|Flutes of Fire
Essays on California Indian Languages
To give you a flavor for what is in store for you as a reader of this book, the author cites to some
examples of how Wintu speakers think differently from English speakers. Instead of saying, “I live with my
sister,” the Wintu person says, “I am sistered.” Rather than “I took the baby,” as a Wintu person you would
say, “I went with the baby.” You conceive of your body and the clothes you are wearing holistically. So
instead of saying, “Her dress is striped,” you say, “She is dress striped.” Rather than saying, “My head
aches,” you say, “I head ache.” English has the concepts of singular and plural. The Wintu default is
unified categories of beings, unless the speaker points specifically to an individual member of a
category. So a person raised speaking English sees a painting of a deer. In fact, the Wintu painter is
Hinton’s point is that learning the Native language is not just about saying the same things as in English
with different words. The language is a key to cultural understanding. Those who come to a Native
Californian language from English may be perplexed initially because of how it is put together. The
author explains that for example, the same stem for a verb may have a completely different meaning
depending on which prefix is attached to the front of it. Hinton cites to the example of Kashaya, in
which the verb “to hit” occurs with a prefix that shows exactly what “kind” of hit the speaker is referring to.
She explains that in many Californian languages, different concepts are combined into a single
grammatically complex word which can be a sentence unto itself.
You will enjoy pages 124-28, where the author reproduces Pomo design elements recorded in 1908,
each of which are associated with several names. The presentation shows how much information is
encoded in the design of a basket, and also presumably in other produced works such as many of the
thousands of painted stone faces across the California landscape. The elements point to a complex
writing system using patterns and shapes rather than words. Hinton notes that Indians referred to the
images produced on rock as “rock writing,” and had their own words for "reading" and "writing" that were
not borrowed from Spanish or English. The actual transcription of words was unnecessary because the
messages were not intended for anyone outside the local area.
Hinton explains how Native Californian languages encapsulate unique historical information. In one
example, people who lived separated by hundreds of miles had quite similar languages, showing that at
one time they were one people. In another, people with completely different languages had
substantially the same mythologies and traditions, indicating close ties and probably intermarriage and
bilingualism. The upshot is that the Native languages contain a great deal of important cultural
information that cannot be found by reference to English or Spanish.
The author discusses how a government policy of forced language eradication during the first half of the
twentieth century did terrible damage to the Native languages of California. She provides excerpts from
the personal stories of two Pomo women who grew up in the days of government-run Indian boarding
schools, when severe corporal punishment was administered to children for speaking their own
One of the women arrived as a little girl speaking two words of English and thus found herself isolated
and marginalized, disfavored, and treated as if she were severely disabled. Girls were dressed in shabby
clothes and boy’s shoes, and returned home as skin and bones. The mistreatment produced so much
pain that as elders, many who endured those times reflexively avoid using their languages and do not
want to pass them on because it just brings up too many bad memories.
Then, however, there was a 180 degree shift in government policy. The author describes such
legislation as the Native American Languages Act, which was enacted and signed into law by the first
President Bush, and which encourages the preservation and revitalization of Native languages. An
important question then was whether the policy change came too late. It only takes a generation or two
to stamp out a language. Since the publication of Hinton's book, much progress has been made, and
much remains to be done.
Hinton offers numerous valuable tips for those engaged in revitalizing and restoring the languages. She
points out that among non-speakers, basic proficiency can be obtained in about 500 hours. Many of her
suggestions involve incorporating learning into child rearing and early education, and creating natural
language learning opportunities for all ages. Language use at home is a key. An appreciation for the
richness of the heritages under threat and for the creativity and playfulness of the languages, and
enjoying oneself along the way are positive weapons for learners engaged in this battle.
Hinton’s appendix of linguistic symbols is very user friendly, and in my opinion it is the clearest and best
such symbol chart I have seen.
I would love to hear your thoughts.
|by Glenn Anaiscourt