San Benito Lifestyle

Nearly 20 Years in the Making, Dictionary Awakens Mutsun Language

Spearheaded by Amah Mutsun tribal member, Quirina Geary, and University of Arizona Professor of Linguistics, Natasha Warner, new Mutsun dictionary is born through an effort at language revitalization
berkeley mutsun crew 2014.jpg

As often the case with transformative moments, Quirina Geary conjures up the incident with ease: She had just put the finishing touches on her California Missions project—an assignment routinely completed by fourth-graders enrolled in California public schools—when a classmate, who knew of Geary’s California Indian heritage, challenged her and said, “Why don’t you speak Indian?” Always aware and proud of her Mutsun identity, the young Geary sat silent, unable to utter one word in her ancestors’ native tongue. Thus began Geary’s quest to become a fluent, Mutsun speaker—a journey that has resulted in the creation of the most comprehensive Mutsun-English, English-Mutsun dictionary to date.

Nearly 20 years in the making, the dictionary is freely accessible through Language Documentation & Conservation (LD&C), “a peer-reviewed, online open-access journal” that focuses “on issues related to language documentation and revitalization,” according to its website.

In an interview with BenitoLink, Geary explained that she became a member of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in her late teens, hoping to learn more about Mutsun culture, specifically its language. But she was soon disappointed. The last fluent speaker, Ascension Solorsano (de Cervantes)—who’s buried today at the Indian Cemetery at Mission San Juan Bautista—had died in 1930. 

A flier Geary saw posted a few years after her membership renewed her spirits. It announced an upcoming Breath of Life Language Restoration Workshop for California Languages to be held at the University of California, Berkeley.

Organized by Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS), the biennial workshop (initially held annually) provides California Indians interested in language revitalization an opportunity to sift through university archives often with the aid of a trained linguist. As materials become available and accessible, attendees begin designing a project that allows them to reclaim their language.

Geary attended her first Breath of Life workshop in 1996 and was amazed by the sheer volume of material on Mutsun.

When she arrived the next year, a fortuitous meeting with Natasha Warner—then a University of California, Berkeley graduate student of linguistics—changed her life. 

Warner, who had volunteered at the workshop as a student mentor in 1997, discovered that the tribe she had been assigned to wasn’t in attendance. And Geary’s Mutsun contingent was without a linguist. Without foresight, organizers paired Warner and Geary and set in motion an enduring friendship built on the love of language.

In her interview with BenitoLink, Warner, who is now a professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona, recalled thinking to herself at the time, “I would like do something useful, but I don’t know anything about Mutsun.”

Despite her self-doubt, Warner instantly won Geary over with her indomitable spirit and her genuine desire to help in any way possible.

The two went straight to work, reviewing the trove of archival material amassed by Geary and deciding into which resource to delve first based on their limited time and funds.

The oldest resource dated back to the early 19th Century. 

While a mission priest in San Juan Bautista, Father Felipe Arroyo (de la Cuesta) meticulously recorded 3,000 Mutsun sentences and translated them into Spanish.

“Arroyo was very much a linguist,” Warner said. 

Since the establishment of the California Mission system in 1769, an urgency existed among mission priests to learn indigenous languages, as indoctrination through translated Biblical texts and Roman Catholic rituals sped up Hispanization (the cultural and religious policy of assimilation promulgated by the Spanish Empire). 

In 1916, American anthropologist and linguist James Alden Mason translated Arroyo’s work into English, producing the first ever Mutsun-English dictionary. 

Warner explained that Mason went through each sentence and painstakingly translated every word. Mason’s task was made more difficult because of errors made by the typesetter who transcribed Arroyo’s eloquent handwriting.

“Though he didn’t generate any original data, Mason made a huge contribution to understanding Mutsun. And he mostly got it right,” Warner said.

The challenge for Warner and Geary was making Mason’s work more user-friendly, as searching for an English word involved thumping through pages and pages to find it.

