Revitalizing the local language


Listen up all you immigrant slackers. Yeah, I’m talking to you. It’s about time you learned about the language that was spoken around here long before you were a glimmer in your daddy’s eye.

English? Wrong direction. Spanish? Not even close.

I’m talking about Chochenyo, the indigenous language spoken by Ohlone people in the East Bay which evolved over thousands of years. The language — once considered dead by scholars — has been rejuvenated in recent years thanks to a small but vibrant effort to reconnect with a culture that once extended over much of the greater Bay Area.

On Saturday at Mission Dolores, the revitalization of the Chochenyo language takes center stage during a day-long focus on Ohlone culture and history.

Andrew Galvan, curator at Mission Dolores, and assistant curator Vincent Medina are among those proudly redefining the role played by the Ohlone in the history of California and the creation of the Missions.

Galvan — himself the great-great-great-great-grandson of a Bay Miwok baptised at Mission Dolores in 1794 — told SFBay he is working to re-educate the public on the role played by the Ohlone and other indigenous people in early California:

“We’re not changing history, just qualifying it, interpreting it. We are interpreting what happened over 200 years ago, not from the perspective of the conqueror, but from the conquered.”

The message spread to more than 30,000 fourth-graders — who visit Mission Dolores for their state history requirement — has been recast to be more inclusive, Galvan said:

“History used to say, ‘the padres built the Missions.’ Now, we say, ‘the indians built the Missions under supervision of the padres. Because that’s how it was.”

The kids seem to be getting the message. Galvan said that before he was curator at the Mission, most children who sent drawings as ‘thank you’ notes would almost always draw the Mission itself. Now, Galvan says, most kids draw pictures of the Ohlone ruway, or traditional house, now in the Mission Dolores courtyard:

“Coming to a Mission now is about indians.”

If you have even a passing knowledge of California history, you know that the Spanish splashed across California in the late 1700s, spreading Catholicism through a series of Missions from Sonoma to San Diego.

Less well-known are the divisions of indigenous people who occupied modern California in the centuries prior to European domination. The Chochenyo lived in the East Bay throughout modern-day Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Galvan and Medina can both trace their Ohlone lineage back over many generations. Through research, the pair discovered they are actually distant relatives, sharing the same ancestral ties back to Mission Dolores.

Galvan says his heritage and role at the church give him a unique perspective on the Missions, the Spanish, and California’s indigenous people:

“Those of us who are here today, don’t pick a fight with us. We’re the tough ones. We’re survivors. When people ask ‘who won?’ I tell them the indians are in charge in 2012. Not the Spanish. I think the indians won.”

Saturday’s program runs from at 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Old Mission Dolores at 16th and Dolores. For more information, call 510-882-0527.

Jesse Garnier
Jesse Garnier is the editor and founder of SFBay. A Mission District native, he also teaches journalism as associate professor at San Francisco State University.

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