Sitting in a circle within the shade of trees at Coarsegold Elementary School last week, 11 kindergartners and a group of fourth-grade students sang songs together, songs in a different language -- Chukchansi Indian -- and they knew all the words.
Singing songs named after animals like hummingbirds and bear, they tapped traditional wooden clapper sticks against their palms and laps. These aren't pow wow songs, kindergarten teacher Kim Lawhon tells the children as she leads the singing. These are medicine songs, she says, songs only known by the local American Indian people, the Chukchansi.
This small gathering of children will be responsible for saving an endangered language.
Motivation behind the dream
There are only eight known Chukchansi people fluent in the native language in the world and only five that live in the area, Lawhon said.
Thanks to Lawhon, two are now working as Chukchansi language teachers, paid by the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians. One of those women, Jane Wyatt, is a full-time language teacher in Lawhon's kindergarten class.
Seeing her people's fading language, one that's estimated to be at least 3,000 years old, Lawhon spearheaded the language project three years ago.
"Out of generations upon generations for the language to have been in existence and to be lost in ours -- I don't want that on my head," Lawhon said.
Inspired partly by a linguistics professors in college, Lawhon, only in her second year of teaching at the time, mustered the courage to formally request the tribe support teaching the language. While initially met with some unexpected opposition from tribal members that thought teaching Spanish would be more useful, with the help of tribal community representative Joe Alberta on Tribal Council at the time, Alberta and Lawhon, also cousins, championed for the project together and eventually won the council's support with a 3-1 vote.
A culture isn't defined by blood quantum, Alberta said, but by what people know about who they are.
"We're 100% Chukchansi," Alberta said of all his tribe's people. "Until we teach ourselves what we are, how are we going to prove to others what we are?"
"Our language is the only thing that makes us a people that no one else has," Alberta said.
Not only is the Chukchansi language a medicine to redeem culture, many of the words, when broken down, are literal descriptions holding ancient information about things, like whether a plant is edible or not, for example, Alberta said.
To lose the Chukchansi language would be losing hundreds of generations of gathered cultural knowledge and one of California's oldest languages.
"And there are so few people that can speak it," Lawhon said. "Everything is so time-sensitive right now."
Luckily they are not alone in their efforts. Since 2008, Fresno State has also been working with the few remaining fluent Chukchansi speakers weekly to record the language, averaging about 500 words every six months.
Because Chukchansi is only one dialect of the larger Yokuts language, once spoken by tribes that spanned from Sacramento to Bakersfield and west to the Bay Area, if the other three federally recognized Yokuts tribes, or some of at least a dozen unrecognized Yokuts tribes, took on similar language projects, collectively a larger dictionary of words could be created.
"Very few tribes are working to preserve the language," Lawhon said. "We'll be lucky if more than one Yokuts dialect makes it."
Of the 120 spoken languages in California, only 20 are thought to survive through the next 20 years and Chukchansi isn't on that list, Alberta said. In 100 years, only five California languages are thought to still exist.
The Yokuts entered the Central Valley in 10,000 B.C., Lawhon said.
Passing the torch
All hopes rest on the next generation, such as the 11 kindergartners in Lawhon's class, to preserve the Chukchansi language.
For three years, Chukchansi language teachers, funded by the tribe, taught the language to children at the Chukchansi Learning Center. This year, the center's kindergarten class was moved to the Coarsegold campus. Lawhon, language teacher Jane Wyatt, and language tutor Rebecca Hand are paid by the tribe but are Yosemite Unified School District employees that follow state curriculum. Nine of Lawhon's 11 kindergartners started learning the language when they were two years old at the Chukchansi Learning Center.
The language is taught daily for an hour and half in Lawhon's classroom, with class extending to 2:30 p.m. to make up for additional time spent learning it. Language immersion is also woven throughout the school day. Language instruction follows benchmarks set by the Native American Language Institute, with the Chukchansi tribe funding language education up to the second of the five benchmark levels, Lawhon said.
Wyatt, who learned Chukchansi as a child from her grandmother, also teaches the language during after-school tutoring at the tribal office and through free adult classes every other Wednesday. For those interested, contact Wyatt at (559) 288-4796. Wyatt also works to record the language with Fresno State. An after-school club for students interested in learning the language is also starting up at Coarsegold Elementary.
Bringing Lawhon's class onto Coarsegold's campus has been a win-win for the tribe and the school, said Principal Bob Rose.
"The American Indian culture is such a big part of California in general in terms of history, and we have the ability to learn about it first hand from our own local tribe and I think that's a good thing," Rose said. "The more we learn about our differences, the more we find out about how much we have in common."
"The long term goal as they (students) become more fluent is that they'll become the experts that help with Chukchansi cultural activities and awareness throughout all the grade levels," he said.
When Lawhon and Alberta were students at the school, they said being American Indian was something they didn't talk about. In Wyatt's generation, expressing American Indian culture in a classroom was punishable.
Things have changed.
Rose said he hopes teaching the language at Coarsegold Elementary will help Chukchansi students academically as well as socially by promoting pride in who they are.
Lawhon hopes her class of kindergartners -- the first class to have four years of education in the Chukchansi language -- will someday work to pass on what they've learned to the generation following them.
"A lot of people give it up; the burden of having so much to overcome is overwhelming," said Lawhon of many Chukchansi that have moved away. "I hope they see what we do and want to come back to help too."
"I looked at everything that went wrong when I was here and I said, 'I'm fixing it, if I can,'" Alberta said.
Editor's Note: Interviews for this story were done prior to the car accident Joe Alberta was involved in Sunday. See the story in this edition for information on his current condition.