Realizing the inefficiency, Warner volunteered to create a database, where both Mutsun and English words and their counterparts coexisted and could be called up with a click of a computer mouse.

Twentieth Century digital technology was used to address another issue: Using optical character recognition, Warner corrected the errors that Mason had made when translating Arroyo’s work.

By 1998, a simple, no-frills Mutsun-English, English-Mutsun dictionary had been created and slowly Geary’s path to Mutsun fluency began to gain traction.

The cultural use of Mutsun—an important component when studying a language—began to be gleaned by analyzing the work of a 19th-Century American zoologist and naturalist, Warner explained. 

While documenting the flora and fauna of North America, Clinton Hart Merriam became somewhat of a linguist, asking native peoples, including the Mutsun, the indigenous name for the plants and animals he encountered.

He also included, “kinship terms and basic verbs,” noted Warner.

In 1902, Merriam published his work on Mutsun. But because Merriam wasn’t a trained linguist, mistakes were inevitable.

“Mutsun has the same five vowels as Spanish and Latin. And English is terrible to use when translating. He really made a mess with the vowels,” Warner added.

The last resource that Warner and Geary decided to tackle was the most daunting, yet yielded the most valuable information, according to Warner.

In 1930, famed American ethnologist and linguist John Peabody Harrington traveled to San Juan Bautista and spent countless hours with Mutsun matriarch, Ascension Solorsano. For six months, Harrington lived in Solorsano’s home, documenting the Mutsun language, tribal customs, and ecological practices.

Currently housed in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History, Harrington’s notes filled almost 70,000 pages.

Warner and Geary wanted desperately to begin analyzing Harrington’s work, but purchasing the extensive material on microfilm would be costly. Initially, small grants and out-of-pocket expenses funded the pair’s work, but this endeavor would require a substantial amount of funding.

In 2005, a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities answered their prayers. With money secured, the microfilm was purchased and so began the countless hours poring over Harrington’s window into the past.

Warner explained that Harrington’s work was exemplary. 

“He included meaning, pronunciation, grammar, cultural context, and how a word changed over time,” she said.

For Warner and Geary, it was a moment reminiscent of French Egyptologists unearthing the Rosetta Stone.

Because of the Breath of Life workshop’s biennial meetings,  communicating and sharing information through regular mail became a necessity. As bandwidth expanded and email service improved, so, too, did the progress on the dictionary.

Geary described how the process unfolded: Warner, who had assembled a team of paid staff and university student volunteers, would enter information into the dictionary’s database, while Geary passed along other documents. 

In addition, Geary served as a liaison between the Amah Mutsun community and the university team, presenting drafts to the tribe. Functionality became the primary concern when creating the dictionary, she noted.

For both Geary and Warner, this was the most trying period in the process. 

Geary longed for more enthusiasm by her fellow tribal members toward the project. She didn’t understand why others didn’t share her passion.

“At times, it was disappointing because you didn’t have community interest,” Geary said. But she pressed on.

“I’m going to do this for my children,” she recalled saying to herself. “I can never give up.”

And personal victories buoyed her optimism. 

“When something clicked and I was able to independently construct sentences, I gained more confidence,” she said.

Like Geary, Warner also felt alone, and sometimes, guilty about her work.

Logging hours at a computer keyboard was vital to the process, explained Warner. But “it was solitary work,” she said.

She added that linguists thrive in the field, interacting with speakers and lending their expertise. She desperately wanted to share her knowledge, but realized that computing came first.

“At times, it felt is wasn't the right thing to do,” Warner said.

The frustration that both Geary and Warner felt was exacerbated by the simple fact that there were no living fluent speakers.

As the dictionary took shape, the pair joined forces with the Amah Mutsun to initiate a language revitalization program, complete with classroom instruction. From the beginning, the effort faced many challenges and eventually it ended. 

The 18 years of due diligence, unflagging determination, and unwavering confidence and trust culminated in the publication of the most comprehensive Mutsun-English, English, Mutsun dictionary in February.

