‘Ačaam Together’: California Tribe Celebrates Language Through Seasonal Songs

How do you keep a Tribal community united and strong during a global pandemic, especially when a statewide shutdown prohibits citizens from gathering in person to celebrate their long-held traditions?

The answer for the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians (FTBMI or Tribe) was “Ačaam (singing) Together,” a musical instruction program taught via Zoom that drew families and friends together around the Fernandeño Tataviam language and culture.

FTBMI is the 800+-citizen historic Tribe of the northern Los Angeles County of ancestral villages, stretching across the San Fernando, Santa Clarita, eastern Simi, and Antelope Valleys. The Tribe received the name Fernandeño through its enslavement at, and affiliation with, Mission San Fernando Rey beginning in 1797, and therefore, represents many cultures, languages, and dialects within its coalition. “Tataviam,” one of several regional groups within the Tribe, translates to “people facing the sun.”

The “Ačaam Together” project was led by Mark Villaseñor, the Tribe’s vice-president, and Jenée Ornelas, director of the Tribe’s Education and Cultural Learning Department’s (ECLD) AIEC program . “Ačaam Together” was supported by First Nations’ California COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Fund. This Fund is administered through First Nation’s California Tribal Fund, and is designed to help California Native-led organizations continue to grow and thrive through the COVID-19 crisis.

“During the pandemic, we didn’t have the opportunity to congregate in person with our people like we normally did to share our cultural songs and traditions. We needed to find another avenue because our people were clamoring for healing,” explained Villaseñor, the head singer and instructor who is well-known among the Tribe. “This grant from First Nations allowed us to provide our people with cultural learning through virtual connections that we didn’t have the resources to do ourselves.”

One of the main goals of this community-centered, online music program, which ran from September 2021 to January 2022, was to inspire the community to use the Fernandeño Tataviam language. Director Ornelas said that the beauty of “Ačaam Together” was that anyone of any age could participate to learn the language.

“The majority of the ECLD’s programs are for youth, but so many people were requesting family-oriented programs during the pandemic that we thought this language-centered music program was the perfect fit for parents to learn the language and help teach it to their children,” she explained.

Fifty-one people registered for “Ačaam Together,” from ages 3 years old to 60. Ornelas said that registration filled up almost immediately within 48 hours, far surpassing the intended registration goal of 40.

Celebrating the Seasons

The “Ačaam Together” team also included the FTBMI Language Committee and a Tribal linguist who assisted with the contemporary instructional songs.

“Ačaam Together” featured four contemporary songs taught in four virtual singing sessions―three in September, October and December of 2021―and one in January of this year. Villaseñor and Ornelas collaborated with a talented ensemble that included the FTBMI Language Committee, whose purpose is to revitalize the language, and a Tribal linguist to assist with the instructional songs that centered language and culture around the seasons.

“We wanted to have these songs represent each season so that when we come to gather, we can teach these songs to our people, they can sing with us at cultural events, and they will also learn about our language, culture, and knowledge in a traditional way,” said Villaseñor about the concept of the “Ačaam Together” program.

Every participant received a cultural supply kit assembled by Ornelas’ dedicated ECLD staff, who worked many behind-the-scenes hours on the project. The kits contained instructions and materials to construct two traditional, Indigenous musical instruments―a gourd rattle and clapping stick―as well as snacks, face masks, other personal protective equipment (PPE), stickers and song lyrics.

With an experienced eye for traditional Indigenous instruments, Villaseñor hand-picked every gourd. “The gourd rattle is made from a natural, wild gourd that has been dried. The closest gourd farm is 113 miles away from our community, one way, so it was very time-consuming to go out there,” said Villaseñor. “I had to individually inspect each gourd to make sure it was music ready. You can’t just use any old kind.” He further explained that the clapstick is an elderberry branch split down the middle and forced into a V-shape at the end. “If you do it right, it will clap on its own.”

While the head singer taught participants during four live-streamed sessions using Zoom, language materials, audio files and videos were also available on the Tribe’s website. The organizers wanted families to be able to practice the songs privately and review what they learned around their own schedules.

“The ability to access all the materials from each session on the website was very helpful for participants. You want to keep practicing these songs so we can sing them together at our in-person Tribal events,” said Ornelas.

To reinforce the language-learning aspect, each video featured the phonetic spelling of the song lyrics and the translation to English at the bottom of the screen. “We wanted our Tribal members to feel comfortable and confident with how they pronounce words,” she added.

Hitting All the Right Notes

 To gauge the success of the “singing together” language program, Pamela Villaseñor, Executive Advisor to the FTBMI President, helped the Tribe’s Health and Social Wellness Department send out surveys to participants before and after the virtual event.

“Before the program started, 40 percent said they didn’t feel comfortable singing songs in the Fernandeño Tataviam language.” But she discovered they changed their tune after the program ended. “Later, 100 percent said they were prouder of the Tribe’s culture and heritage, and more likely to participate in Tribal ceremonies. To have that statistic coming directly from the people is HUGE!”

One parent of a 4-year-old participant shared in the post-test survey, “When people ask Madeline what she’s singing, she proudly says, ‘These are my Tataviam songs.’” An older participant shared this touching reflection: “I have waited 56 years to connect with my Tribe and ancestors. …Thank you to all who funded this project so that we can learn our songs.”

The program coordinators said they hope that the participants in “Ačaam Together” will be invited to sing at the upcoming Kehaai, the Tribe’s annual fiesta.

Mark Villaseñor said the highlight of the online singing program was seeing the kids’ happy reactions as they began to connect with the music. “Just to see their faces on Zoom go from, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ to ‘“I get it!’ was so rewarding.”

He said becoming the head singer for “Ačaam Together” was a fulfillment of a longtime goal. “This is what I got into singing to do, to pass these traditions on to the next generation. It was the physical representation of what I have been trying to do for the last 18 years.”

Moving forward, Ornelas and Villaseñor would like to offer this program again to Tribal families, possibly this summer. With hopes that the pandemic is starting to fade, more people are starting to feel comfortable congregating again. “Many participants would rather have this program in person. However, some do enjoy taking part in it from the safety of their homes,” shared Ornelas.

One unexpected outcome from the pandemic that will benefit FTBMI in the long run is that it accelerated the Tribe’s migration into the virtual space. “Currently, we are beta-testing a web page that will allow our community to practice these songs virtually in preparation for in-person gatherings,” Villaseñor explained the Tribe’s latest venture. “This way, we can reach more of our people and help decrease loneliness resulting from social isolation.”

A video of the Ačaam Together program can be viewed on the FTBMI Instagram profile @fernandenotataviam.