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The expansion of the British colonists into North America through the 17th and 18th century, later followed by the complete takeover of the continent by the independent American colonists throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, has left many indigenous tribes on the brink of extinction, with numerous traditions, religions, and languages becoming lost and forgotten (Bean 1972). Forced out of their own homes and becoming strangers on their own lands, the Indians were forced to adapt to the new realities, where white Americans reigned supreme.
The English language became the official language of the nation, with generations of indigenous people slowly being assimilated into the dominant culture. The results of this aggressive cultural expansionism are felt well into the 21st century, as numerous foundations and volunteers are trying to save and restore what little remained of diverse and indigenous cultures and languages of the past. One of many native tribes on the brink of extinction is the Cahuilla tribes. The purpose of this paper is to shed light on the unique language and culture of this indigenous tribe and review the measures currently in place to save it from potential extinction.
The Cahuilla Tribes
Historically, the Cahuilla tribes resided in the inland areas of southern California. While their territory initially was around 2,400 square miles, the majority of it was lost due after 1852, when the California Senate refused to grant the tribe control of their lands (Bean 1972). The majority of the Cahuilla Indians were forced to live in ten reservations across California. The collective number of the Cahuilla Indians is 4,238 as of the 2010 Census (Bean 1972).
One of the biggest tribes is the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. The reservation is located in the vicinity of Palm Springs, California. Due to the reservation taking up some territory of the sea resort, the tribe is the city’s largest collective landowner (Bean 1972).
The language of the Cahuilla is called the Ivilyuat – it is a very rare and endangered language from the Uto-Aztecan language family. Studying this language enabled the linguists to decipher some of the writings found on the ancient Aztec artifacts and monuments due to the similarities between these languages. The language is fluently spoken by less than 35 people, with some of the major activists for preservation and revival of the Ivilyuat language dying from old age (Victoria 2014).
Alvin Silva, one of the tribe’s fluent speakers, died from old age in 2009. He contributed to the preservation of the Ivilyuat language by recording the traditional bird songs of his people and passing them on to the younger generations. Another important figure in the struggle for the preservation of the language was Katherine Siva Sauble – a native speaker and activist. She passed away in 2011 at the age of 91 (Victoria 2014). As the language does not have its own alphabet, the remaining speakers rely on the Latin alphabet in order to leave recordings and formulate the grammatical and phraseological structure of the language.
Local Language Restoration Initiatives
Despite the tribes still existing and numbering over 4,000 individuals in total, the Ivilyuat language is slowly becoming extinct (“Language” n.d.). A language becomes extinct when it is no longer taught to children as their first language, and when the last native speaker of the language dies. Since Ivilyuat is not used outside of the small and scattered communities of the Cahuilla tribes, the majority of the younger families chooses to teach their children English as their first language in order to ensure their success in school and in life.
However, there are several initiatives that help to keep the language alive. For a long period of time, the Lima Project assisted in the promotion and study of the Ivilyuat language, as well as several other related tongues, such as Serrano, Kupeno, Tonga, etc. Since 2014, the University of California Riverside joined the campaign by opening several workshops in order to acquaint the general public with the Ivilyuat language (Victoria 2014).
Cultural Revitalization Efforts
While the resurrection of the Ivilyuat language is important, it is only one of the few measures in place to resurrect and ensure the survival of the Cahuilla culture. Many of the larger Cahuilla communities conduct annual celebrations, during which they wear native regalia, sing songs in the native language, sell items and trinkets that are supposed to protect from evil spirits, and acquaint the general populace with Cahuilla kitchen (AFP 2015).
The most famous celebration among the tribes is the annual agave festival. Agave is one of the central plants in Cahuilla culture, as it is used as food, and its juice can be fermented into an alcoholic drink. The native regalia is predominantly blue, with images of flowers and decorative ornaments adorning them. The regalia are worn predominantly by women, as there are only a few men to attend the ceremonies (AFP 2015). After the introduction of the language restoration initiatives, native traditions became more popular among the youth, which bodes well for the perspectives for Cahuilla culture and language survival. It is important to maintain the connection between generations so that the Cahuilla is not lost to time (AFP 2015).
AFP. 2015. “Californian Cahuilla Natives Try to Keep Traditions Alive.” Mail Online. Web.
Bean, Lowell John. 1972. Mukat’s People: The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
“Language.” n.d. The Limu Project. Web.
Victoria, Anthony. 2014. “UCR to Offer Free Workshops on Endangered Native American Language.” Highlander News. Web.