Mutsun was the language spoken by those who lived along the Pajaro and San Benito watersheds. This area includes San Benito and Monterey Counties and southern Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties. Anthropologist have estimated that there were 7,000 speakers of the Mutsun language at the time of first contact.
Father Felipe Arroyo De la Cuesta, was a missionary priest at San Juan Bautista. He documented the Mutsun language and in 1815 compiled his Vocabulary or Pharse Book of the Mutsun Language of Alta California. This book was first published in Spain in or about 1846. This was the first published work on a Native American language. De la Cuesta’s book was later published by Cramoisy Press of New York in 1862.
In 1902, C. Hart Merriam worked briefly with Barbara Solorsano, mother of Ascencion Solorsano, and documented mostly place names, tribe names, plants, animals and basket names in Mutsun. These were published posthumously in 1967.
In 1916, J. Alden Mason compiled a dictionary and prepared a grammatical sketch of Mutsun based entirely on the phrases in De la Cuesta.
Briefly in 1922 and then again in 1929, John Peabody, of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, worked with Ascencion Solorsano. Ascencion was the last fluent speaker of the Mutsun language. From August 1929 until her death in January 1930, Harrington lived in Ascencion’s basement and worked with her each day. Harrington wrote that he had “…never known a woman with a better memory… sickness seemed to have made it even better, clearer and more spiritual.” During this time Harrington recorded approximately 67,500 pages of anthropological field notes. Harrington carefully reviewed the work done by De la Cuesta and because Harrington was a trained linguist he very carefully documented pronunciation and additional grammar elements of the Mutsun language.
In 1956-7 a researcher by the name of Laurence Thompson found one Mutsun person, Lupi Tapia, who remembered a few words of the Mutsun language. From this person 33 words were recorded.
In 1977 Marc Okrand, a Ph.D. candidate at U.C. Berkeley, submitted his dissertation titled, Mutsun Grammar. This body of work provides the foundation for our Tribal efforts to restore the Mutsun language. An interesting note here is that Marc Okrand is the linguist who developed the Klingon language of Star Trek. We like to believe that our Mutsun language helped influence the Klingon language.
In an undated document from the 1990’s linguist Natasha Warner developed an ENGLISH-MUTSUN, MUTSUN-ENGLISH DICTIONARY, based on the work of Fellipe Arroyo de la Cuesta and the dictionary of J. Alden Mason.
A subsequent Mutsun language dictionary was developed in the early 2000’s by Natasha Warner and Lynnika Butler of the University Arizona and Quirina Luna Geary of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. This comprehensive dictionary is currently being finalized and will soon be published.
Mutsun Language Revitalization
Currently the Amah Mutsun have a very active language revitalization program. Our efforts include the following:
- On a weekly basis Chairman Lopez has a one-on-one meeting with a graduate linguistic student at U.C. Davis. These lessons have been on-going since Mayy 2010.
- Twice a week basic lessons on vocabulary, grammar, phrases, or sentences are emailed to members;
- On a bi-monthly basis language classes are held at U.C. Santa Cruz. For those who can’t travel these lessons are streamed live via the internet so members can participate. At these sessions we review the email lessons that were sent out over the prior two months and we review a lesson from our Mutsun Language Textbook which was developed by Natasha Warner and Quirina Luna Geary. Finally a digital sound file of new vocabulary or phrases is made. These classes are recorded.
- Most recently we have two to three online skype language lessons per week that focus on conversation.
- A comprehensive library of our email lessons and video recordings of our language classes are posted to our website for easy access by our members at any time.
A goal of the Amah Mutsun is that all Tribal business will be conducted in Mutsun within 20 years and that we will offer Mutsun language lessons to elementary and high school students within our traditional Tribal territory.