The New York Times Op-Docs: Who Speaks Wukchumni?

Former MSU president publishes dictionary to help preserve language of California tribe

MSU News Service

A project that retired Montana State University President Geoffrey Gamble launched nearly 50 years ago may help preserve the language of a California Indian tribe that has all but disappeared.

Gamble, a linguist who served as MSU’s 11th president from 2000 to 2009, has just published a dictionary of the language of the Wikchamni people of California’s southern San Joaquin Valley, a tribe with a declining population that has only one native speaker remaining. It is a 50-year labor of love for Gamble, who first began on the project in 1969 while he was working in a master’s program at Fresno State College. He worked on the dictionary in spare moments throughout a career that evolved from anthropology professor to college administrator to university president.

“I got a little sidetracked,” Gamble joked.

Gamble officially published the web-based Wikchamni dictionary this fall when he also presented his work at a linguistics conference at his alma mater, now called California State University, Fresno, which hosts the online dictionary. Gamble’s small library of field notebooks and file slips and his recordings have been digitized and may soon also be accessible in the special collections of the Fresno State Library.

Despite its name, the work is more than merely a dictionary. It is also an encyclopedia of the culture of the Wikchamni people, and it is a memoir of Gamble’s experience of learning firsthand a way of life that has all but died out.

Geoffrey Gamble, who served as president of Montana State University from 2000-2009, and who is a linguist who continues to research Native American language, published a dictionary of the nearly extinct Wikchamni language, an indigenous language in Gamble's native San Joaquin Valley in California. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

That Gamble fell in love with linguistics and the culture of the small family of Central California Indians near his hometown might have seemed unlikely when he first enrolled in his local university to play football, among other things. He started at Fresno State College in 1960 and at first planned to study astrophysics — which is still one of his many passions. He shifted majors and received his bachelor’s degree in English in 1965 and then launched a successful insurance career. His love of teaching a night class for agents rekindled his passion for academia, and he returned to graduate school. A mentor professor attracted him to linguistics.

“I saw linguistics as half-way between physics and English,” Gamble said. “It gave me a chance to blend my scientific curiosity with my humanistic tendencies.”

Soon after beginning his master’s program in 1969, he met a Cecile Silva through a former colleague in the insurance business. Gamble needed a field project, and Silva, who was then in her 70s, asked Gamble to help her record her history and the language of the Wikchamni Indian Tribe as she and her three sisters recalled it. The four Pohot sisters — which included Silva, Mary Friedrichs, Virginia Aguilar and Susie Metcalf — were among the last native speakers of Wikchamni, sometimes spelled Wukchumni, a tribe native to California’s Central Valley. The family feared that unless someone was willing to write down the oral language and traditions, they would be lost to time.

“The work selected me — I didn’t select it,” Gamble recalls. He would often bring his children as he visited Silva at her home on the Santa Rosa Rancheria, a small reservation near Hanford, California, and she patiently tutored him on the fine points of her people’s ancient ways.

Silvia taught Gamble a wide range of native skills, such as how to collect salt in many different variations from native salt grass and how to weave baskets from sawgrass roots and the bark from the redbud plant. Gamble also recorded the sisters telling Wikchamni stories they learned when they were young. Those ethnographic references are woven into clips and annotated entries that provide depth and breadth to the dictionary.

“The (document includes) cultural descriptions of how the Wikchamni folks, as seen through lives of these sisters, used the natural environment that surrounded them to live full, rich lives,” Gamble said.

Gamble interviewed Silva from 1969 to 1974 and maintained a friendship with her for 11 years before she died in her 80s. Gamble’s work was featured in a 1994 Chronicle of Higher Education story about the death by attrition of American indigenous languages.

Gamble received a master's degree in 1971, graduating with honors. He earned a Ph.D., also in linguistics, from the University of California, Berkeley in 1975 and then took a fellowship with the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He became a linguistics professor of anthropology at Washington State University in 1976 and taught there for 12 years before moving into academic administration at WSU, the University of Vermont and then MSU — a career turn that benefitted from Gamble’s analytical and curious mind and even demeanor, qualities that are also reflected in the dictionary.

Gamble said that when he retired as MSU’s president in 2009 he was able to spend more time on the project, although he is kept busy with a constellation of interests that range from teaching classes to playing and singing in a ukulele cabaret group.

While Gamble regrets that the Wikchamni language has nearly died out, he is grateful to have a part in preserving it in some form. He points out that this is an unfortunate, but not uncommon problem among tribes, particularly small tribes, even in Montana.

“Languages have natural processes,” Gamble said. “They die out through the world. Languages change and evolve.”

He said there is still a great deal missing from the dictionary, including some material originally omitted for religious reasons and out of respect for the sisters. However, a member of the Pohot family recently asked Gamble to add sacred material that he originally omitted. He also continues to translate the many hours of recordings with Silva and her sisters.

“This is slow work, but very interesting work because I run into words and forms I have never heard before,” Gamble said. “It’s still fascinating. And I’m not done yet.”

To learn more about the Wikchamni project go to wikchamnidictionary.library.fresnostate.edu.

Thumbnail photo of Sierra Nevada foothills in California by David Prasad


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