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Kumeyaay Oral Tradition, Cultural Identity, and Language Revitalization
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Forms of oral tradition such as narrative and song often serve as important cultural resources that retain and reinforce cultural values and group identity (Bauman 1992; Bright 1993; Jahner 1999; Sekaquaptewa and Washburn 2004). This is particularly true of American Indian “trickster tales” which, like European Aesop’s fables, contain moral content and are typically aimed at child audiences.1 This essay discusses an example of this genre with specific reference to the Kumeyaay community of Baja California Norte, Mexico. It also discusses how such stories are an important form of cultural property that doubly indexes group identity—once through the code that is used, and then again through the content of the narrative itself. Oral traditions such as trickster tales form an important body of knowledge that not only preserves cultural values and philosophical orientations, but also continues to imbue its listeners with these values. American Indian communities typically view their oral traditions as communal intellectual property (Hill 2002), and for this reason it is incumbent upon researchers who work with traditional texts in these oral communities to collaborate with them to ensure that collected texts are treated in a manner that is appropriate in the view of the communities from which they originate (Rice 2006; Field 2012b). Especially today, in light of the increasing availability of multimedia and the expanding capabilities for archiving oral literatures so that they might be more available than ever before in multiple formats (audio and video in addition to print), it is important for researchers to bear in mind the relationship between the recording, publication, and archiving of oral literature; community preferences regarding these aspects of research; and considerations related to language revitalization—particularly in cases where the indigenous languages themselves are becoming increasingly endangered.

The Kumeyaay Community of Baja California

Kumeyaay is the indigenous language of the San Diego area as well as the northernmost part of Baja California Norte, Mexico, extending southward from the United States-Mexico border for about 50 miles. Today, Kumeyaay (specifically the Tipaay dialect of Kumeyaay) is still actively spoken by about 50 speakers who reside in Mexico, but it is very close to obsolescence north of the border. The Tipaay community extends from about 50 miles east of San Diego to the coast, encompassing 13 distinct communities, each with its own slightly different variety of spoken Tipaay. Just north of these Tipaay communities are the related ’Iipay Kumeyaay communities, which share many similar cultural values but whose dialects are very different (Field 2012a).

In all of the Kumeyaay community as well as most of Southern California, singers are important repositories of traditional oral literature, as stories are typically not only told but also embodied in song cycles (Apodaca 1999). In the San Diego area, the most well-known of these song cycles are “bird songs,” which tell the story of early migrations of Yuman people from the Colorado River area throughout southern Alta California, Baja California, and adjacent Arizona. Other Southern California song cycles include Lightning songs and Wildcat songs, among others. One of the authors of this article, Jon Meza Cuero, is currently the sole teacher of the Wildcat singing tradition and a member of the Baja Kumeyaay (Tipaay) community. Both authors have had the pleasure of collaborating together on Kumeyaay language documentation and various projects since 2005, when we started by creating a set of online Kumeyaay language lessons.2 In 2007 we traveled together to each of the six Baja Kumeyaay communities to interview speakers in a pilot study on Baja Kumeyaay, to gauge how many speakers there actually were, and to determine their relative levels of fluency. This pilot study led to a larger project documenting Baja Kumeyaay dialects which we undertook together with linguist Amy Miller and anthropologist Michael Wilken-Robertson. As part of this greater documentation project we recorded several stories along with other discourse genres,3 many of which may now be found at the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), although Amy Miller and Margaret Field are still working on completing transcriptions.

For the purposes of this essay, Margaret Field interviewed Mr. Meza Cuero in the summer of 2012 about Wildcat singing in general, about...

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