Valley tribe turns to technology to preserve ancient language

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- An ancient language once spoken by a Foothill and Valley Native American tribe is rebounding from the verge of extinction.

Over the last six years, Chukchansi speakers have compiled a dictionary and efforts are now underway to teach the language to young tribal members.

"Our language has died off so I don't want to bury it," said Tribal Elder Holly Wyatt. "There's not many speakers still around. If our generation goes, it will just go."

Tribal members said the language is one of the most difficult to master.

"The way you use your mouth, your tongue, it's hard," said Wyatt.

For example, Chukchansi has no "R," "F" or "V" sounds, two consonants never follow each other and many of the words are long and consist of several syllables and apostrophes.

"The Yokut dialects are some of the most complex to try to learn and that's why they're kind of famous is for different elements they have, they're just very rare," said Chukchansi Educational Coordinator and Coarsegold Elementary School teacher Kim Lawhon.

Only a handful of tribal elders still speak it fluently which is why it was in danger of dying until now.

"We found some documents from the 1930's where they had 27 Chukchansi myths. They were old oral stories," said Lawhon.

Stories, she said, like "Stinkbug" and "Why the Coyote's Eyes Are Best" now being used to preserve, protect and revitalize the tribe's native tongue, cultural identity and traditions.

"It's a really a critical stage for us to get our language out to everybody," said Lawhon. "I think for tribal members, we really want to preserve our identity and if you lose that (the language) you're losing a lot of your identity as Native people."

Thanks to the casino's one million dollar grant to Fresno State, the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians now has a dictionary with more than 2,000 words. Grammar a group of tribal youth is now using to create apps to teach the language to others.

"The kids did a game first to try to get them involved and see the fun side of using technology, but we're also translating our stories, those 27 myths. They've done artwork for 10 of them and then they're using that artwork in the app and creating the apps themselves," said Lawhon.

The elementary, middle and high school students have been working on the games and programs for the last two weeks as part of a summer art and technology camp at the university.

The Android and i-Phone apps will be used as part of the curriculum in Coarsegold schools and afterschool programs.

Digital technology designed to give the ancient language a vibrant future.

"It's fun. It's a great experience to learn more about who you are and what makes you who you are," said Clovis High School student Alexis Hand.

And to bring hope to some of the only surviving members who can currently speak the language.

"We're still bringing out words," said Wyatt. "Sometimes the words just pop out of me."

The "Stinkbug Chukchansi" app is available now in the Android and iPhone stores. Nine other language and story apps are currently in development and are scheduled for publication in the next few weeks.

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