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Chumash Language Preserved in New Dictionary

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If you were a kid growing up in Southern California, learning about the Chumash Indians was no doubt a part of your third-grade curriculum (probably right around the same time you were building a mission out of sugar cubes). The Chumash were the original inhabitants of much of SoCal's coastal areas, and did cool stuff like leech the acid out of acorns so they could make food out of it without being poisoned. Of course, it wasn't until high school that we learned about things like imperialism and colonialism, and how the Europeans did crazy stuff like pass out syphilis blankets. (Many of you might also know of the Chumash tribe from the "Pangs" episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" where Xander got infected with all sorts of spirit-Indian diseases; it was also a really sad episode where Angel comes back to visit and Buffy doesn't know it, but anyway, that's neither here nor there.)

So it was with more than a little interest and pride this morning that I read about a linguist who has achieved the mighty feat of creating a Chumash language dictionary ("Samala" is the technical name of the language) -- despite there being no fluent speakers left alive. Steve Chawkins writes in the LA Times:

The last Chumash fluent in the language died in 1965. For years, speaking Samala carried a stigma, even on the reservation. At the American Indian boarding schools attended by students in past generations, use of native tongues was a punishable offense, a serious violation in an environment that aimed to minimize the value of being Indian. More recently, some parents saw the language as a needless burden for their children -- a reminder of an identity it sometimes seemed better to hide.

"I would never even tell people I was Chumash," said Sarah Moses, 66, the head of the tribe's education committee. "I would say I was Mexican."

But thanks to linguist Robert Applegate, who as a grad student at Berkeley began working from volumes of notes left by late anthropologist John P. Harrington, the Chumash tribe has a language to call its own again.
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The dictionary is "far too beautiful and useful to sit on the coffee table or the shelf -- so use it!" [Applegate] urged, his voice cracking a little. "My deepest wish is not to be the sole culture-bearer of the language, and this is coming true. So thank you all."
Photo of ancient Chumash fountain sculpture by millerm217 via Flickr