Conference participants on field trip to native California basket archive.
Cardboard tube containing an early 1900's wax cylinder recording of an indigenous speaker of a California language. At Hearst Museum.
Breath of Life:
Revitalizing California Languages
in partnership with
Oakland Museum of California
Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival
airing in November on
NorCal Public Media for Native American Heritage Month
What if Grandmother composed a song for you, but you couldn't understand the words? What if no one else could, either?
"Breath of Life" explores the painstaking efforts of dedicated Native Californians who have committed themselves to revitalizing the rich cultural legacy their ancestors have left to them in tribal languages under threat of extinction.
For decades, every two years a group of determined Native activists and allied language experts have convened an extraordinary week-long conference at the University of California, Berkeley, to make sure that the more than 100 individual tongues of this region remain vibrantly alive. The archive of linguistic resources housed here is of world significance. Conference attendees learn how to use it: locating anthropological field notes and cherished recordings that were made of their ancestors' stories, grammar and songs. For most it is a challenging and emotional--even spiritual--experience to rediscover these treasures.
The biennial event is hosted jointly by the nonprofit Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS) and the Linguistics Department at Cal. When event co-founder L. Frank Manriquez (Tongva/Ajachmem) contacted her, Professor Emeritus Leanne Hinton agreed that barriers to reclaiming speakers' languages existed, despite the immense potential for activating the archives. They designed a new way to teach research techniques and language skills, by matching professional linguists with novice researchers outside of a formal college environment. This "master-apprentice" approach has since become a national model and has even attracted the interest of the Smithsonian Institution.
Today Native California peoples' story is emerging as one of persistence, revitalization and pride. But no accounting of their experience is complete without an acknowledgement of the atrocities of the recent past. When the Breath of Life group takes a field trip to nearby Mission Dolores in San Francisco and tours the adjacent cemetery containing over 5,000 native graves, the film pauses to consider the horrific attempted genocide conducted by whites upon native peoples of California. Persecution began with Catholic missionaries in the late 1700's and continued with Gold Rush era miners and settlers into the early 1900's. Throughout this period native languages were actively suppressed by outsiders.
Despite the painful awareness of past persecution, the tone and outlook of conference goers is upbeat and optimistic. The documentary shows that participants are kept on their toes by noted visiting linguists like Professor Pamela Munro from UCLA, and the indomitable Professor Catherine Callaghan from Ohio State, a foremost authority on Miwok languages since publishing her thesis in 1963. They mentor speakers, and watch the presentations given "in language" on many topics from how to make a baby carrier to the hilarious story of getting a wasp bite at an inopportune location, to the singing of the "Hokey Pokey" translated into Tongva, a Southern California language. What becomes clear: the future is bright for Native California.
trailer edited by UC Berkeley
photos: Scott Braley
language map: Timara Link
Recording Native Californians as they work with their linguist mentors at the Bancroft Library.