Feature

Language Keepers

The Struggle for Indigenous Language Survival in California
Place: California
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There are approximately seven thousand languages in the world today; of these, the majority originated with, and are spoken by, Indigenous peoples. Up to half of the world’s languages are oral, with no orthography, no dictionaries. Knowledge is passed from person to person, through words and stories that formed and evolved alongside the places in which they have long been rooted, as diverse as the ecologies from which they come: Ainu on the island of Hokkaido in Japan, Arabela in the tropical forests of Peru along a tributary of the Arabela River, Tolowa Dee-ni’ among the redwood trees of Northern California.

Ainu, Arabela, and Tolowa Dee-ni’ are endangered and are among the roughly 40 percent of today’s languages that are at risk of vanishing altogether. Though it’s difficult to establish an exact number, it is thought that thousands of languages have disappeared from the Earth in just the last few hundred years, as the majority of the world’s population increasingly speaks only a handful of dominant languages. Half of all languages that exist today are likely to disappear by the end of this century, according to UNESCO.

What is lost when a language disappears? Languages arise from and are woven into the diverse ecologies of the living world. Many Indigenous communities around the world have developed traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) through generations of intimate contact with their lands. These bodies of knowledge express culturally specific and empirical knowledge of the processes of ecosystems, medicinal plants, and the conditions required for ecosystems to remain in balance. For Native communities, language and land are entwined.

In California, dozens of Native American communities are grappling with what is at stake if they lose their language—for their children, for their culture, and for the land itself. For example, only one fluent speaker of Tolowa Dee-ni’ remains, a language that originated in California’s northern forests, that named the k’vsh-chu and the lhuk long before they were called “redwood” and “salmon.”

Indigenous people have been in the region now called California for at least twelve thousand years. As recently as two hundred years ago, there were up to ninety distinct languages and three hundred dialects, stemming from twenty language families. It is one of the most linguistically—and ecologically—diverse regions in the world, with one of the highest rates of language loss. With Spanish settlement in the 1700s, widespread Christianization, the gold rush in the mid-1800s, and ensuing governmental policies that lasted well into the twentieth century, waves of forced assimilation, relocation, and disease washed over Native communities again and again. Today, only about half of these languages remain. They are rapidly disappearing with the last generation of fluent speakers; many languages, like Tolowa Dee-ni’, have just one or two speakers, and few children are learning the words or will remember their ancestors’ stories.

But speakers of endangered languages are increasingly rejecting predictions of extinction.

Indigenous Territories and Languages of California

Following colonization by the British in the 1800s, the Māori people of New Zealand witnessed a steady decline in the number of speakers of their native language, te reo Māori, with estimates of fluent speakers falling below 20 percent by the 1980s. Faced with the prospect of losing their language entirely, they launched a major revitalization effort: the first bilingual school opened in 1978, te reo was heard in radio and television programs by the early 1980s, and in 1987 it was recognized as an official language of New Zealand. The state is participating in a plan to ensure that 20 percent of New Zealanders—both the Māori and those who are non-Native—will speak te reo by 2040.

The Māori revitalization, in turn, galvanized the Hawai‘ians. By the mid-1980s, there were only thirty-two members of the youngest generation of Native Hawai‘ians who still knew the original language of these islands. But with the institution of language-immersion programs in schools, which gained momentum over the last thirty years, more than twenty-five hundred students are now enrolled annually in Hawai‘ian-language programs.

As thousands of languages around the world are threatened—hundreds of which are in the United States—Indigenous communities are learning from the successes of the Māori and the Hawai‘ians. Revitalization has proved to be as dynamic as the communities who undertake it: fluency, intergenerational learning, and engagement with a deeper understanding of cultural contexts and traditions are just some of the aspects of language revival. Across California, where widespread language-revitalization efforts began twenty years ago, tribal communities are participating in a variety of methods to teach their languages and preserve cultural knowledge.

Marie Wilcox

Luther Girado

Loren Bommelyn

Julian Lang

Loren Bommelyn, who is in his early sixties, is the only fluent speaker of Tolowa Dee-ni’ and is leading his tribe in preserving the traditional songs, the language, and the art of basketry. Marie Wilcox (1933-2021) was the sole fluent speaker of Wukchumni, a dialect of Tule-Kaweah, which originated near the Tule and Kaweah Rivers in Central California. Over the course of twenty years, she created a written and spoken Wukchumni dictionary and taught the language to four generations within her family. Her daughter Jennifer is currently teaching Wukchumni language classes to the local community. Thirty miles southeast of Bakersfield, Luther Girado is one of two remaining fluent speakers of Kawaiisu, or Nuwä. With the help of his daughter and sister, he is documenting the language for future generations. Along the Klamath River, Julian Lang is teaching in-person and online courses, connecting with Karuk people across the country and around the world.

Language Keepers is a multimedia experience that follows the language revitalization taking place within the Tolowa Dee-ni’, Karuk, Wukchumni, and Kawaiisu tribes.

Watch the Films

These films share the stories of four Indigenous communities in California who are revitalizing their languages.

Film
Wukchumni

Five years after filming Marie’s Dictionary, Marie and her family share how they continue to teach Wukchumni classes to members of their community.

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Film
Karuk

Meet three Karuk tribal members in California, dedicated to speaking Karuk to stay connected to their people, their language, and the Klamath river.

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Film
Recording Kawaiisu

In this film, meet two of the last fluent speakers of Kawaiisu, a Native language of the southern end of the Sierra Nevada in California.

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Film
Tolowa Dee-ni'

The sole fluent speaker of Tolowa Dee-ni’ in California works with his family to overcome generations of trauma and to preserve their language and traditions.

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Listen to the Audio Series

Adapted from the films, this six-part audio series explores the struggle for Indigenous language survival in California.

Audio Story
Colonizing California

Episode One introduces language revitalization efforts in four Indigenous California communities and examines the colonizing histories that brought Indigenous languages to the brink of disappearance.

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Audio Story
Tolowa Dee-ni’

In Episode Two, we meet the sole remaining fluent speaker of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ language and his family who are grappling with what is at stake if they lose their language.

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Audio Story
Karuk

Episode Three explores efforts to revitalize the Karuk language, which is deeply tied to the Klamath River in Northern California.

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Audio Story
Wukchumni

Episode Four brings us to the home of Marie Wilcox—the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language and the creator of the only Wukchumni dictionary.

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Audio Story
Kawaiisu

In Episode Five, we meet Julie Girado Turner, who, for nearly two decades, has been documenting and recording her father and aunt, the last fluent speakers of the Kawaiisu language.

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Audio Story
The Power of Revitalization

In the final episode of the “Language Keepers” audio series, we hear from the speakers of four endangered languages, who resist predictions of their language's extinction.

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Language Keepers was produced by Emergence Magazine

Emergence Magazine is an online and print publication exploring ecology, culture, and spirituality. 

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