Tribes try to preserve Kumeyaay dialect

Melissa Hill, 19, from Viejas smiled as she entered the hall during a fashion show highlighting Native American clothing as part of the 13th Annual Yuman Language Family Summit. Hill made her dress to honor her Kumeyaay heritage. The event strives to maintain the language and culture of Native Americans. — David Brooks
Melissa Hill, 19, from Viejas smiled as she entered the hall during a fashion show highlighting Native American clothing as part of the 13th Annual Yuman Language Family Summit. Hill made her dress to honor her Kumeyaay heritage. The event strives to maintain the language and culture of Native Americans. — David Brooks

By Roxana Popescu, The San Diego Union-Tribune

The old man wasn’t book smart, but he was wise. When birds sang, he listened. When he told stories, everybody listened. Pat Curo especially remembers how his grandfather always encouraged him to learn their native Kumeyaay dialect. Even when others objected. Even when it didn’t come easily.

Those were the days of assimilation. Indians stopped speaking their language because they saw English was the way to get ahead. Parents told children: “Don’t try. Speak English,” Curo said.

At the Barona Indian Reservation in Lakeside, the tables are turning. Curo, now more than 50 years older, was recently encouraging his daughter, granddaughter and several other language students to speak Kumeyaay. Workbooks and dictionaries were scattered around them, and the tribe’s chairman stopped by to check up on their progress.

It’s a scenario being repeated across San Diego’s reservations, and California’s: Steady or growing numbers of people are taking language classes, from none or just a handful decades before, said people from the Sycuan, Viejas and Barona bands. High schoolers and even younger children are showing up for classes, with or without their parents.

“There’s a statewide renaissance that many tribes are participating in,” said Marina Drummer, with Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, an educational and promotional organization. “Virtually all tribes are making an effort to preserve this piece of their culture.”

Whereas before speaking a native Indian language was seen as undesirable, “it’s become something to be proud of,” said Mandy Curo de Quintero, Curo’s daughter. She’s teaching her two daughters the Iipay dialect through courses, activities at home and CDs she plays in the car, which she uses for better pronunciation.

Based on anecdotes like these, there’s talk on local reservations of a resurgence. Not so fast, counters Margaret Field, a professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University who studies American Indian languages.

“Kumeyaay is down to about 100 fluent speakers, most of whom live in Baja. You can use whatever adjectives you like, that’s the empirical number,” Field said in an email interview. “All indigenous languages around the world are endangered, in that they could disappear within a generation or two.”

And Kumeyaay, part of the most ancient language family of California, is no different. All that keeps it from oblivion are three delicate threads: the memory of a few dozen fluent speakers, these elders’ willingness to teach, and the enthusiasm and dedication of their students.

“As far as its future goes, it’s up to the last 100 speakers. They have to start speaking it to children, as many children as possible, as quickly as possible, and just keep it up,” Field said.

Why they bother

Speakers and students of Yuman languages (Kumeyaay, spoken by some local tribes, is a Yuman language) recently got together for an annual Yuman Language Summit, held this year at Barona. They live all across California and Baja California, and up the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon.

Cecelia Medrano, a member of the Fort Mojave tribe, traveled almost five hours from Needles, with her grown daughter, to find out how others are preserving their languages. In her community, she said, maybe 25 people are still fluent.

“I thought I’d come and see exactly how it is — how some of the other tribes are trying to rectify that. It’s important. You can’t let it die. Because if it dies, what do you stand for?” Medrano said.

A cynic or even a pragmatist might ask: Why bother? English is the language spoken by most people in the United States, and Spanish is common locally. Why labor to learn a language that has no word (unless you count recent coinages) for television or email? A language almost no one else speaks?

Students of Kumeyaay echo the claims of people who study other languages, living or dead: knowing a language means knowing a culture. In the Iipay dialect of Kumeyaay, Curo said, the same word represents earth and dirt — amut. That’s also the word for human. “Because we come from the ground,” he said. That vocabulary “shapes your vision, your perspective on life.”

Charlene Worrell, a tribal leader with Sycuan, decided to learn Kumeyaay because the tribe’s history and values are shared through songs, not writing.

“I’ve come to realize that our language is kind of poetic, in a way,” Worrell said. Instead of an equivalent of “hello” or “good day,” the Kumeyaay greeting, haawka, means “may that fire in you burn bright.”

