Breath of Life conference to help California Indians save endangered languages

Berkeley, California - Breath of Life, a biennial California Indian language restoration workshop at the University of California, Berkeley, is drawing Native people from across the state, including members of Ohlone, Chumash, Miwok, Tongva, Pomo and Karuk communities who want to save their native languages.

With 62 participants and 40 linguists assisting them, the event is the largest since Breath of Life began in 1994.

Breath of Life is a partnership between UC Berkeley’s Linguistics Department and the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. All of California’s approximately 85 indigenous languages are endangered or dormant, and the aim is to enable members of Native communities to access, understand and work with archival materials to help restore or save their languages. Assisted by faculty or graduate student linguistic mentors, participants will create individual or group language projects and report on them at the end of the week.

The program begins on Sunday, June 1, when participants check in. Work begins on weekdays at 8 a.m. and ends every day at 4 p.m.

Instruction will take place in Dwinelle Hall, near the center of campus, and in archives around the campus.

Participants will explore field notes, publications and recordings at campus archives that include The Bancroft Library, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages.

Leading the conference will be three American Indian language revitalization experts at Berkeley: Leanne Hinton, a professor emerita of linguistics and founder of the program, Linguistics Department Chair Andrew Garrett, and Line Mikkelsen, an associate professor of linguistics who works with the Karuk Tribe. Hinton also leads a Breath of Life institutes in Washington, D.C.

Special speakers will include:

Jarrid Baldwin’s father learned his Miami tribe’s language of Myaamia entirely from documentation and taught it to his children. Jarrid and his siblings grew up as essentially native speakers of Myaamia.  Jarrid, who attended Breath of Life as a child with his father, will talk about his family’s language journey and will co-chair a panel on teaching endangered languages in the home.

Cody Pueo Pata, who is part Nomlaki and part Hawaiian, attended the first Breath of Life conference, and has become a fluent speaker and the linguist for his tribe.  He has developed dictionaries and lessons plans for his language, and will talk about a new approach to teaching grammar with Cuisinaire rods, which are usually math teaching tools. Watch this YouTube video of Pata speaking in Nomlaki about the importance of learning one’s heritage language or singing his version of “America the Beautiful.”

Instruction formally begins with a morning tour of a campus archive Monday through Friday. Class work will focus on basic phonetics, grammar, creating sentences and a dictionary and designing a tribal writing system, as well as language and politics, how to search the internet for language material and taking their language back home when the conference ends.

Two documentaries about Breath of Life are in their final stages of preparation, with one dealing with the Berkeley program and the other with the program in Washington, D.C. The unfinished films will be shown on the evening of Tuesday, June 3.

“The magnitude and popularity of the Breath of Life concept is clearly growing,” said Hinton. “Indigenous people whose languages are no longer spoken are using the documentation made by past anthropologists, linguists, and others, to reclaim their languages.”

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