American Indian Youths Preserve the Past

News & Politics

Eighteen-year-old Kristin Amparo, a tribal member of the Big Valley band of Pomo Indians, lives with her parents and five siblings in a large house on their reservation in Clear Lake, about three hours north of San Francisco. She likes bouncing on a trampoline to slam-dunk a basketball in her back yard, zooming past the creamy white Konocti Vista Casino in a yellow all-terrain vehicle and, now, speaking Bahtssal with her 14-year-old sister Felicia.

The flat and green Big Valley reservation sits two miles from tiny downtown Lakeport on 153 acres encircling the banks of Clear Lake, whose blue-green waters host international bass-fishing tournaments and traditional Pomo tule boat races. On sunny days, kids fish for bluegill and catfish from the dock near the tribe's Konocti Vista Casino.

Only a few elders of the Big Valley tribe are fluent in Bahtssal, a tribal dialect that began to fade after settlers forced Northern California Pomos off their lands. Today, Amparo and her sister are among a small group of young people on the 470-member reservation who are learning to speak the dialect as part of a newly formed language program.

"We tell our mom stuff in Bahtssal, like, 'I have to go,'" says Amparo, who had never heard the language spoken before she began studying it under the new initiative. "It's really fun to learn."

According to tribal historians, the decline in fluency in Bahtssal dates back to 1852, when the United States Senate refused to ratify a federal treaty that had promised the Big Valley tribe 72 square miles of land on the south side of Clear Lake. Settlers began claiming plots of land the following year, making private property of the areas where Big Valley ancestors had gathered food for more than 11,000 years. As tribal members began working in fields and on ranches owned by settlers, and their children began learning English in white schools, Bahtssal began to fade.

James Bluewolf, who directs the language program, sees it as an exercise not just in cultural preservation, but also in healing. "People are still suffering from post-traumatic stress after being forced to give up everything they had," he says. "But every culture comes to a point where they are ready to make a change."

In Clear Lake, the epicenter of that change sits among piles of scrap metal, wood and rusty cars, in a building that looks like it has dropped from the sky. It is tiny and tidy, and painted a bright swimming-pool blue. Inside this building, which houses the tribal language program, young mothers watch their chubby-cheeked toddlers play in a preschool class held by the nonprofit Lake County Tribal Health Consortium.

In a cramped office past the play area, James Bluewolf smiles at the children's squeals. A stocky, soft-spoken man who once ran a landscaping business, Bluewolf has been using technology tribal ancestors could not have imagined to preserve and promote the tribal language. Bluewolf records hours of Bahtssal spoken by elders, which he edits into half-hour audio segments that air on the community radio station, and are available free on CD to tribal members. Bluewolf is also writing a curriculum for a 15-week course in Bahtssal.

In a program Bluewolf directs, local teenagers perform skits that teach words and phrases such as "Chiin the'a 'eh" ("How are you?") and "Q'odii" ("Good"). Bluewolf videotapes the skits and makes them into videos that are played on the Lake County television station, and made available on DVD.

In the play area, Alisha Salguero, 21, rocks her 5-month-old daughter to sleep while her 3-year-old son Brian plays. Brian has learned several words in Bahtssal in the preschool class, where Bluewolf uses hand puppets to teach the language.

"He's really picked it up," Salguero says with a smile. "I don't really know it, so I think it's good for him to learn his language."

While traditional song, dance, and tule boat races have always been part of the cultural life of Big Valley children, holding on to their tribal language has been more difficult, says Marilyn Ellis, 21. "That's why this language program is important," says Ellis, whose father, Ray, was the spiritual leader of the tribe.

Before he died several years ago, Ray Ellis revived the tribe's "Big Time" spiritual celebration. The gathering, held every September on the grassy banks of Clear Lake, includes prayer, dancing and singing -- and now, perhaps, the sound of children trying out their ancestral tongue.

"Our language is part of us," says Ellis, who does not speak the tribal dialect herself, but whose daughters can now name their cat and dog in Bahtssal. "If we don't know it, we're pretty much dead."

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