COARSEGOLD, Calif. — Inside a classroom of some 20 adults and children studying the language of their tribe, a university linguist pointed out that Chukchansi has no “r” sound and that two consonants never follow each other. The comments seemed to stir forgotten childhood memories in Holly Wyatt, 69, the only fluent speaker present, who was serving as a living reference book.
“My mother used to call Richard ‘Lichad,’ ” Wyatt blurted out, referring to a relative. “It just popped into my head.”
Using revenue from their casino here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Chukchansi Indians recently pledged $1 million over five years to California State University, Fresno, to help preserve their unwritten language. Linguists from the university will create a dictionary, assemble texts and help teach the language at weekly courses like the one on a recent evening.
The donation caps efforts in recent years by American Indian tribes across the nation to bring back their tongues before the death of their sole surviving speakers. With coffers flush from casino gambling, dozens of tribes have donated to universities or have directly hired linguists, buttressing the work of researchers dependent on government grants, experts say.
The money has given the tribes greater authority over the study of their language, an often culturally fraught discipline. Some tribes wishing to keep their language from outsiders for cultural or religious reasons have retained researchers on the condition that their findings remain unpublished. The control has also persuaded aging speakers — who grew up in an age when they were often punished at school for speaking their language — to collaborate with outside experts.
“There are more people out there who can talk, but they don’t come forward,” said Wyatt, who with her sister, Jane Wyatt, 67, meets with linguists twice a week. “I was like that, too. My daughter convinced me I should do it.”
Nearly all the 300 Native American languages once spoken in North America have died or are considered critically endangered. For many tribes, especially the dozens of tiny tribes in California that spoke distinct dialects and experienced dislocation and intermarriage like their counterparts in other states, language is considered central to their identity.
“The whole reason that outsiders even knew we were a people is because we have our own language,” said Kim Lawhon, 30, who organizes the weekly classes and started running an immersion class for prekindergarten and kindergarten students at Coarsegold Elementary School last year. “Really, our sovereignty, the core of it, is language.”
There was also a more practical matter. Tribes have asserted their right to build casinos in areas where their language is spoken, and have used language to try to fend off potential rivals.
The Chukchansi are opposing plans by the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, whose traditional land lies east of here, to build an off-reservation casino about 30 miles southwest of here. In an interview at the Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino here, where he was introducing a new game, Big Buck Hunter Pro, Reggie Lewis, chairman of the Tribal Council, said Chukchansi and other tribes belonging to the Yokut Indian group in this area shared common words.
“But the Mono language, it’s totally unintelligible to us,” Lewis said. “You have to establish the cultural or ancestral ties to a place to open a casino there, and language is a way to do it.”
The 2,000-slot-machine casino, which opened in 2003, yields $50 million in annual revenues, according to the Tribal Council. Each of the tribe’s 1,200 members receives a $300 monthly stipend, with those 55 and older also getting free health insurance and other benefits.
The gambling revenue has also intensified political infighting here as it has in many other places. Violence erupted early this year after a disputed election for the Tribal Council.
According to the National Indian Gaming Association, 184 tribes with gambling operations took in $29.2 billion in 2010 and made more than $100 million in charitable donations.
Jessica R. Cattelino, an expert on Indian gambling at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it was not “until the late 1990s that with electronic games we begin to see revenues sufficient to allow tribes to explore options for major philanthropy.”
Tribes have become increasingly sophisticated in their gift-giving, focusing on their culture and language while often setting the research terms.
“Tribes can control their own intellectual property rights,” said Erin Debenport, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has worked with Pueblo tribes in the state, including those who do not allow researchers to publish written examples of their language.
The Chukchansi, who had been donating about $200,000 a year to Fresno State’s football program, will reallocate the money to the linguistics department.
“How do we justify supporting athletics when our language is dying?” said Lawhon, the kindergarten teacher.
Linguists help to restore language
Lawhon had tried to restore the language with the Wyatt sisters and some other community members here, but decided to reach out to Fresno State’s linguistics department for help three years ago.
Chris Golston, who was the department chairman at the time and had been on the faculty for 15 years, had long dreamed of working with one of the local tribes. But given the sensitivity surrounding the research of Indian languages, an older colleague had advised him that the only strategy was to wait to be approached.
“After 15 years, I thought this was possibly the worst advice in the world, but one day three years ago they just called up,” Golston said.
Four of Fresno’s experts, who had been working with the Chukchansi in their spare time for the past three years, will be able to devote half of their work schedule to the language thanks to the grant, the largest in the department’s history.
On a recent afternoon at Fresno State, Holly Wyatt met with two linguists to try to decipher a five-minute recording they had found here a month earlier. Two women were heard playing a local game in the 1957 recording, which excited Golston because it was the “closest to conversation” of the various examples in their possession.
As the linguists played snippets of the tape over and over, Wyatt slowly made out their meaning. The game revolved around a man climbing up a tree and taking care not to fall.
“What do you get out of that, Holly?” Golston asked about a difficult word.
“That one word has me confused,” Wyatt said. “I don’t know what it is.”
She cradled her head in her right hand and shut her eyes.
Maybe some words were already lost. The women on the tape spoke fast, Wyatt said later. Her hearing was not getting any better, she said, and a hearing aid did not help. The words the linguists kept introducing sounded familiar, but some just refused to be extricated from her mind’s recesses.
“It’s pressure,” she said, “because they’ve come up with a lot of words that I haven’t heard in years.”