One session at the Yuman language conference showed how language and philosophy could be said to inform one another. O’Jay Vanegas, a museum educator with Barona, gave a talk about a game of Monopoly he helped develop, where the goal is for people to speak in Kumeyaay. They learn vocabulary and hop from square to square, counting aloud. Just as important, he said, is the way the game teaches players about an alternative value system.

“The concept is totally opposite of the capitalist-based philosophy of Monopoly. This is more communal,” Vanegas said. Instead of buying utilities, for example, players pay to be custodians of natural resources — acorns or water. In this Native American take on the game, there’s no jail, but players get detained on “vision quests.”

Early start

Drummer, with the statewide Indian cultural group, said it’s hard for tribes to revive languages when few people are fluent, and when there are so many different groups and languages. Unlike with Spanish or Hawaiian, you need many different textbooks and dictionaries, not just one. “It’s a big challenge, for sure,” Drummer said.

Another challenge: A generation or two ago, people didn’t learn indigenous languages because of the stigma, members of various local tribes said. Today that reputation has changed, but there’s a new obstacle: distraction.

Like many others in the age of streaming Internet, Breeana Donayre, 15, is tempted by Netflix binges or whiling away her hours online. Yet studying her ancestral language has somehow kept her interest.

“I just think it’s cool to be able to speak the same language as my past family and everybody. It’s cool to, like, know a part of them is kind of in me,” Donayre said. Language exercises are more fun than her other homework, she added.

Members of the Viejas band realized it’s important to hook language learners when they’re young. Anita Uqualla, a teacher, persuaded tribal leaders to fork over about $35,000 to a company that develops iPhone applications. In November 2012, the tribe released a free Kumeyaay language app, with audio recordings and learning tools.

“We needed to have a way to reach our young people, so we decided to use the media, and the app was perfect for that,” Uqualla said. Uqualla didn’t have information about downloads or usage, but she said the tribe’s educational programs use it.

Stan Rodriguez, a Kumeyaay language teacher from Santa Ysabel, shared a recent anecdote — a small triumph from a few years ago. The language then, like today, was endangered, but it was rarer to see young people in classes. A group of junior high school boys seemed totally uninterested in what he was teaching.

“In one ear and out the other,” Rodriguez said. But then, a week later, he got a call from the school principal, who was concerned. They boys were overheard saying cheeky things about the school bus driver — in Kumeyaay.


Mark Moseley says ‘no red men have said anything derogatory to me’ about the Redskins name

Moseley is in the middle. (Via
Moseley is in the middle. (Via


By Dan Steinberg, Washington Post, August 5


Mark Moseley is one of the former Redskins players now engaged on the name issue, and he isn’t treading lightly when discussing this debate.

Moseley was on NewsChannel 8’s “SportsTalk After the Game” with Alex Parker this week, and the one-time kicker was fired up.

“It’s come up before, and it’s the most ridiculous thing that you could ever have” Moseley said of the debate. “We just thought it would blow over. But this time it hasn’t blown over. They’ve managed to get to some people that have a voice, some people with a little power, and they’ve made it into something that it’s not. And so we decided as alumni that we were going to get out and find out for sure. I mean, we don’t want to do something that’s hurting somebody’s feelings or it’s not the right thing … so we decided to take it upon ourselves to find out.

“I personally grew up with the Alabama-Coushatta Indians down in Texas,” Moseley went on. “They were 10 minutes outside of town. So I’ve been around Indians all my life, and when I came to the Washington Redskins it was elation in the reservation. They loved the fact that I was playing for the Indians. They considered it an honor.

“And so we were really upset with the fact that they’re trying to tell us that all these years we’ve been playing under a name that was derogatory to someone,” he said. “We’ve interviewed over a thousand people. We’ve talked to over a thousand Indians. And not one, not even one has said anything about it being derogatory to them. I even went up to one of them face-to-face that I didn’t even know, and I asked him, I said point blank, ‘If I came up and I called you a Redskin would you be insulted?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not, I take great pride in being an American Indian, being called a Redskin.’ So to me, it’s bogus.”

Later, Parker asked Moseley what he thought about the people who have said they are offended by the name.

“If it was Indians, then I would be concerned,” Moseley said. “But everyone that’s said anything to me has been a white man or a black man. No red men have said anything derogatory to me about it.”

Parker also read Moseley some dictionary definitions indicating the word could be offensive.

