Native Village Youth and Education News
October, 2009


Young families breathe new life into American Indian languages
By Stephen Magagnini
Condensed by Native Village

California: Long-dormant California Indian languages and cultures are being celebrated and revived among the state's Native peoples. No one embodies that more than the Ramirez family.

"Our daughter's first words were 'Utha, Utha,' which means mom in Miwok," said her father, Petee Ramirez, as he cradled his 4-month old son, Ahumate bear in Miwok.

Ramirez and his wife, Jennifer, joined more than 200 native people and linguists during the Language Is Life Conference 2009 at the University of California, Davis. The gathering showcased indigenous languages, which are fading as elders pass on.

Ramirez, 28,  met his wife at a meeting on native languages, where experts said, "If you want to learn your language have a kid."

It's working, Ramirez said. His daughter Loyema is named after the Miwok word for flowers.

"When I was 14 and trying to learn our language my aunt taught me Loyema, and I thought it was beautiful," Ramirez said. "Loyema's mom and I were both without our language, and now every day we talk to her as much as we know."

Loyema, now a toddler, knows the Miwok words for different parts of her body. She even says kanapo Miwok for poop when it's necessary.

To learn new words, they rely on a handful of elders who still speak southern and northern Miwok dialects.

"I talk to my aunt Shirley at least every other week she's always teaching me different words," Ramirez said. "It's respecting the old ways and the elders who were taken away to Indian boarding schools where some were beaten and abused if they spoke their language."

Learning native songs has made it fun. "We were able to research the music and listen to it over and over," Jennifer Ramirez said. Jennifer is Miwok and Serrano.

The couple are now part of the Sheepranch Miwok Dancers. They perform an old Miwok gambling song "Minimini Wuksum," which means "Where are You Going?" The song mocks a gambler who heads for the mountains after losing at bones, a popular American Indian bluffing game.

California's Indian-language renaissance hasn't been easy,  said professor Martha Macri.  The Tubatulabal tribe's last fluent speaker died last summer, Macri explained, "and they're continuing to do quite a bit of work with 'language rememberers' who don't consider themselves fluent, but spoke it as a child."

The Miwok and several other California tribes Nation use gambling revenue to help revive their language and culture.

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