Saving California’s Indigenous Languages

Elizabeth Chapin



A Chukchansi dancer during the announcement of a $1 million grant to the Fresno State linguistics department for their efforts to revitalize the native language. 

Two centuries ago, California was home to nearly 90 Native American languages, making it the most linguistically diverse state in the United States. Today, only about half of them remain, according to the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival.

Some Native American tribes that have seen the number of fluent speakers reduced to only a handful are working to regain their languages with the expertise of CSU faculty and students. Together, they have made progress in preserving the state’s diminishing indigenous languages.

The Chukchansi Indians from California’s Central Valley recently pledged $1 million to Fresno State in an effort to help preserve their language. Linguistics professor Chris Golston heads the project, which includes creating a dictionary, assembling texts and helping teach the language at weekly courses.

“Since Chukchansi is an unwritten language, we had to devise a way for it to be transcribed,” Golston said. “That way, people will be able to teach it and record it.”

With the help of two native speakers, Golston and his students are now transcribing several traditional stories important to the Chukchansi culture. Until now, they have survived only by being passed down through storytelling.

“Two women come to campus several times a week to offer up their knowledge,” Golston said. “An added benefit is that they give linguistics students an opportunity to practice theories they’re learning in the classroom.”

Golston says the dictionary now contains more than 1,500 words.

Two decades ago, Southern California’s Luiseño language was in danger of extinction. Today, active revitalization efforts—including two on CSU campuses—are bringing it back to life.

The Pechanga tribe now funds Luiseño courses at Cal State San Bernardino as one of the few university indigenous-language courses provided for academic credit in the country. Professor Eric Elliot, who teaches the courses, hopes to pass on his knowledge of the language to Native American students interested in becoming elementary school teachers.

A Luiseño preservation project with the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians in northern San Diego County was one of the first efforts of CSU San Marcos’ California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center after it was launched in 2011.

With a $50,000 gift from the tribe, faculty and students created a video game to help Pauma kids learn Luiseño.  The game features the voices of tribal elders and children to teach terms for numbers, colors, animals and other basic vocabulary.

Humboldt State has many ties to Northern California’s Native American communities. For the past several years, the university has hosted the Live Your Language Alliance (LYLA) conference, which supports indigenous language preservation efforts throughout the state.

The conferences have plan​ted the seeds of inspiration for many language program activities and events, says Leo Canez, a coordinator for LYLA.

Leo CanezCanez is both an HSU alumnus and a campus employee serving on the university’s student support staff. But his strongest identity is as a member of the Yurok Indian tribe. Although there are only about two dozen native Yurok speakers left, it is one of the only indigenous languages in the country to be taught in local public schools.

“We don’t want that effort to be lost when these students go on to college,” Canez said. “It’s important to have speakers, not just documentation and translation. Yurok actually has phrases that can’t be translated into English.”

Aware that Canez is fluent in Yurok, HSU’s Native American Studies department invited him to teach the language as a guest lecturer. In addition to the language, Canez has taught historical, cultural and legal aspects of the tribe. He says such efforts have not only helped those in the Yurok community feel more comfortable with the transition to college, but helps them retain their cultural identity.

“Our language is who we are,” Canez said. “We don’t want them to lose sight of that.”