Resurrecting the Chumash Language

38070228 Speaking of languages, Steve Chawkins in the LA Times:

At a lavish event in the Chumash casino’s concert hall Friday night, most of the tribe’s 150 enrolled members lined up for copies of the long-awaited 608-page book [the first Samala dictionary].

“This is awesome,” said Nakia Zavalla, the 33-year-old cultural director for the Santa Ynez band of the Chumash, handling the volume as gingerly as a sacred text. “We won’t have to constantly go searching for our culture — now it’s right here.”

The dictionary’s 4,000 entries sound as foreign to most of the tribe members as they were familiar to their ancestors. It’s a tough language for English speakers, filled with sharp interruptions called glottal stops. Some words don’t quite roll off the tongue — qalpsik is to braid the hair tight — and more than 100 prefixes can dramatically change the meaning of verbs.

“There are so many rules,” moaned Zavalla. “Just a glottal stop — it sounds like uh-oh — can change the meaning of ma from ‘the’ to ‘rabbit.’

The last Chumash fluent in the language died in 1965. For years, speaking Samala carried a stigma, even on the reservation. At the American Indian boarding schools attended by students in past generations, use of native tongues was a punishable offense, a serious violation in an environment that aimed to minimize the value of being Indian.

More recently, some parents saw the language as a needless burden for their children — a reminder of an identity it sometimes seemed better to hide.