“You can get offended by anything,” Moseley said. “I can get offended by what somebody’s saying to me. But the Redskins, if we start changing, to me they’re attacking my amendment rights that I have. To me, the name Redskins is something that does not offend anybody. The Redskins are not being hurt, the Indians are not being hurt by this, they’re telling us that. I mean, are we going to believe the white man or are we going to believe the Indian when it comes to a subject that is supposedly affecting them? They’re the ones we need to listen to. We need to pay attention to what they’re saying, and not what some of these other people are saying, and listen to where their hearts are.”

Moseley also said that “all these reservations, almost 90 percent of them have an organization on their reservation called the Redskins, that use that as their rallying cry. Schools, almost every reservation has a school that has an organization on it called the Redskins.”

I don’t believe that’s actually true, although there certainly are several majority-Native American schools that use the name. Moseley also said some good has come out of the debate, because “we’ve found out how really deplorable” the conditions are for some Native Americans.

“And it’s ridiculous that we as Americans are letting them and making them, almost forcing them to have to live this way,” he said. “It was very much an eye-awakening trip for those of us that have not been on a reservation in a while.”

As for the suggestion that the Redskins were buying support on reservations, Moseley rejected that outright.

“The fact is that they need help and we’re giving it to them,” he said. “And we’re not trying to buy [them]. We talked to people before we even did anything for them, and we got the same answer. So that’s bogus. That doesn’t even come into the ballgame here. But we as alumni feel that it’s important that we make sure that if we’re going to follow this, and if the Redskins are going to continue to be called the Redskins, we need to make sure — and Mr. Snyder wanted to make sure — that no one is being hurt. And we found out that they’re not.

“I really get upset. I get mad, because people are trying to say that I’ve been using a racist name,” he said.


Senate Hearing Today Will Examine Higher Education for Indians

ed.govJamienne Studley, U.S. deputy under secretary of education, will testify today before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Jamienne Studley, U.S. deputy under secretary of education, will testify today before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Source: Department of Education, June 11, 2014

Jamienne Studley, U.S. deputy under secretary of education, will testify today before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs as part of an oversight hearing entitled, “Indian Education Series: Examining Higher Education for American Indian Students.”

Studley will discuss the U.S. Education Department’s efforts to expand educational opportunities and improve educational outcomes for Native American students through college access, affordability and completion. The administration remains committed to working with tribes and supporting tribal colleges and universities to ensure that all American Indian and Alaskan Native students have high-quality educational experiences that prepare them for careers and productive lives.

The administration views college completion as an economic necessity and a moral imperative. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, while the average public high school graduation rate for all students has increased six points, from approximately 75 percent in 2007-08 to 81 percent in 2011-12, the high school graduation rate for American Indian/Alaskan Native students over the same period rose by only four points, from 64 to 68 percent.

To find out more about the Department’s efforts to make college more accessible, affordable and high-quality, click here.

In addition, President Barack Obama’s Opportunity for All: My Brother’s Keeper Blueprint for Action report was released recently, outlining a set of initial recommendations and a blueprint for action by government, business, non-profit, philanthropic, faith and community partners to expand opportunities for boys and young men of color—including American Indians and Alaskan Natives—to help them stay on track and reach their potential.



Cowboys and Indians Ride on DC, Protesting Keystone XL for Earth Day

Manuel Balce Ceneta/APThousands gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Sunday February 17, 2013 to hold President Barack Obama to his promise to combat climate change.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Thousands gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Sunday February 17, 2013 to hold President Barack Obama to his promise to combat climate change.


Next week, April 22, former Green Party Vice-Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke and the Cowboy and Indian Alliance made up of Native people, farmers and ranchers will ride on horseback into Washington, D.C. to show their opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.

The protest on Tuesday will be one of many activities kicking off Earth day 2014 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. LaDuke’s organization, Honor the Earth will be joining forces with the Cowboy and Indian Alliance a group of about 30 Oglala Lakota Indians as well as a group of non-Native ranchers and farmers from North Dakota and Nebraska that have all joined forces in protest.

Additionally on the final day of protest, thousands have been invited to protest in unison against the pipeline and the Canadian Tar Sands. On Saturday April 26 at 11 a.m. at the National Mall between 7th and 9th streets, the Cowboy and Indian Alliance will make closing arguments against the pipeline.

Instructions on the Reject and Protect website state:

4 days after the Cowboy Indian Alliance tipis first go up on the Mall, we’ll gather at 11 AM on Saturday the 26th at the encampment to make our closing argument against the pipeline. As we gather, everyone there will be asked to make their thumbprint mark on a tipi. Then we’ll hear from the farmers, ranchers, tribal leaders and refinery community members who will be directly impacted by Keystone XL and the tar sands — and who have pledged to lead the resistance should it be approved.

