These Native American women are reclaiming a ‘stolen’ part of their identity: Their language

In 1980, when fourth-grader Quirina Geary’s class learned about Spanish missions and the Native American tribes they conquered, she proudly announced that her family was part of the Mutsun tribe, who lived in Central California for thousands of years.

But when her classmates asked her to speak in her native tongue, she froze. Despite growing up following many Indigenous traditions — she foraged for mushrooms and gathered acorns, her father fed the family with hunted deer, they lived intergenerationally and with extended family — she didn’t know a single Mutsun word.

“I felt less Indian that day,” Geary, now 49, recalled. “There is something about language that is so deeply rooted in identity. It’s how you see the world, and how the world sees you.”

Quirina Geary in Mariposa, Calif. in February 2021, on what was once Miwok tribal land. (Photo by Ed Kashi)

The linguist Kenneth Hale famously said, “The loss of a language represents the loss of a rare window on the human mind.” Research shows that language loss can destroy a sense of self-worth and identity and that language death does not happen in privileged communities, but to the “dispossessed and disempowered, peoples who most need their cultural resources to survive,” as James Crawford wrote in a 1998 linguistics textbook.

More than a dozen generations have passed since Spanish and other European settlers arrived on the continent, and Native American tribal languages have become critically endangered. In a bid for assimilation and control, colonists barred many traditional practices and forced tribal children into boarding schools, mostly run by Christian missionaries who separated families from children, stripped them of their traditional clothing and hairstyles, taught them English, and punished them for speaking their native languages. Many children died, and physical and sexual abuse was pervasive.

Now, nearly 150 years later, many native languages are spoken by only a scant number of tribal elders, if at all, and they are generally not taught to children. Half of the nation’s native tribal languages are extinct, and linguists estimate that up to 90 percent of Indigenous languages worldwide will die out by the end of the century.

In a quest to reclaim their cultural identity, some tribes seek to revive or relearn their native languages, which has been associated with increased physical and community health. This is particularly critical for Native Americans, who suffer some of the worst health outcomes of any racial group in the nation and have been hit particularly hard by covid-19, advocates say. Studies show that Indigenous language maintenance leads to lower diabetes, smoking and even suicide rates.

And for some who grew up traditionally Native American but unable to speak the language, like Geary, language revival is a matter of reclaiming a “stolen” part of their identity.

“Someone else’s ancestors came along and took away their language forcibly, took away their rights and maybe committed genocide against them,” said Natasha Warner, a linguist working on Mutsun language revival at the University of Arizona. “The descendants come along and say, ‘I want to get my heritage back, I want to get my people’s culture back.’ Language is a big route into that.”

Since that grade-school moment, Geary has dedicated her life to reclaiming her “Indianness,” as she called it. Shortly after graduating from high school, Geary went to her family’s Aboriginal land in San Benito County, Calif., about 80 miles south of San Francisco, seeking to learn the Mutsun language from native speakers.

But she couldn’t find any native Mutsun speakers there. In fact, no one seemed to know that her tribe still existed.

“People would say: ‘Oh, they’re all dead. They’re all extinct,’” Geary recalled. “This was obviously not the case. There were hundreds of us throughout California.”

In the mid-’90s, Geary attended the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous California Languages at the University of California at Berkeley, a week-long intensive language workshop for Native American people with little or no fluent speakers of their languages. There, she met Warner, who was then a linguistics grad student. The two continue to work closely together to revive the Mutsun language today.

“Reviving a language with no native speakers is incredibly hard,” said Warner, who describes herself as an “outside linguist” because she is working on language revival but is not Native American herself. “But this is the most rewarding work that I do. Actually helping people in their daily lives to find a greater sense of identity is quite meaningful.”

“We both always wanted to make sure Indian people were at the forefront, which meant so much to me,” Geary said. “This way, we as Indian people are in control of what goes on.”

Indeed, Geary is part of a legacy of Indigenous women who have preserved language and traditional cultural practices throughout history. Seen as the keepers of cultural knowledge, women are also the primary transmitters of this information to younger generations.

