California working to keep American Indian language alive

Tribes reclaim languages once spoken in California

Standing before a giant mossy rock and two Tsi-Akim Maidu bark houses, Farrell Cunningham gazes skyward to find the words and spirit imparted to him as a child.

He directs his outdoor class of about 20 Indian and non-Indian students to the amber light piercing down into the forest of Nevada County.

"Ekim pokom epinin koyodi kakan" — "the sun is in the sky" — he says in the Mountain Maidu tongue taught to him on nature walks by a tribal elder named Lilly Baker.

She died at 96 a few years back. But now Cunningham, 33, is among a small legion of speakers trying to preserve California's endangered American Indian languages.

Their efforts are about to get an official boost. Lawmakers are moving on a bill to create a special American Indian languages teaching credential to promote efforts to teach — and recapture — some of the nearly 100 languages once spoken by California Indians.

The measure – Assembly Bill 544 by Democrat Joe Coto of San Jose – declares that "teaching American Indian languages is essential to the proper education of American Indian children."

The bill would also allow fluent speakers to teach special classes in public schools as part of understanding California history and culture.

The limited "eminence credential" could enable some tribal elders with little formal education to give lectures on ancient languages widely spoken before the Gold Rush.

Passed by a 76-0 vote in the Assembly and now in the Senate, the bill is strongly backed by the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in Santa Barbara County. It is seen as an endorsement of several tribes' efforts to rediscover long-forgotten languages.

"For generations, native American children were taken from their homes, raised in boardinghouses and punished for actually speaking their language," said tribal languages researcher Richard Applegate. "It would be remarkable to revitalize what is left."

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