SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians may have found a
tool to help them revitalize their language. The tribe recently installed a
language kiosk in their sports center that will hopefully boost that
"We had a great opportunity to use technology to appeal to a larger
audience," said Soboba tribal historian Charlene Ryan.
The 860-member Soboba Band is one of six federally recognized bands of
Luiseno Indians. A seventh Luiseno group at San Luis Rey currently lacks
federal recognition. In recent years, the Luiseno language has declined to
the point that just a few elderly speakers were spread throughout the
Ryan reports that Soboba no longer has any members, even among its elderly
population, that would be classified as fluent speakers. A few elders in
their 70s and 80s can still speak a broken version of the language and know
This trend is not specific to Soboba or to the Luisenos as a whole.
Language decline is a nationwide problem; however, in California the
decline has been the most precipitous. Most tribes and bands in the Golden
State are down to a few elderly speakers if they are lucky. Many tribes
have already lost their last fluent speakers, many just in the last few
It is often difficult to gauge just how much elders understand, since in
their younger days they often were punished for speaking their own
languages at boarding schools. Parents, being fiercely protective of their
children, forbade them to speak the language outside the home and a sense
of shame and fear permeated their experience with language.
Countering the trend, the various Luiseno factions have made one of the
more concerted efforts to revive their tribal languages. Many of the
Luiseno bands are gaming tribes and have at last found the money and
resources to start a major revitalization effort.
At Pechanga, another of the Luiseno bands, the tribe uses language
immersion as part of the regular elementary school curriculum and a
non-tribal linguist has taught classes there.
The various Luiseno bands have begun to hold what they expect to be regular
consultations with each other on language issues and standardization, and
the bands are proving receptive to the idea. For example, all the bands
agreed to only incorporate new words and coinages if the other bands were
all in agreement.
Smaller-scale efforts were made at Soboba. The tribe offers sporadic
language classes at their tribal offices. The most recent lessons were
taught last fall and Ryan reports that classes will begin again "in the
next few weeks."
School vacations make summertime the best time in which to take classes.
Ryan said last summer tribal members ranging from preschoolers to elders
attended the classes. The classes were heavily attended by elementary and
high schoolers on summer break.
Soboba and the other Luiseno tribes also put their efforts into making a CD
ROM of their language, and for Soboba this proved a revelation.
IconNicholson, a high-tech firm based in New York City, visited Soboba last
year. The company previously designed an interactive kiosk for the Eastern
Pequots in Connecticut. Though the Pequot kiosk primarily dealt with their
tribal history, company representatives told Soboba officials that they
could adapt the kiosk to deal with language.
"We view this continued opportunity to help sustain the Luiseno language as
particularly significant," said Janine Salo, vice president of
IconNicholson's Indian Country Technology Services.
The company built the kiosk and turned it over to the tribe, which will
maintain the machine. Once the machine was built the tribe began adding
content, taking words and their sounds from the CD ROM. Tribal families
scoured their photo albums for images and icons for the machine as well.
The tribe said the offerings on the machine will be expanded from time to
The kiosk uses a touch screen format and is divided into five categories.
When a category is selected, a list offering words and phrases drops down.
For example, on the word for "brother" is a picture of a young man, and
when touched the machine then sounds out the English and Luiseno words for
Though Soboba originally wanted to have the kiosk in the schools, the tribe
decided they would reach a broader audience by locating the kiosk in their
Ryan thinks the machine will prove a valuable tool in the tribe's language
revitalization effort. In fact, Ryan thinks it's a vital element of
"The re-birth of the language is the re-birth of culture."