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Indigenous Peoples' Day: Reawakening native East Bay Ohlone languages

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) – We hear the sound of a Native American language believed to have been long forgotten — Chochenyo was archived in the 1920s by linguist John Peabody Harrington. 

He was the first known person to put the sounds on paper in written form with the help of a woman named Maria De Los Angeles Colo, who was said to be one of the last fluent speakers. 

Two waves of colonizers infiltrated the Northern California Coast and forced Indigenous people to abandon their way of living and speaking. 

First, the Spanish missionaries in 1776, then the Mexican nearly one century later. 

Despite the occupation, abuse, and suppression, these are not people of the past, but the present, who still flourish in their homeland, although called by a different name. 

Now known as Berkeley, Vincent Medina and his partner Louis Trevino have both dedicated more than a decade of their lives to reawakening the ways of their ancestors through both food and language. 

The duo is empowering their community by bringing back traditional Ohlone cuisine, like quail eggs cooked with rosehip and elderberry at their restaurant Mak- ‘amham.

Once linguistics students themselves at U.C. Berkeley, Medina and Trevino are now teaching weekly classes in Chochenyo and another of 8 Ohlone languages called Rumsen.

“Every week we always feel, both Vince and I, we talk about this afterward, regardless of all the things that have been happening in the world and what that can feel like, at the end of language class you always just feel so warm, and so satisfied, and so happy,” Trevino said.

“We have a responsibility to those people that we come from to make sure that their sacrifices are never in vain to make sure that we live up to those expectations that they have for us and that we help make the future brighter for the generations that are coming,” Medina said.

The next generation has arrived ready to learn alongside people of all ages who are meeting online for a 73rd consecutive week to study. 

Their student Corina Arellano felt compelled to connect with her roots when expecting her firstborn son. He made his way into the world at the peak of the pandemic, so she named him a word in Chochenyo which means strength.

“For our ancestors, the fact that our language hasn’t been spoken fluently for so long for us to be able to bring it back is huge, such a big step to reclaiming our culture back,” Arellano said.

Their youngest pupil has been practicing newly learned words with friends in her fourth-grade class.

“First I came out to be just like, a little kid, and now I’m a girl who is a part of this culture who can actually learn a ton of words in Chochenyo that not most people know and so I really got appealed to it and so I just keep doing that and it’s part of what I do and I feel proud of it,” Amaya Ruano said.

Another student explains that learning their language is a way to pay respect to their elders who endured danger they no longer face. 

“Some people don’t realize that some of our elders or ancestors literally had the language beat out of them and this is our way to make them proud to make sure that we keep our language alive,” Tina Laudani said.

While Medina remarked that reviving indigenous languages is rewarding because it connects them with an identity. Both educators say their efforts are repaid with a newfound sense of hope and a sign that the resilient East Bay Ohlone is alive and well.

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