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The Southern Sierra Miwok Language (1964), by Sylvia M. Broadbent


Southern Sierra Miwok is a member of the Miwok family of languages of Central California. It belongs to the Eastern division of Miwok, together with Central Sierra, Northern Sierra, Plains, and Saclan. The three Sierra languages are more closely related to each other than to either Plains or Saclan. The internal relationships of the Miwok family can perhaps be most clearly stated in a chart, as follows (Broadbent and Callaghan, 1960):

A. Eastern Division

1. Sierra
la. Southern Sierra
lb. Central Sierra
lc. Northern Sierra
2. Plains
3. Saclan
B. Western Division
1. Coast
la. Bodega
lb. Marin
2. Lake

Except for Saclan, added by Beeler (1955, 1959), the Eastern languages were named and geographically defined by Barrett (1908). Previous suggestions on similar lines had been made by Kroeber (1906) and Merriam (1907).

The historic territory of Southern Sierra was roughly equivalent to modern Mariposa County. Kroeber (1923, facing p. 446) shows it as more or less triangular in shape. He places the boundary with Central Sierra between the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers. To the south, he draws the Yokuts-Mono boundary along the Fresno River, continuing the line northeastwards between the watersheds of the Merced and San Joaquin Rivers up to the crest of the Sierra Nevada, the eastern limit of all the Sierra Miwok groups. He places the western boundary, with Yokuts groups, at the beginning of the foothills.

Informants living today know very little about the ancient boundaries of their language. One informant placed the western limit on a line running through Merced Falls, Hornitos, Toledo, and Indian Gulch, a few miles east of Kroeber's boundary. He gave Ahwahnee as the southeast limit. All informants were more or less sure that the village of /?apa•ša?/ or /?apa•šaw/ near Oakhurst was Yokuts, in agreement with Kroeber (1923, p. 482: "Hapasau"). However, one individual spoke of a village called /hicwe•ta?/. about three miles west of Oakhurst, as having both Yokuts and Miwok inhabitants, and said that there were some Miwok at Coarsegold, which is assigned by Kroeber to Yokuts territory. Since the Miwok do not appear to have recognized any political entities larger than the village or local group, a certain haziness about boundaries is understandable. Moreover, they seem to have been on good terms with their Chuckchansi (Yokuts) neighbors at least, and there was probably considerable intermarriage between villages near the limits of their respective linguistic groups. Such villages would naturally contain speakers of both languages.

Kroeber (1923, p. 445) suggests 9,000 as a liberal estimate for the population of the Sierra and Plains groups combined, allowing slightly more than 2,000 for each group. He states, however, that there is no specific information on aboriginal population figures. He lists 109 locateable Eastern Miwok villages. A total population of 9,000 would give an average population of only 82.5 persons for the villages listed, and his village list is obviously incomplete, since it includes only those which he could locate. The addition of more villages, while accepting his total estimate, would lower the average village population still further. It seems likely, then, that 9,000 is none too generous an estimate.

There are now only about twenty more or less fluent speakers of Southern Sierra, none below middle age. Only four individuals are known to use the language commonly in daily conversation. It seems probable that by 1980 the language will be extinct, except for stray words remembered by people who never spoke the language fluently.

The three Sierra Miwok languages are structurally very similar. The principal differences between them are phonetic, especially in the spirant series, and lexical. Speakers of Southern Sierra claim that they cannot understand Central or Northern. As Barrett suggested in 1908, there are some dialect differences within Southern Sierra. At this late date, very little can be determined as to the nature of these differences, since so few speakers remain. However, there was clearly some divergence between the speech of individuals from Yosemite, those from the vicinity of Mariposa, and those from the extreme southern limit of Miwok territory. Occasional lexical items are different, and Yosemite speech may have had an additional spirant phoneme, /s./, which is lacking in the others. Spanish loan-words sometimes occur in differing forms in these three areas. Speakers from Mariposa say that they can hardly understand those from Yosemite, only forty miles away.

The best previous work on these languages is Freeland's grammar (1951). It is based primarily on Central Sierra, but includes references to structural differences between Central, Northern, and Southern. It is a good and reasonably complete grammar; in fact, it is one of the best in print on any California language. However, it was written fifteen year: before it was published, and is somewhat outdated in certain respects, especially with regard to phonology. Some sample texts were included, but there was no dictionary; for Central Sierra, this deficiency has since been filled, with the addition of more texts (Freeland and Broadbent, 1960). Although these works provide adequate coverage of Central Sierra, separate treatment of the other Sierra languages is still highly desirable the more so in view of the advances in techniques of linguistic analysis that have taken place since Freeland's grammar was written.

No exhaustive ethnography of the Miwok has ever appeared. Perhaps the most useful single work is Barrett and Gifford's study of Miwok material culture (1933). Kroeber (1923, pp. 442-461) gives a good genera summary of Miwok culture. It was among the Sierra Miwok that the exogamous moiety system was first discovered in California (Gifford, 1916). In addition, some studies of Miwok mythology have appeared (Barrett, 1919; de Angulo and Freeland, 1928; Gifford, 1917).

