Wednesday, Jan 29 2014 05:35 PM

Betty Girado Hernandez, a sweet spirit and fluent speaker of Kawaiisu language

Related Photos

Betty Girado Hernandez at a language recording session in Stallion Springs. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

Siblings Lucille Girado Hicks, Betty Girado Hernandez and Luther Girado at the dedication of the Nüwa mural in Downtown Tehachapi.

Betty when she worked for Spencer Lees at the garment factory in Tehachapi. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

Betty offering a prayer and blessing at the opening of the Milano Gallery of the Kawaiisu at the Tehachapi Museum. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

Betty and younger sister Lucille in Loraine as little Indian girls living in a remote cabin. Photo courtesy of Jon Hammond

The local Native American community, her close family and many friends are mourning the loss of Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) elder Betty Girado Hernandez, 69, who passed away on January 14 after a lengthy illness. Betty, whose Indian name was Saygud Hoyov -- White Dove -- was a proud fluent speaker of the Nüwa language and she was an integral part of our ongoing language and cultural preservation efforts.

Betty and her siblings, Luther Girado and Lucille Girado Hicks, were raised in the Tehachapi Mountains in the more remote portions of Kern County -- Loraine, Twin Oaks, Walker Basin --- and they started school speaking only Nüwa and had to learn English in class. They maintained their Nüwa fluency throughout their lives and have been a tremendous resource for those of us learning and documenting this ancient language.

Though she lived in other parts of Southern California as an adult, Betty always maintained ties with family and friends in Tehachapi, and she was here on a regular basis. Over the past 12 years, she came to Tehachapi even more regularly to be involved in language lessons and recording -- until very recently she was here on a monthly basis. She said prayers and blessings in the Kawaiisu language at the dedication of the Nüwa mural on the side of the Hitching Post Theaters, the opening of the Milano Gallery of the Kawaiisu at the Tehachapi Museum, an honoring ceremony at the Sand Canyon Indian Cemetery, and more.

Betty was born on May 6, 1944 to Raphael and Gladys Girado. She was one of five children born to the couple, but two of them -- a daughter named Violet and a son named Stanley -- died from illness as children. The houses that the Girado family lived in were really cabins, with no electricity or natural gas, or even running water. The family had to haul water in buckets from natural springs or Caliente Creek and use an outhouse. Firewood provided heat and fuel for the cookstove. The family lived close to the land, still harvesting traditional Native foods like acorns, pine nuts, koovoos (an edible wildflower) and watercress, while their father hunted deer and rabbits.

Betty was born premature and was tiny at birth, but she grew up strong and tough living a lifestyle that was more like 1900 than the 1950s. Her father Raphael worked as a cowboy and hired hand for local ranches, including the sprawling Rankin Ranch, and he spoke five languages, including Spanish, English and several Indian languages, but at home he and Gladys made a conscious decision to speak Nüwa so that their children would grow up knowing their traditional language.

Betty and her younger sister Lucille also helped out at local ranches when they were older, doing household work, and Betty developed a hard working ethic that she maintained throughout her life. When she was a young woman she and Lucille both worked at Spencer of California, the Tehachapi facility on C Street (currently being renovated into the new Tehachapi Police Station) that many longtime residents referred to as simply "the Garment Factory," which was best known for making sleepwear for children. She worked there even on the very day she gave birth to her daughter Merlene.

Throughout her life, Betty often worked two jobs to support her family, including her children, Merlene and Richard, and in her close-knit family she also helped raise her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Betty LOVED kids and welcomed her children's friends as she did her own. She put in long days at her jobs and then came home to cook and clean. In recent years she lived in Desert Hot Springs and worked at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.

Betty had a great sense of humor (in two different languages) and she was known for her quick and radiant smile. She knew tragedy and hardship in her life, but it made her more compassionate, not bitter. She was a humble and modest person, in the cultural Indian way, and she had a very strong spiritual and religious faith, a blend of traditional and Christian beliefs.

Betty suffered a stroke in 2010 that might have incapacitated many people, but she struggled to keep going and she was still one of the active leaders in our language documentation efforts. We would take the three Girado siblings to the places where they grew up -- remote land where no cabins stand today -- to do video recordings in the language, and despite having great difficulty walking and having to be in a wheelchair, Betty would be right there contributing.

It was my honor to be her wheelchair attendant during these recording sessions, and together we'd get her where she needed to be, over the rocky and uneven ground. We figured out the best way to get her in and out of the high SUV we used, and we'd laugh together as we'd hug like we were slow dancing and then I'd lift her in the vehicle. Betty would apologize and worry that she was being too much of a burden, but I considered it a privilege to help my precious Indian auntie -- the feisty, funny, passionate lady who loved people, seeing new places, and sharing meals with loved ones. My heart breaks to know that I can't help keep her with us anymore.

Betty knew peace in her final days as she anticipated joining all the ancestors and other family members that have gone on before her. She was looking forward to speaking Nüwa with the many relatives she would see, and her faith and the love of her dear ones brought her comfort.

Imi uskwevaad unaweh'eh itabum, Saygud Hoyov, su'm suvi'vaad. Tawa puhi mutz pakagut, tam hinigud awat yagid, suavoys, Imi yuwaat pakagut uuv. Tama mutsa pashaawid Imi subhanok. . .

You're going with the Old Ones, White Dove, they will be happy. Our hearts are hurting, we have many tears, but you aren't in pain anymore. We will love you always. . .

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to:

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