Then, those leaders will carry our painted tipi to present to President Obama, with thousands of people standing behind them. This tipi will represent our hope that he will reject the pipeline, and our promise that we will protect our land, water and climate if he chooses to let the pipeline move forward.

Once the tipi is delivered, we’ll return to the encampment in song and make our pledge to continue resistance to the pipeline should it be approved.

In an e-mail campaign sent from the Honor the Earth Foundation LaDuke writes that many opposers to the pipeline will be in D.C. and will set up at the tipi camp at the National Mall and will ride to the White House “to show Obama and the world that Native Nations will stand firm in asserting our human and constitutionally protected treaty rights in saying NO to the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

In an interview with ICTMN, LaDuke said, “Our communities are continuing our spiritual work in opposing these pipelines – these pipelines threaten our water and our way of life.”

“My sister and my son will be riding horses, I might ride. They have asked me. There will be 30 Cowboys and Indians on horseback going all the way up to the White House on horseback to fight the Keystone pipeline. This is a continuation of that spiritual ride,” LaDuke said.

“To not have the pipeline is what we want, every time you look there is someone else at the White House. President Obama should do the right thing. I have enjoyed the fossil fuels era as have you, but I would like to gracefully exit it not crash my way out. We need to gracefully exit into renewable energies fuel efficiencies and bio diesels with a lot less impact. I have enjoyed it now I’m ready to go.”

LaDuke also said how people can support the cause. “They can support all of this by joining us in D.C. and sending us money, we are in the middle of fighting three pipelines and we are thinly staffed.”



Open Crop Art Calls for Rejection of Keystone XL Pipeline

Lou Dematteis/Spectral Q, via Bold NebraskaThe crop art image with HEARTLAND #NoKXL protests the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on a corn field outside of Neligh, Nebraska
Lou Dematteis/Spectral Q, via Bold Nebraska
The crop art image with HEARTLAND #NoKXL protests the proposed Keystone XL pipeline on a corn field outside of Neligh, Nebraska


Simon Moya-Smith, ICTMN

It’s a message not from an alien species, but from opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Last week a crop-art image the size of 80 football fields was installed along the controversial pipeline’s proposed path in Neligh, Nebraska. The image includes the bust of a man in a cowboy hat and an American Indian in a porcupine roach with two feathers. Under the pair of heads is an illustration of water waves and the text, “HEARTLAND #NoKXL.”

The massive art installation, which was executed by artist John Quigley in partnership with the anti-Keystone XL Pipeline Cowboy and Indian Alliance, is meant to tell President Barack Obama to protect the heartland and reject the pipeline, according to Bold Nebraska, a coalition of groups and individuals opposing the project.

Opponents argue that it will contaminate drinking water and pollute the soil. Conversely, proponents state it will bring jobs to the U.S. The project has been controversial from the start, and now that the decision is down to the wire, the opposition is digging in even further.

“Jobs are not worth the risk of the future of our land,” Tessa McLean, Anishinaabe, a member of the Colorado American Indian Movement and an Idle No More activist, told Indian Country Today Media Network. “Even if the pipeline is safe, even if it never ever spills, it still takes the rights away from land owners. It goes through Indian country, and we don’t want anything going through our country without [our] consent. And Indians will never consent.”

RELATED: Can a Tipi Stop a Pipeline? South Dakota Tribes Stand Firm Against Keystone XL

The section of pipeline that still needs approval would cross the border from Canada, where the viscous bitumen originates in the Alberta oil sands, and cut through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

Ranchers, farmers and Native Americans who live on the pipeline route plan to descend on Washington, D.C. and camp near the White House beginning on April 22, which is Earth Day, to encourage the president’s support, according to the Cowboy and Indian Alliance website. On April 26, thousands of opponents are expected to join the campers and protest the pipeline.

Several camps are already installed along the pipeline route in Indian country. Descendants of the Ponca Tribe erected a camp in Nebraska in November. A second was established on the Rosebud Sioux reservation on March 29, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe opened one on Saturday April 12.



College Cheer Squad Dresses Like Cowboys & Indians

Twitter.comA screen shot of a photo previously posted on the @UofRCheer's Instagram account. The photo was removed over the weekend.
A screen shot of a photo previously posted on the @UofRCheer’s Instagram account. The photo was removed over the weekend.


A photo that made the rounds on Twitter Sunday evening has sparked backlash against a cheerleading squad from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.