For example, Geary’s great-great-great-grandmother, Josefa Velásquez, worked with linguists to maintain the Mutsun language before she died in 1922. The last first-language speaker of the Mutsun tribe, Ascención Solórsano, shared her language knowledge with researchers at UC Berkeley throughout the early 1900s. In the year before she died in 1930, she helped a linguist archive her knowledge of language, traditional medicine and culture.

“She worked to share the Mutsun language until her final breath,” Geary said. “Without that, we wouldn’t have anything.”

And Indigenous women nationwide carry forth this work today. Crystal Richardson, a third-generation language revitalization worker from the Karuk tribe of Northern California, has documented more than 500 hours of master-speaker recordings since she began working on the language in 2004. Her aunt, Nancy Steele, co-created the Master-Apprentice Language Learning Program, based on the book “How to Keep Your Language Alive,” which Steele co-authored in 2001. Richardson enrolled in the program when she was just 19. Now, Richardson is a master-apprentice trainer and is developing a virtual youth conference to recruit and support young language reclaimers.

“Indigenous women will make resources appear,” said Richardson, who organized an Indigenous women symposium when she was an undergraduate student at Swarthmore College. “We are the stewards of not just the land and the culture, but also the children.”

Richardson is also focused on creating “baby native Karuk speakers” and promotes speaking only Karuk with children until a certain age — as she has done with her sister’s children who are 2, 5 and 9.

Yrachis Justiniano Roxas, an Ausaima Ohlone man around 1788. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

“Cultural information is like a beacon of light,” Richardson said. “I try to teach in a good way, because I know it’s going to be passed forward tenfold.”

Beyond the benefits of personal identity and community and physical health, reviving languages is also critical for maintaining linguistic diversity, which adds to the psychological health of society at large, linguists say.

“Preserving those distinctive or unusual ways of receiving the world is important for all the reasons that diversity is important,” said Andrew Garrett, chair of the linguistics department at UC Berkeley and the director of Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, an archive and research center for Indigenous languages. “All the languages are associated with a rich set of stories and narratives.”

Geary emphasizes the ways her tribe’s values can be understood through intricacies in the language. In Mutsun, to say “thank you,” one would say, “Suururuy ritoksitkawas,” which translates to “Blessings from the village I am of.”

“Notice, the phrase is not the village I am from,” Geary said. “The village, the land, the people — there is no separation. Clues like this show you how connected people are to the lands.”

There is also no gender in Mutsun. Whether you are talking to a male, a female or a rock, Geary said, you use the same pronoun: “The language shows you we value everything equally.”

But unlike the Karuk tribe, Mutsun is not federally recognized — which is indicative of a broader, century-old battle between Native American tribes and the U.S. government. This means the tribe would not be eligible for any government funding to assist with language learning and revitalization.

“The way the guidelines are for federal recognition, we wouldn’t qualify,” Geary said. “What’s the difference, why aren’t we recognized? The bottom line is because our land is worth too much, we lived on the coast, they would rather ignore us than anything else.”

Even with these barriers and persistent tensions between tribes and government agencies, Geary and Warner made strides in the past 26 years. In 2016, the pair developed a comprehensive Mutsun-English dictionary, available online and in print at no cost to Mutsun people.

“That’s enough for the kids to have the identity of, ‘This is who I am,’ ” Warner said. “Mutsun people that I’ve worked with say it’s extremely, deeply moving to connect to their heritage and connect to their ancestors who went through this terrible, horrible history.”

Warner and other linguists once considered the Mutsun language to be “dormant,” meaning there are no proficient speakers. But with all of this work and the increased availability of the language to the Mutsun people, she now calls it “awakening.”

“There are elders just speaking the language for the first time now in their 70s, you see their faces light up,” Geary said through tears. “It’s something that’s needed. I can’t say that it’s altruistic, because it makes me feel good. It’s my passion.”

While Geary is on a lifelong mission to fully reclaim the Mutsun language for her tribe, she embraces a greater vision for her people: to speak together and live on one, continuous land base in their Aboriginal territory of San Benito County, where her ancestors thrived for thousands of years.

“A land to speak together, to dream together, to have that social interaction,” she mused. “We need that. We need the ability to have sovereignty, and live as Indian people. A place to call home.”

A version of this story appeared on THE LILY on April 15, 2021