Kawaiisu elder Luther Girado (left), a fluent Nüwa language speaker who lives in Walker Basin, works with linguist Justin Spence of UC Berkeley on a language project funded by an ANA grant.

Until relatively recently, neighbors greeting each other in the Tehachapi area did not say “Hi,” “How’s it going?” or “Hello.” They said “Hagare’enam?”

The phrase is pronounced ha-ga-reh-eh-NAHM and means “How are you?” in the Nüwa (Kawaiisu) Indian dialect, which was the language that was spoken here for all but the most recent 150 out of the past 2,000 years.

The sun was called tavi, mountains were known as kavo and the word for Earth was Teep. The Tehachapi people spoke in a sing-song, evocative way in a language that was passed down orally from parents and grandparents to their children.

Beginning about 1850, new people began to arrive in ever-greater numbers who spoke English or Spanish. The original language of the Tehachapi Mountains was pushed aside, almost to the point of extinction.

Almost, but not quite.

There are still a handful of native speakers of the Nüwa language, which anthropologists refer to as Kawaiisu, though speakers themselves prefer the term Nüwa.

There are also several hundred living Kawaiisu descendents, even though a pervasive misconception believes them to be all gone.

Recently an Administration for Native Americans (ANA) grant was awarded to the Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center to help further efforts to teach this ancient language.

Girado siblings started school in Kern County speaking no English

The two-year project focuses on three siblings who were raised in Kern County speaking their native Nüwa language: Luther Girado, Lucille Girado Hicks and Betty Girado Hernandez. All three have been involved over the past seven or eight years in helping to perpetuate the language their parents taught them.

A number of audio lessons and accompanying text have been prepared by Lucille and Luther, and the current effort will build on that earlier progress.

“The goal of this project is to find out where language students have difficulty, and through linguistic analysis determine Nüwa speech patterns and design audio and visual teaching materials to help students,” explained Laura Grant, who is the project coordinator.

Julie Girado Turner, Luther’s daughter, is the media developer for the project, and she and Laura have enlisted the help of two talented linguists: Justin Spence, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and Jocelyn Ahlers, an assistant professor at Cal State San Marcos in Vista, California.

The two linguists are working with Lucille, Luther and Betty to better understand how this language works and what the “rules” are, though unwritten languages tend to be quite flexible and forgiving and are not overly rulebound.

“Over the two-year period, we are going to work on eight different topics that the students select,” Laura told me. “The first was developing a standard writing system for Kawaiisu, and now we’re working on verb paradigms — how action words are used and modified in speech.”

Feds refuse to recognize obvious fact

The fact that the Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center was able to win a substantial grant was remarkable because at this point the tribe is not federally recognized.

The tribe was formerly recognized — older members have Bureau of Indian Affairs roll numbers — but that recognition was removed in the 1950s and tribal members are currently petitioning the government to have that restored.

So even though the Kawaiisu are clearly and undeniably an established Indian tribe, they are currently denied official sanction. 

“It’s really inconceivable that this tribe is not formally acknowledged,” Laura noted. “They have this unbroken chain of thousands of years of language and culture, and yet the federal government refuses to recognize them. It’s not logical.”

Frequent readers of this column may know that I have become a fluent speaker of this evocative, respectful language, and we continue to hold classes to keep it alive. I’ll keep you posted on the progress of this important project.

Nu’u pu-keh-vaad Imi. (I will see you).

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