Language Preservation

“Beedi Yalumina” (Don’t Give Up!): The Winnemem Wintu Language Project

Tribal Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk-Franco leads a language night class at the village.

For our tribe, the Winnemem Wintu language is more than a manner of speaking and communicating.

It’s the thread that holds our culture together: it’s the language our sacred places know, the language in which our songs must be sung and the language that is embedded with concepts and knowledge that cannot exist in English.

Tragically, generations of Indian students attended government boarding schools, where they were beaten for speaking tribal languages. Those schools and other government policies have pushed many indigenous languages to the edge of extinction. We are, however, working hard to ensure our language lives on for future generations of Winnemem.

Wintu is an oral language, and we are currently in the process of working with our linguist to create a dictionary, a written alphabet and instructional materials to help our young language learners. This effort requires a vast amount of resources and time. It’s vital to the preservation of our lifeways, ceremony and religions.

To support our language restoration efforts, you can make a tax-deductible donation to the Indian Cultural Organization, our non-profit.

Jerod Ward holds up a flashcard for "łuuyuq" or porcupine during language night at the village.

The Language Project’s History and Future

Our linguist Stefan Liedtke, a resident of Munich, Germany, began working with us nearly two decades ago. Visit his web site about his work with the tribe. (It’s in German).

The goal of the project is to provide the Tribe a complete set of learning and teaching materials, including a practical writing system endorsed by the Tribe, audio examples of pronunciation and writing and practical grammar.

A short talking dictionary is also planned as well as an illustrated list of the names of animals, plants and cultural items.

During several stays in California between 1994 and 1999, Stefan conducted documentary research with Florence Jones, Emerson Miles and Margie Charles, some of the last truly fluent speakers of Wintu. It was during this time that Tribal Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk-Franco was a language apprentice of Florence and Emerson.

He also began developing pedagogical materials:

  • Weh Tiin (“Come on, speak”)/Umaa Siiwu (“write it like this”): A guide to pronouncing and writing the sounds of Wintu
  • Tl´aamah (“You count!”) – A guide to counting and calculating in Wintu

The first comprehensive English-to-Wintu dictionary is an ongoing project. Work on the dictionary has continued off and on between 1999 to the present day. It will not only be a dictionary for looking up words, but will also serve as an introduction to the Wintu world by presenting words in their context, providing short phrases and listing cultural information when available.

Stefan plans an association with the Living Tongues Institute and hopes to find the time in 2012 to complete the archival work, work on the identification of plant and animal names, digitize the sources, process the data and create learning and teaching materials.

He is also in the process of securing funding to complete the project.

To contact Stefan, email him at liedtkest@aol.com.