The Journey to Revitalize the Mutsun Language

After 18 years of work, UA Linguist Natasha Warner is publishing the first comprehensive dictionary of the long dormant Mutsun Native American language.

When University of Arizona Linguistics Professor Natasha Warner was a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley in 1997, she was helping out at a “Breath of Life” workshop, designed to help Native American communities access the deep well of language resources available in Berkeley’s Special Collections Library. Warner was supposed to be the mentor for the Patwin tribe but at the last minute, she was assigned to help community members from the Mutsun tribe. She soon realized that this community really needed a dictionary of their dormant language.

At the workshop, Warner met Quirina Geary, who grew up thinking the language of her Mutsun ancestors was gone, and with it, a chunk of her identity.

“I was always curious about our language, but it wasn’t until I had children that I had the determination to seek it out,” said Geary. “Speaking one’s native language is not just a form of communication, but it provides a deeply rooted sense of identity, which profoundly influences the way a person sees the world.”

Eighteen years after their meeting, Warner and Geary have published the first comprehensive Mutsun-English, English-Mutsun dictionary.

The Road to Publication

What made the project so time consuming?

There was the normal matter of life getting in the way. Documenting and revitalizing the Mutsun language is just one of many projects Warner works on as a professor in the Department of Linguistics, housed in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Geary also has her work, studies and a family. But the two never gave up on the project, continuing to collaborate online and to visit one another.

Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle—considering the last first-language speaker of the Mutsun language died in 1930—was the sheer abundance of raw material that made compiling the dictionary a major ordeal.

Mutsun is a Costanoan language (part of the Utian language family) that was historically spoken in California in the area around the modern towns of San Juan Bautista, Hollister and Gilroy.

From 1807-1815, Father Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta, who was a priest at the mission of San Juan Bautista, created the first written record of the Mutsun language at a time when the Mutsuns were being forced to give up their language. Warner emphasizes how terrible the mission system was for the American Indians’ cultures and languages.

“I was frustrated with Arroyo for a long time,” Warner said, adding, “We spend so much time working on this data that we develop relationships with these people.”

Arroyo—who reportedly could preach in about 13 languages, most of them Native American languages--was an excellent language learner. He wrote down close to 3,000 Mutsun sentences, mostly with Spanish translation. He also wrote a small grammar of the language.

Arroyo’s work didn’t get published until 1861–1862. “The typesetter introduced a bunch of errors into the translation because Arroyo had this beautiful old European handwriting where everything looks the same,” Warner said.

In 1912, James Alden Mason took Arroyo’s 3,000 sentences (which Arroyo had unfortunately alphabetized by the first letter of the sentence, thereby removing the assistance of context in interpretation) and turned them into a basic dictionary, which although filled with errors, was a useful document for Warner.

And then came the most important linguist in creating the archive of the Mutsin language: John Peabody Harrington. Harrington, who worked for the Smithsonian for most of his life, documented Native languages from Alaska to Mexico. Warner said that many academics didn’t have much respect for Harrington because he “didn’t do theory or bother to publish.” His original notes are available on microfilm through the Smithsonian Library. Fortunately, UA Libraries carried a copy, which Warner used until Harrington’s work became available online.

According to Warner, Harrington was quite a character. “There is a fascinating book in our library called Encounters With an Angry God, written by Harrington’s ex-wife. I liked Harrington until I read that book. But he had single-minded dedication to languages that was not always helpful to other human beings around him.”

Harrington wrote the following note to his nephew trying to convince him to abandon his studies at U.C. Berkeley to join him in the field:

“If you can grab these dying languages before the old timers completely die off, you will be doing one of the few things valuable to the people of the remote future, you know that. A time will come, and soon, when there will not be an Indian language left in California. All the languages developed for thousands of years will be ashes.”

In the 1920s, Harrington worked with Ascension Solorano, the last native Mutsun speaker, until her death in 1930. He moved in with the family, and even when she was gravely ill from intestinal cancer, they would work together for six hours a day. Harrington left 36,000 pages of notes (in awful handwriting).

Warner spent a copious amount of time wading through and analyzing the original Mutsun documents and creating a database and a phonetic spelling system. Various undergraduate and graduate students have helped Warner over the years, including Lynnika Butler (who now works as the language program director for the Wiyot tribe in California) and Heather van Volkinburg. At various times, the work was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation

Now  the dictionary is finally complete and has been published as a special project of Language Documentation and Conservation, an online-only journal. The dictionary includes extensive information about each word, including historical and cultural information, as well as grammatical information.

The online version of the dictionary is free. The publisher can print hard copies on demand, which was important to Warner as she says hard copies have symbolic and long-term archival value. Warner still has money from previous grants to print hard copies for the members of the Mutsun tribe. “They shouldn’t have to pay to get their language back,” Warner said.

Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, is excited by the publication of the dictionary.

“Knowing that our Mutsun dictionary is published brings pride and happiness to our tribe,” said Lopez. “Language is the heart of all cultures.”

Geary is likewise thrilled to see the fruition of so many years of labor. “It’s very exciting as it is such an important tool for our revitalization effort. It’s an amazing accomplishment, but now that it’s finished it leaves the question, “What’s next?”   

Using the Mutsun Langauge

The dictionary will supplement existing efforts to bring the Mutsun language back in use. Over the years, Warner and Geary have created a variety of materials, such as a draft language textbook and Mutsun versions of a Bugs Bunny video and the book Green Eggs and Ham.

Lopez has been working with a graduate student at U.C .Davis to create a Mutsun language class, which was recently held as a community education course at U.C. Santa Cruz and streamed over the internet.

Part of the challenge of increasing the use of the language is the geographic diversity of the Mutsun people. They are a small group scattered over California, primarily the central coast. The Mutsun people don’t have a reservation or any place where they are a majority, so it is difficult to get schools interested in teaching the language.

“We do not have any fluent speakers, but we’re not done yet,” Warner said.

Warner is clear that all language revitalization projects must start and be led by the community, so she will take her cues on the appropriate next steps from them. One project they have spoken about in the past is creating distance learning software.

Lopez said that some of his goals for the language include conducting all tribal business in Mutsun and introducing it as a second language in the public schools of their traditional territory.

“It's important to our people that the Mutsun language return to our traditional tribal territory,” said Lopez. “We must learn the language so we can conduct our prayers and ceremonies in Mutsun; this will please our ancestors and Creator.”

For her part, Geary has applied to U.C. Davis to study linguistics in order to help with the upcoming work.

“In the end, I hope that one day our revitalization effort becomes one of preservation,” said Geary.

Geary is grateful for Warner’s unwavering dedication to recovering the Mutsun language. “We both share a passion for the Mutsun language, which has driven us to continue our work for almost 20 years now.  I consider her a true friend and a Mutsun at heart.”

Contact: Natasha Warner, Professor in the UA Department of Linguistics, 520-626-5591, nwarner@email.arizona.ediu

Published Date: 

02/03/2016 - 10:35am