The squad tweeted a photo taken during a practice event that showed 18 girls wearing cowboy costumes and “Indian” themed regalia. The squad members wore clothing that looked like pieced-together buckskin dresses, parted their hair and wore long braids, and put on headbands with feathers in their hair.

Valerie Timmons, the president of the university, said that the cheerleading coach has apologized for the team’s “culturally inappropriate themes and costumes.

“Further steps will require that the team’s coaches and team members discuss this matter as a group with the university’s Executive Lead on Indigenization and take cultural sensitivity training,” Timmons’s said in a statement. “Once these discussions have taken place, the university will determine whether further disciplinary actions are required.”

The photo was also posted on Instagram and received 44 likes before it was removed. U of R faculty, staff and students were outraged by the photo.

“I was disturbed by the image, and I thought that the team, like all of us who live in Saskatchewan, likely need formal education on the topic,” Andrea Sterzuk, an associate professor, told, “because treating First Nations and Métis women as a costume objectifies them, and that behavior, I think, contributes to their dehumanization, which is a larger problem that I think all Canadians need to be concerned about.”

Ryan Deschamps, a doctoral student at the university, told, “I thought we were kind of past this issue. I think it was something that we’ve seen in the news that’s obviously insensitive to certain people and I don’t understand how that actually happened.”

At least 10 percent of the students at the university are of aboriginal descent. It is also home to the First Nations University of Canada.

Someone using the @UofRCheer Twitter account responded to the backlash on Saturday: “We apologize for the photos, they have been removed from all of our social media. Our last intention was to disrespect anyone.”



As Long As The Rivers Run: An Original Musical Play About Salmon And The Indians Who Love Them

Please join Red Eagle Soaring Native Youth Theatre on Sunday, December 15th for a performance of As Long As The Rivers Run, an original musical play by Roger Fernandes (Lower Elwha Klallam) about the historical and contemporary relationship between salmon and Northwest Native peoples. Reception and refreshments following, all are welcome.


As debate over ‘Redskins’ name intensifies, hard to tell how many Indians think it’s a slur

Associated Press, Published October 8, 2013

The name of a certain pro football team in Washington, D.C., has inspired protests, hearings, editorials, lawsuits, letters from Congress, even a presidential nudge. Yet behind the headlines, it’s unclear how many Native Americans think “Redskins” is a racial slur.

Perhaps this uncertainty shouldn’t matter — because the word has an undeniably racist history, or because the team says it uses the word with respect, or because in a truly decent society, some would argue, what hurts a few should be avoided by all.

But the thoughts and beliefs of native people are the basis of the debate over changing the team name. And looking across the breadth of Indian Country — with 2 million Indians enrolled in 566 federally recognized tribes, plus another 3.2 million who tell the Census they are Indian — it’s difficult to tell how many are opposed to the name.

The controversy has peaked in the last few days. President Barack Obama said Saturday he would consider getting rid of the name if he owned the team, and the NFL took the unprecedented step Monday of promising to meet with the Oneida Indian Nation, which is waging a national ad campaign against the league.

What gets far less attention, though, is this:

There are Native American schools that call their teams Redskins. The term is used affectionately by some natives, similar to the way the N-word is used by some African-Americans. In the only recent poll to ask native people about the subject, 90 percent of respondents did not consider the term offensive, although many question the cultural credentials of the respondents.

All of which underscores the oft-overlooked diversity within Indian Country.

“Marginalized communities are too often treated monolithically,” said Carter Meland, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

“Stories on the mascot issue always end up exploring whether it is right or it is wrong, respectful or disrespectful,” said Meland, an Ojibwe Indian.

He believes Indian mascots are disrespectful, but said: “It would be interesting to get a sense of the diversity of opinion within a native community.”

Those communities vary widely.

Tommy Yazzie, superintendent of the Red Mesa school district on the Navajo Nation reservation, grew up when Navajo children were forced into boarding schools to disconnect them from their culture. Some were punished for speaking their native language. Today, he sees environmental issues as the biggest threat to his people.

The high school football team in his district is the Red Mesa Redskins.

“We just don’t think that (name) is an issue,” Yazzie said. “There are more important things like busing our kids to school, the water settlement, the land quality, the air that surrounds us. Those are issues we can take sides on.”

“Society, they think it’s more derogatory because of the recent discussions,” Yazzie said. “In its pure form, a lot of Native American men, you go into the sweat lodge with what you’ve got — your skin. I don’t see it as derogatory.”