The fieldwork on which the present study is based was conducted under the auspices of the Survey of California Indian Languages (Department of Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley) during the following periods: August 24 to September 14, 1955; June 26 to September 10, 1956; June 28 to September 4, 1957; July 2 to September 7, 1958; and July 7 to July 28, 1961. My informants were as follows:

Chris Brown (Chief Leeme), of Bootjack (CB, deceased November 1956)
Alvis Brown, of Bootjack (AB)
John Lawrence, of Tiptop (JL, deceased 1957)
Bill Bolton, of Bootjack (BB)
Castro Johnson, of Mariposa (CJ)
Rose Watt, of Usona (RW)
Emma Lord, of Usona (EL)
Benjamin (Banjo) Graham, of Ahwahnee (BG)
Elizabeth (Lizzie) Graham, of Ahwahnee (LG)
Charlie Bohan, of Ahwahnee (CR)

Chief Leeme (/limi•/, 'ripples on the water') was my principal informant during 1955 and 1956, and the phonemic analysis is based largely on his idiolect. His mother, Lena Brown (nee Rube), was one of Freeland's informants. He was born in Yosemite, and claimed the title of chief of the Yosemite band through inheritance from his father, John Brown or Brandon. He and his brother Alvis claimed to be the only surviving speakers of the Yosemite dialect. While working with me, he made some effort to give me forms as used around Bootjack, a few miles south of Mariposa, where the work was being done, because more speakers of that dialect remain. Sometimes, however, he said specifically that a particular form or pronunciation belonged to the Yosemite dialect, and the features hereafter mentioned as possibly characteristic of Yosemite are based on his comments. However, Chief Leeme was a "professional Indian" in a quite literal sense: he was employed by the U. S. National Park Service to put on Indian dances for the edification of visitors to Yosemite National Park. He clearly regarded such work as his true vocation, although he was no longer so employed when I worked with him. He had a well-developed sense of showmanship, and did not feel constrained to restrict himself to Yosemite or even Miwok features if he felt that the addition of something else would improve his performance. Other informants claimed that in speaking Miwok he assumed a "northern accent" ("he spoke it more like they do up Tuolumne way") in order to make Yosemite speech sound different from that of Mariposa, and that he "belonged around El Portal" rather than to the Yosemite band proper. These considerations throw some doubt on the authenticity of his "Yosemite dialect." After his death, the material in question could not be checked or expanded; even his brother Alvis, the last survivor of his family, then ceased to be available for informant work. However, speakers of the Mariposa dialect recognized certain items as being different in Yosemite speech, and it is clear that some differences did exist.

From 1957 on, my principal informants were Castro Johnson, Rose Watt, and Emma Lord. Mr. Johnson's family always lived in Mariposa. His mother, who died in 1942, is said to have been a monolingual. He has not spoken the language much since his mother died, and consequently feels a little rusty, so that he is hesitant about starting to tell a long story in Miwok. Once started, however, he is fully capable of carrying on an animated conversation or reciting a long text in the language. Mrs. Watt and Mrs. Lord are sisters, and live together near Usona. Their father was Miwok, their mother Chuckchansi (Yokuts); they are both fluent trilinguals. Between themselves they normally speak Miwok. They were born on the ranch where they now live, and say that their father was from right there. The place where they live has an Indian name, /piliwni?/. Less than a hundred yards from their ranch house there is a large archaeological site (4-Mrp-249). Brief surface reconnaisances of this site yielded one historic artifact (a glazed potsherd, probably of Chinese origin), and several projectile points of the most recent type known for the area. The owners report finding glass beads there. The surface of the site is therefore presumably historic, and it seems reasonable to assume that it represents the Miwok village of /piliwni?/, and that Mrs. Watt's and Mrs. Lord's father's family lived there. It is less than 20 miles from Yokuts territory.

Lizzie and Banjo Graham also provided information during 1957 and 1958. Mr. Graham is Mrs. Watt's and Mrs. Lord's mother's brother, and hence is Chuckchansi; Mrs. Graham is Miwok, being related to Mrs. Watt's and Mrs. Lord's father. However, both Mr. and Mrs. Graham speak fluent Miwok as well as Chuckchansi and English, and when visiting their nieces, which they did frequently in 1957, they speak Miwok most of the time. Other informants listed above recorded short texts or provided other information on an informal basis.

Besides my informants, to whom I am indebted for generous hospitality and the warmest and most rewarding friendship as well as for information, I wish to thank Donald and Eleanor Loomis, of Mariposa, who made my stays in the field easy and enjoyable by their many kindnesses. I also owe a profound debt to Mary R. Haas, Murray B. Emeneau, George M. Foster, and David L. Olmsted, who have read various drafts of the manuscript. I have profited greatly from their helpful and constructive criticism. While final responsibility for any errors or omissions in the present work is mine alone, it is my sincere hope that it will reflect the wisdom of their guidance, not only in connection with this project, but throughout my years of graduate study.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management