Language is the Heart of Our Culture

Language is beating heart of our identity and crucial to the survival of our culture. But for generations, our words and syntax were outlawed. Criminalizing the Patwin language was central to the strategy of challenging our people’s existence.

By 1997, with only one documented fluent speaker of Patwin, our language was listed as one of the most at-risk languages in the world by the United Nations Atlas of Endangered Languages. That one fluent speaker—the late Bertha Wright Mitchell (1936-2018), affectionately known to many as Auntie Bertha—is responsible, more than any other single person, for enabling us stay connected to our language and our culture today. 

Auntie Bertha was a basketweaver and a culture bearer for our Tribe, mentoring many of our citizens in traditional ways and ceremonies. Starting in 2006, she worked with the now-credentialed language teacher Leland Kinter to teach Patwin to our children at the Yocha Dehe Wintun Academy and to our adult citizens at the Cultural Department, planting the seed for the current language-learning programs.

In 2012, our primary language teacher and current Tribal Treasurer Leland Kinter earned the American Indian Languages Credential from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Since then, the Tribe has published a Patwin dictionary and grammar book. Our iTunes database of Patwin words and phrases includes more than 8,000 entries. We launched a Patwin language website for Tribal Citizens, and we are now working on a history curriculum for the Academy, which we plan to share with other California schools. Just as the criminalization of our language was a weapon for denying our existence, the revitalization of our language is a powerful tool for the perpetuation of our sovereignty.