Q&A with Vincent Medina

heartthrobVincent Medina has been keeping busy: since learning the language of his Muwekma Ohlone tribe primarily from field notes and wax cylinder recordings, he has been a leader of the movement to revive Chochenyo as a spoken language. As the assistant curator at Mission Dolores in San Francisco, he is working to change the narrative of Indian history within to focus on Native resistance and survival. Add to the mix his blog, Being Ohlone in the 21st Century, which documents the vitality and strong community bonds of contemporary Ohlone existence. On top of everything else, Vincent also works at Heyday as the Roundhouse Outreach Coordinator. He was kind enough to spend a lunch hour talking to me about language revitalization and how blogging has brought his family closer together—and how it has brought a certain level of fame as well.

When did you start learning Chochenyo? Had it always been something you wanted to do?

I started learning basic words when I was about thirteen, fourteen years old. My tribal community, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, started to come together with a linguist at UC Berkeley, and we started to learn phrases and common greetings at a summer camp. We would have summer camps to come together. They were meant to instill in the mind that language was there on a basic level. I learned some phrases, basic stuff like words for “hello,” the words for certain animals, but I didn’t go deeper into it.

I always wondered, though, what the language would sound like when people were gossiping, and what daily life conversations would sound like. And you can’t really learn that with the words for “sky” or “bear.” So about four years ago, I started to go into J.P. Harrington’s field notes, this really extensive body of language recorded. And I started diving in. You start reading the documents and you can’t put them down because each page is full of so much information: drama, history, so much beautiful stuff. And then you switch to another page and there would be a pre-contact story of a time when giants roamed the earth, or a time when Coyote left footprints on the earth’s surface, or things about Mount Diablo, or about appeasing spirits in the Bay and throwing clam shell beads. Page after page of things that I never knew that were connected to my family history.

Was there a pretty complete grammar, or were there elements you had to go through and fill in the blanks for yourself?

It’s a mix. The grammatical structures, like tenses and suffixes, were intact. Harrington specifically asked questions about grammatical structures, and that was all recorded. So if we need something to make plural, or something to make future tense or whatever, we know how to do that.

The grammatical structure for Chochenyo is very different from English. When I first started speaking I had a hard time. I have to nudge myself out of this English mentality sometimes. We think of things in English, English pronunciations and English grammatical structures, but there are some words that just don’t translate directly.

Language isn’t meant to be something that’s hoarded. It’s meant to be used.

For example, there’s no word in Chochenyo that translates directly into “thank you.” I was looking for the word over and over and I was so unhappy that I couldn’t find it at first. Then I came across this phrase, “Kiš Horše ‘Ék-Hinnan,” and that means, “My heart is good.” That’s the closest that we have to “thank you.” But if you take the word “Hinnan,” which means “heart,” and you start to deconstruct that word, it also means “soul,” “spirit,” “voice,” and “life-force”: basically everything that makes a human being whole. So when you say “Kiš Horše ‘Ék-Hinnan,” you’re really saying, “My life-force or my spirit—everything about me—is good.” And the response is not “You’re welcome.” It’s “Kiš ‘Ayye,” which means, “To me, as well.” It’s a little different when we think of things in our language.

The other challenge is word creation. Obviously we didn’t have coffee mugs back then, iPhones, things that we use now that are part of our daily life. So we had to create new words to fill in gaps. The old words are our foundation, but a living culture doesn’t stagnate; it picks up new things and takes on new ideas. The word for “phone” is “Nonwente-tak” and that means “the place where you talk.” You know? “Tak” is like a suffix for “place,” so it’s a locative suffix. And then “Nonwente” is the word for “speaking.” So if we were to say “iPhone,” we would say “iNonwentetak.”

 

ohlone.tumblr.com

ohlone.tumblr.com

There are some times when English words are used. I heard somebody say, “Watišek i-Librarytka,” which means, “I’m going to the library.” It keeps the Chochenyo grammatical structure and kind of Chochenyo-izes the word “library” by adding the locative suffix to it. My little brother always says, “Hiyyemak Starbuckstak!” for “Let’s go to Starbucks!” Things like that are important to fill in gaps.

