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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Researching Roots of Tubatulabal Language, Artifacts in Nation’s Capital
by Valerie Cassity KV Sun

Last month, on June 8-26, four members of the Tubatulabal tribe traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs about the tribe’s ongoing process for federal recognition and do some historical research on their tribal language and artifacts.

The unforgettable trip was sponsored by the Tule River Indian Reservation, that supports their neighbors’ federal recognition efforts and donated the necessary $12,100 for airfare and hotel.

Sherry Click, Betsy Johnson, Donna Miranda-Begay, and Louise Miranda-Akers were among the 42 applicants selected to attend the Breath of Life Conference, an event designed and funded by the National Science Foundation for endangered languages.

The focus of the conference was looking at various resources, including the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Museum’s Native American section and Anthropological archives, that are available for researching their ancient languages.

Begay and Johnson found 1935 recordings of Steban Miranda, Donna’s great-grandfather, as well as documents by C Hart Merriam, a biologist who garnered interest in the California tribes on behalf of Smithsonian.

Merriam came to the Kern Valley in 1902 and started working with Tubatulabal, then returned in 1935. Merriam had a standard word list, akin to a rosetta stone of the three factions of the Tubatulabal language: Bakalanchi, Pakanapul, Palegawan, thus reinforcing Begay and Johnson’s theories about their tribal dialects. “It confirmed our beliefs about ourselves and there were tears of joy,” said Begay.

Discovering a hard copy of Miriam’s journal was exciting and enlightening. The group was able to follow Miriam’s journey of California step-by-step. Maps, photos, and written accounts of Miriam’s adventures from 1800 on contained maps of Kern, geology, natural water path and watersheds.

The June trip to D.C. was a first for all but local Native American advocate Begay, who traveled to the nation’s capital many times during the 1990s. At that time, she attended the Urban Indian Health Conference and worked at subsequent advocacy and education efforts, securing funds for health care for Indians in cities.

The group’s first goal was to address the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. One issue, in particular, concerns a mummified 12-year-old child that was found in 1903 at the mouth of the Kern Canyon. The girl, whose remains have been carbon-dated to around the year 1300, has been kept in a special mummy room in the Smithsonian Museum for decades.

The ladies said they wanted to pay their respects to the child, while continuing their efforts to bring the child home for proper burial in her tribe’s traditional manner. They are working with the Tachi Yokuts (Santa Rosa Rancheria Tribe) on this issue because Tachi Yokuts are federally recognized.

Another focus of the group’s 17-day was the Tubatulabal’s federal recognition efforts. The women met with Lee Fleming, Director for the Department of Interior, BIA Office of Federal Acknowledgment, to learn more about the seven steps the tribe must take in an effort to gain federal recognition. Fleming provided the group an overview of the federal recognition process. In turn, the group gave Fleming a tribal membership role, their constitution, and a demonstration of the Tubatulabal language.

Wanting to make the most of their meeting, Begay and the others talked with Fleming about the historic village sites located in the Kern River Valley and surrounding areas. The women told Fleming about the tribe’s work with the Forest Service and BLM on the ancient sites, thus offering up a evidence of the Tubatulabal’s strong, existing government- to-government relationships. This reinforced the case for the tribe’s prehistoric presence in the Valley.

Additionally, the tribe has been diligent in revitalizing their native language and is working with a variety of governmental agencies, coordinating with Kern County in the development of the Kern River Valley Specific Plan and CalTrans by identifying cultural sites in areas where projects are proposed.

Thousands of cultural sites in our area have been mapped with a GIS mapping system. “We are advancing with our relationships with the government but also with technology and ourselves,” said Begay. “We are taking care of business; water projects, housing, getting our kids through high school and higher education. We can’t wait for federal recognition; we are doing these things ourselves.”

In the Breath of Life, Begay and Johnson had to come up with a final project, and for that they created The Breath of Life song, which is a tribute to the things that they saw. They based the song on one of the recordings of Steban Miranda, using his tone which had touched both women profoundly. The song, according to Begay, reflects that they have big knowledge with learning the language and the connection to the past.

The fourth goal was to view traditional Tubatulabal baskets stored in the Anthropological department of the Smithsonian, and they were granted a private tour to see them.

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