alongside three non-Native members of the community. They include David Turner, Julie’s husband, Jon Hammond, a fourth-generation farmer from Tehachapi, and Laura Grant, a graduate student in Indigenous language revitalization who assists Julie in her efforts to record and translate Kawaiisu conversations.