It holds nearly 4,000 words, and each entry contains grammatical, historical, and cultural information.

Its preface is laden with information, including a thorough pronunciation guide that states, “Capital Letters mean special sounds!” and, unlike English, “Mutsun spelling is totally regular. The Mutsun letter c always makes the English ‘ch’ sound.”

Warner shared a quality unique to Mutsun that she found fascinating: noun/verb reversibles. “It’s not common in language at all,” she said.

Simply by changing the ending of a noun it becomes a verb and vice/versa.

For example, the Mutsun word for  “bird” is “huumus” (pronounced, hoomoos). But when the vowel and constant at the end switch places (“us” to “su”) a new word, “humsu” (pronounced, hoomsoo) is created, explained Turner. The word “humsu” means “to catch birds.”

The dictionary is also a demonstration of a language’s malleability, even in the face of conquest.

Spanish colonization involved the introduction of various animals and plants into California, including grapes.

Borrowing from the Spanish word for grape, “uvas”, the Mutsun created the word, “huuwas” (pronounced, hoo-wahs).

Words from the digital age were included in the dictionary, too. The Mutsun word for email is, “anSa-ennes.”

Now that the dictionary is available, Geary and Warner are hopeful about the future, but realize there’s a lot of work left to do.

“Figuring out a way to gain fluency in the home is the first priority,” Geary stated by phone from her family’s residence at the Elem Indian Colony Reservation near Clear Lake.

As she busies herself with refining teaching materials to accompany the dictionary, she’s also experimenting with different strategies to develop fluency, often involving her children in the process.

Geary described a pilot program she is using in which she and her children engage in situational conversations using Mutsun. 

Whether at the dinner table or playing a game outside, participants in the conversation must use words specific to that setting. Geary noted that she usually distributes cheat sheets before a dialogue begins, reducing the anxiety that comes with learning a new language.

Next fall she will enter the University of California, Davis, where she will major in both Native American studies and linguistics, courses of study that are sure to augment her understanding of her own history and the intricacies of language.  

Warner echoed Geary’s sentiments about fluency.

“In the long term, my hope is to see people, parents and their children, speak fluently,” she said.

And like Geary, she's working on instructional materials, including a draft for a textbook and topics for upcoming podcasts. The current grant will fund these projects, she noted.

But Warner was emphatic about who should direct the language’s future.

“The Mutsun must guide it.” She added that the tribe could continue to count on her, stating, "my commitment is life-long.”

The dedication that both Warner and Geary demonstrated throughout the years and the outcome of that effort is not lost on the tribe’s leadership.

“We’re very proud and grateful to both Natasha and Quirina. The dictionary is extremely comprehensive and very useful. And it’s a foundation on which to restore our language,” said tribal chairman Val Lopez in a phone interview with BenitoLink.

He explained that the tribe envisions a dozen or so fluent speakers in the next “five to seven years,” many drawn from the tribe’s Native Stewardship Corps.

Despite the recognition she’s earned from the tribe and Lopez’s ambitious goals, Geary feels that language revitalization isn’t a top concern for the tribe’s leadership. But she believes it should be.

“Language is the basis of who we are and how we view the world. Individuals need to be the ones who see the value of the language and to take ownership of it,” she said. 

Warner maintains that even though decades had past since a conservation in Mutsun occurred, the language was never extinct — rather, it lied dormant. 

“There were still people who identified with that heritage and wanted to use the language,” she said.

Geary was one such person. 

As a fourth-grader attending a Central Valley elementary school, she longed to speak as her ancestors did. 

Fueled by a youthful passion, she has learned how, meeting the challenge posed to her years ago with two simple words, “welle-ka” (I can).


Click here to listen to Quirina Geary's audio recording (in Mutsun) of the Mutsun folktale about the origin of thunder.

Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. For over two decades, I've been a faculty member at San Benito High School, where I teach world history, Mexican-American history, and Ethnic Studies. I've been reporting for BenitoLink since 2015. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.