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Reviving the language of a vanished tribe

Carl Nolte November 29, 2009 San Francisco Chronicle

On the south side of King Street, between the Caltrain station and AT&T Park, are 104 small brass plaques embedded in the sidewalk. On them are engraved all of the known words of a language called Rammaytush, the language of the people who lived for more than 1,000 years in what is now called Mission Bay.

There are words for numbers, words for relatives - brother, sister, my husband, my wife. Verbs: to drink (owahto), to eat (ahmush), to give (sume), to sing (harwec), to dance (irshah), to see (atemhimah), to run (othemhimah), to kill (meme).They are all that is left of a language, an explanatory plaque says, "the authentic voice of a vanished people."

There are other plaques and signs on that King Street block. One tells of how Spanish sailors first came to a little cove on the bay in a longboat and how they saw the shore lined with people weeping. They named it the Ensenada de los Llorones, or "Cove of the Weepers."

Now it's called China Basin. Baseball fans call it McCovey Cove.

It's an interesting area, part of the new San Francisco. On the King Street block with the bronze words of a lost language is Avalon at Mission Bay, a condo development. On the same block is a branch of Chase Bank, a Japanese restaurant, a tanning salon. A Starbucks is across the street.

Silver-colored Muni streetcars rumble by every few minutes. At Third and King streets, a nine-story condo development advertises "resort-style waterfront residences." "Move in today!" the sign says.

Monuments and plaques are nearby to explain the past. One inscription describes the fate of the people who once lived there: "They have died like the grass. Gone to the mountains."

The implication is clear: This part of the city is built on the site of an ancient, vanished people.

But nothing is quite as simple as it seems. The people of Mission Creek have not vanished. Their descendants are around still - and they are attempting to revitalize the Rammaytush language and get their tribe - the Muwekma Ohlone - recognized by the government.

"There are thousands of us," said Andrew Galvan, who is a descendant of a Bay Miwok man named Liberato and an Ohlone woman called Obulinda who were married in Mission Dolores in 1802. Galvan is the curator of Mission Dolores and is not extinct.

He doesn't think the language vanished, either. It just went underground. The Indian people had to learn Spanish when the whites came, he said.

"The Indian language was suppressed, but at home, at night, they spoke their own language," Galvan said. "Just like the kids in San Francisco schools now. At school they speak English, at home they speak in their own language."

It was difficult to be an Indian in the Spanish and Mexican era, but it was dangerous when the Americans took over.

"The first governor of California, Peter Burnett, said the Indians must go," he said. "They had no rights. They could not testify against whites in court. Indians were not even citizens until 1924."

The Ohlone people had been given Spanish names anyway. "It was better to be a Mexican than an Indian," he said. "So, over time, the Indian ancestry was lost.

"But people now are standing up to say who they are."

Have the Ohlone vanished?

"Oh no," said Galvan. "You should see our family reunion. My grandmother was one of eight siblings and everybody had big families. We must have a thousand cousins."

Carl Nolte's Native Son column appears every Sunday. E-mail him at [email protected].


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