We didn’t have words for many colors besides red, white, black, and gray. What about yellow or blue or green? The Muwekma Language Committee came up with the idea, “Hinnepa Hoosi Mirax.” That means, “It looks like the leaves.” And that could be our word for “green.” “Hinnepa Hoosi” means “It looks like,” or “in the shadow or form of.” If I was to say, “Hinnepa Hoosi Warep,” that means, “It looks like the dirt,” so that’s “brown.” There are some things that I create to fill in a gap, but I make sure to let people know that this is not something that we’ve always used.

You’re teaching your little brother the language. Do you envision, like, language courses at UC Berkeley or Cal State East Bay, or in your opinion should Chochenyo stay with folks who have an ancestral connection to the language?

Being part of something that’s very old and still being part of the modern world is not that hard to be.

I think that in these first few years of Chochenyo being reawakened, it needs to stay within the community because we have to be the masters of it before anybody else is. But we are going to need to share it with people outside of our community. I think that’s important, it’s imperative. And people should know it. If you go to somebody’s country, you learn their language, right? We never left our place. People came here. So it’s important that people hear Chochenyo. Malcolm always says it best: “It’s the oldest language of this land.” Before this land heard anything else, it heard Indian languages.

And we do want to share it. We do want to be able to have courses—I mean, how awesome would that be to have a PhD in Chochenyo at UC Berkeley? We can’t hoard it. Language isn’t meant to be something that’s hoarded. It’s meant to be used in public. When we hear it in the streets, that would be the greatest gift. That would be something I would love to see happen in the future. But right now, yeah, we have to relearn it first and be the masters of it.

When you started blogging in 2011 you wrote the following:

I am making this to document life through my eyes of being an Ohlone Indian in the 21st century. My goal is to hopefully to blast some misconceptions, express my personal struggles, to use this as medium for telling my story in my own words, to express the hardships, the struggles, the pride, the confusion, and the joy of being part of something so old, so misunderstood, and so beautiful. As I grow more into my adult life I am further embracing this culture that has consumed me from childhood, understanding the importance of telling my story because with so few of us left it has to be told. It’s my obligation. Here it goes…

I started it because I was frustrated, you know? When I would Google the word “Ohlone,” I would either find stuff about Ohlone College, or tribal websites from 1997, or sometimes blatantly racist stuff. There was nothing out there that was contemporary, or matched the stories I heard at home, or matched the reality that I lived in. And that reality is, like I said, being part of something that’s very old, and still being part of the modern world. It’s not that hard to be. A lot of people think you have to choose one thing or the other. No, you can be both. It’s very easy, actually.

It’s really become something I wasn’t expecting. When I started the blog I didn’t really speak any Chochenyo. It kind of documented my whole process of learning the language. And it documented the process of reconnecting with the old family stories. Some of the Elders who were recorded in that blog have since passed, and I was able to record some of the stories that they shared before they passed away.

How has blogging changed for you since that initial mission statement?

If I could say two things that it’s done that I’m especially proud of, they’re that it’s brought visibility to our community, and helped educate the public. As soon as I started blogging, people were writing me. They were happy to hear that we’re not just still here, but we’re doing quite well for ourselves. A lot of people didn’t think we exist anymore.

ohlone.tumblr.com

ohlone.tumblr.com

I kept getting these messages from people saying things that were nothing but good. Like, today I was giving a walking tour for the Christensen Fund. I was right in front of the Downtown Berkeley BART station, looking at the Addison Street Poetry Walk. I was standing there talking about the old songs that are in the ground. This guy came up from the BART station and he’s like, “Are you Vincent Medina?” I was like, “Yeah…” He was all broed out, with a Raiders hat on and stuff. He was like, “I follow your blog—I love it! It’s great!” This total stranger I’ve never met before in my life. That’s the second time it’s happened, which is pretty cool.

You’re Internet-famous!

