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The Chumash Languages at Breath of Life / Silent No More

University of California at Berkeley

imgThe Chumash languages comprise a family of seven related languages once widely spoken throughout the Santa Ynez Valley. Chumash territories spanned more than 7,000 square miles of what is now California, including much of the southern coast from Malibu to Paso Robles, inland to the western San Joaquin Valley.

Today there are no first language speakers of the Chumash languages, but many tribal members are researching the extensive language documentation in archives to reclaim their languages—in some cases with the assistance of linguists and other Native Americans who attend the Breath of Life conference. Some tribal governments have organized efforts like the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians’ Say It In Samala language program, which is utilizing documentation from the J.P. Harrington papers and recording collections at the University of California and other archives to create teaching materials.

Begun as a collaboration with linguist Richard Applegate to create a beginning language class, the effort expanded to include a dictionary project. “The Samala-English Dictionary: A Guide to the Samala Language of the Ineseño Chumash People” was unveiled in 2007. The Say It In Samala program is also creating new curriculum materials for beginning language learners of all ages in weekly language classes.

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Did You Know ...

Chumash people call themselves “first people” in their languages, while “Chumash” is a more anthropological term. Many elders also say “Chumash” is an ancient word from terms meaning “beadmakers” or “seashell people,” linked to stories of the peoples’ island home.

Island-based Chumash people long specialized in producing shell beads. The first Spaniards who arrived in the 1500s equated the beads with currency, and later established a Catholic Mission system in the 1700s—enslaving tribal peoples to construct their mission complexes.

Five missions were established throughout Chumash homelands (Ventura, Santa Barbara, La Purisma, Santa Ynez, and San Luis Obispo). Tribal place names still dot the landscape, including Malibu, Ojai, and Cuyama.

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