After pandemic hiatus, Native American language survival workshop returns to campus

May 20, 2022

In the mid-1990s, Quirina Geary was a cashier at a Safeway store in Madera, California, and a young mother of two. While raised in a tribal community in California’s Central Valley, she did not speak her ancestral Mutsun language and wanted to fix that.

Intimidated, yet determined, she headed along with her sister, Clara Luna, to UC Berkeley to attend Breath of Life, a biennial workshop in which California Native Americans pair up with linguists and other scholars to revitalize Indigenous languages by sharing personal histories, knowledge and archival materials.

There, Geary partnered with Natasha Warner, then a Berkeley graduate student in linguistics. The two went on to co-author an English-Mutsun dictionary, among other publications. Mutsun is one of the primary languages of the Tamien Nation and other tribes whose respective homelands extend from South San Francisco to Monterey Bay and San Benito County. Ascención Solórsano, the last first-language Mutsun speaker, died in 1930.

“Coming from a rural community with only a high school diploma, we never would have stepped foot in a university,” recalled Geary. “But when we got to Berkeley, the archivists and everybody there made us feel OK.”

Berkeley News