Growing the Cahuilla Language One Fluent Speaker at a Time

On a recent day at the tribal grocery store on the Santa Rosa Indian Reservation, something quite significant happened. An 11-year-old boy greeted the store clerk in the endangered Cahuilla language, saying what translates in English to, “Hello, woman.”

The grocery clerk was shocked. “Obviously, she was surprised that the child was speaking the language. But she was equally surprised that she was able to understand him,” explains Mercedes Estrada, a language teacher who proudly claims both Natives in that casual encounter as her students in the Cahuilla Language Program.

According to Estrada, the program’s language coordinator, there are less than 10 fluent speakers of the Cahuilla language among more than 222 enrolled tribal members of the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians. “It is an extremely endangered language,” and it usually takes about seven years for a learner to fully master a language, she says.

This year, First Nations helped grow the program with a $50,000 grant from the Native Language Immersion Initiative. Now in its sixth year, the initiative has gone a long way in helping to preserve Indigenous languages and cultures. To date, 62 grants totaling over $5 million have been awarded to 39 Native language immersion programs.

Students learn to process an acorn into a traditional food called “wíywish.” They use Cahuilla words for the tools and materials they are working with.

“This grant helped provide our tribal community with a foundation of language classes that will instill cultural knowledge and language skills for the next generation of Cahuilla speakers,” says Vanessa Minott, tribal administrator for the Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians. “We were able to hire Merci, who helped write the grant, as our language coordinator, and an assistant. Merci has developed a phenomenal curriculum based on the Cahuilla creation story, colors, commands, numbers, and animals.”

Estrada has high hopes for the Cahuilla language program. She believes if they receive continued funding to hire another teacher, expand the program, and help her current students on their language-learning journey, the tribe could add another fluent speaker to its ranks within three years. “I get excited if I hear just one kid say one word in Cahuilla. I’m like, ‘Yes! You’re getting it!’”

The long-term strategic plan for the tribe is to create an entire language and culture department. Short-term, Estrada would like to develop a mommy-and-me program where parents would come with their youngest children and be immersed completely in the language for a few hours. “That would be amazing. It’s easier for kids to learn a language when they are really young because they don’t care about saying words exactly right.”

How the Grant Helped Grow the Cahuilla Language Program

The Santa Rosa Band of Cahuilla Indians launched the Cahuilla Language Program in 2019, with fluent adult speakers mentoring future adult teachers online once a week. Because teaching the language to younger generations is a high priority for the tribe, according to Minott, a preschool curriculum was also developed at that time.

Children gather willow during summer camp for a class demonstration later.

With the First Nations grant, the newly hired Estrada was charged with making the preschool curriculum more age-appropriate for 5- to 12-year-olds who attend the tribe’s existing afterschool program. The original plan was to provide 12 students from this age group with 20 hours per week of language instruction at the Tribal Hall through games, activities, and play ― teaching methods used by the American Indian Language Development Institute.

However, the interest in learning the Cahuilla language was so great within the overall tribal community that Estrada expanded the program to include adults and “tiny tots,” as well. To reach a large portion of the membership that lives off the reservation, the dedicated language teacher also conducts classes online through Zoom and Kahoot!

“The use of modern technology has been a huge part of the success of this program,” says Tribal Administrator Minott.

Estrada now teaches 55 students, six days a week ― at the Tribal Hall and online in the evening for adults and kids who cannot attend class in person due to work, sports, and extracurricular activities. “Honestly, if there’s somebody willing to learn the language, I will be there,” promises Estrada.

The First Nations funding also supported two three-day-long language and culture camps this summer for 5- to 12-year-old students participating in the 2023 language program. Members from the community were paid $100/day to help cook food, coordinate activities, and monitor children.

After a full year participating in the Cahuilla Language Program, students are not expected to be fluent in the language, but rather, “should have a good foundation of the Cahuilla language and be able to integrate phrases, words, and basic commands into their home lives,” writes Minott in the grant application.

Estrada’s cousin, Aaron Saubel, shows the kids how to process the willow and bend it.

A Passion for Language and Culture Revitalization Runs in the Family

Estrada’s dedication to preserve the Cahuilla language and culture seems to be part of her bloodline. Her aunt is Dr. Katherine Siva Saubel, the first president of the Malki Museum ― the first museum in California founded by Native Americans in 1964. (Read more about the Malki Museum in another First Nations story.)

First Nations helped support two three-day-long language and culture camps in the summer for 5- to 12-year-olds participating in the 2023 language program.

The 32-year-old mother of four lives on the Santa Rosa Reservation in Mountain Center, California. “I’ve been here my whole life.” While Estrada did not speak Cahuilla growing up, she was immersed in the language through her elders and relatives.

Growing up, she recalls that her uncle, Alvino Siva, Katherine’s brother, would often hold Cahuilla language classes for younger family members. “I was very little and didn’t pay much attention. I could kick myself now! If I could just go back in time and tell myself, ‘Sit down and really pay attention.’”

Her own language journey is ongoing. Although Estrada is a language teacher, she still considers herself a language learner. As she tells her students, “It’s not just a language you’re learning. It’s also a cultural identity that you’re reaffirming in yourself. And that’s important because as Indigenous people, we don’t really get a chance to wonder who we are.”