The other thing that I started to notice is that my family was really tuning into it. My grandmother—I had no idea that she knew how to do this, but she got a smartphone and she sent me a message that said, “I followed your blog on my new phone and I love what you just wrote!” One of my aunties who moved up to Washington asked me to share more words so that she can learn what the words sound like. The other day I got a message from my cousin asking me to add more Chochenyo words as well. Maybe this could even be used to bring healing to ourselves, and bring ourselves even more together.

ohlone.tumblr.com

ohlone.tumblr.com

It puts this fire in my imagination of what could be if I really focus on it. Seeing Chochenyo being used a lot more heavily on the blog, having more Soundclouds with different family members so that both male and female voices are represented. Being able to use this to have different people eventually blog their stories. My blog’s just one blog. I’m not speaking on behalf of the Ohlone people; I’m speaking just for myself. That’s why I wanted to make the blog so personal in a lot of ways, because I didn’t want to say, “This is the official Muwekma Ohlone blog.” I wanted something that was very first-person. And if I could inspire other people to blog, then we’ll have people telling the Ohlone story.

Because you’ve been getting more attention from the mainstream media in the past couple of years, I imagine it’s a challenge to avoid speaking over someone unintentionally, or being packaged as the Twenty-First-Century Ishi—especially because representation is not something one person should or can do.

That’s a good way to put it. I don’t want to be the Twenty-First-Century Ishi, or like I feel like I’m the last of something. When I started the blog, I had to create a tagline on Tumblr. My tagline was, “My documentation of being one of few. An Ohlone telling his story.” When I wrote that in 2011, I did feel very alone. I didn’t feel like I had that much of a community outside of my family. As time went on I started to realize that wasn’t true. I wasn’t one of few, I was one of many. There are thousands of us. We have visibility that’s increasing; we have community that’s being built. And we’re pretty strong. So I don’t want to seem like I’m the lonely Ohlone. I try to post pictures of my family—it shows that we are a community and we are doing things.

What are you working on now, either with the Berkeley Roundhouse [Heyday’s California Indian Publishing Program], Mission Dolores, or on your own?

With the Roundhouse, I’ve been taking a lot more responsibility in the magazine [News from Native California]. I started a new column, In Our Languages, which focuses on writing in Native languages without English translations in print. The translations are available on the NNC blog, if the writers want to have translations. The purpose of that is to write and express ourselves in our languages. Way too often, for everything that we write, there has to be an English translation. And I thought, how arrogant is that, that everything has to have a translation when we’re living in our traditional areas? It’s not like we’re going somewhere else and telling people to speak our languages.

Creatively, too, it puts a damper on you if you’re trying to formulate something in one language while worrying about how it will translate into another.

Exactly. So this column takes away that challenge. I wrote the inaugural column, and that was my first article I wrote in Chochenyo. It’s about a page long. The article was called “Hoosi Melle/Hoosi Šaaw,” which means “Like a Grandmother/Like a Song.” And the article’s about how language caresses us like a grandmother, or it stays in our mind like an old song. It comforts us, and no matter what it’s always a part of us.

I’m working on a book on Native games, which is really exciting. The book is meant to teach kids how to connect with the fun of these games. A lot of that is reconnecting with the games myself, which is a lot of fun! I was working on it last night and I was like, Am I really working?

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Vincent teaches the Heyday staff how to play walnut dice

At Mission Dolores, we’ve been working on creating a digital memorial projected on the mission walls for the six thousand people—mostly Ohlone, but also Miwok and Wappo—who are buried at the mission and don’t have any recognition right now.

A month and a half ago I hosted my first language class at the Ohlone cemetery near Mission San José, which my family still owns. We came together at the cemetery and we connected to our ancestors who are buried there. We talked about those people who are buried there and then we connected with language. We did basic things, talking about body parts, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” basic greetings and pronouns. We didn’t speak any English whatsoever for twenty-five minutes in the Ohlone cemetery. And we’re getting lined up for more of these language lessons.

That’s it?

[laughs] There’s a lot going on. Good stuff.