Lewis Lawyer smiling with sand dune in background.
Lewis Lawyer

Alum helps keep a California indigenous language alive

This story originally appeared on the College of Letters and Science website and is partially adapted from The Backdrop, a podcast by UC Davis. See the complete article and additional information here.

Lewis Lawyer’s graduate research project played a historic supporting role in preserving a language that was once spoken in hundreds of Northern California communities, including the community that lived in the region that is now Davis: Patwin.

The linguistics alumnus and Davis local published the first book about Patwin grammar in 2021 called A Grammar of Patwin. It compiles and synthesizes two centuries of work by linguists and speakers of Patwin, integrating word lists, notebooks, audio recordings and manuscripts held in archives across the country.

Land acknowledgement

The land where UC Davis sits was once home to a Patwin village. The campus Native American Contemplative Garden in the Arboretum between the law school and the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts honors the people who once lived there. A plaque outside the Mondavi Center commemorates the 13 Patwin ancestors whose burials were disturbed in 1999-2000 during the center’s construction. 

“One of the reasons I did this project was to include California languages in a global language database but surprisingly, I could barely find any information about Patwin,” said Lawyer, Ph.D. ’15. “You can’t just go to a bookstore and buy a Patwin dictionary; it didn’t exist.”

Lawyer’s previous work was relatively abstract, comparing the structures of languages around the world. He was starting to feel unsatisfied with the nature of this work. When he realized that the Indigenous language of Davis did not have adequate available descriptions, the journey to document a California indigenous language began.

“I was starting to have a confidence crisis in my linguistics work because I felt like it was not directly applicable to the real world,” Lawyer said. “When I shifted to focusing on Patwin, I realized that I have these skills to describe language structure and I could do something really useful here.” 

Working with the Patwin community

When Lawyer started his project, the International Organization of Standards did not recognize the existence of the Patwin language, whereas the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) classifies it as ‘critically endangered.’ While only one living person is known to speak Patwin as a first language, Lawyer said labels like ‘endangered’ can be unhelpful when describing a language.

“Some folks find words like ‘endangered’ to be offensive because it sounds like their language is being treated like a species or some kind of wild animal,” Lawyer said. “Really, it’s a living language that people are still studying and speaking today. Languages can’t really be ‘extinct’ or ‘endangered’ anyway—it’s more like they can fall asleep and they can wake up again, too.” 

Dialects of Patwin, part of the Wintuan language family, are indigenous to the Sacramento Valley, from present-day Vallejo and Suisun in the south, north to Colusa, west past Lake Berryessa and almost to Clear Lake in California’s Northern Coast Ranges, and east to the Sacramento River banks. The other Wintuan languages, Nomlaki and Wintu, are to the north.

“The Patwin people are taking initiative in developing spelling systems, archiving language resources, creating teaching programs, and making decisions about what books should be made and how they should be made,” Lawyer said. “This is how it always should have been and I’m optimistic that their language will thrive.” 

Currently, there are three federally recognized tribes that learn and teach Patwin: the Cachil DeHe Band of Wintun Indians of the Colusa Indian Community of the Colusa Rancheria, the Kletsel Dehe Wintun Nation and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.

Seeing Davis in a new light

Although Lawyer grew up in Davis, he quickly learned he knew little about the place he calls home: “I didn’t even know what the language was called or if there were any speakers. Suddenly, I realized the depths of my ignorance—I’ve learned a lot since then.” 

Like many locals, Lawyer left Davis in early adulthood. When he returned to work on his doctoral degree, it felt like home. 

“It was good to be back in Davis after spending some years away in bigger cities. And it was good to feel like I was learning about and contributing to the deep history of my home.”

As Lawyer’s research progressed, though, he realized just how many gaps there were in his knowledge. He wondered, ‘Who are the people native to this place? Are they still here? Has there always been a village site here? Why didn’t anyone write down what it was called?’

“Unfortunately, not many people in the Davis community knows the answers to these questions,” Lawyer said. “I hope my work is helpful to Indigenous people—that’s the most important thing—but I also hope it helps to raise a little awareness among us settlers too.”

The first Patwin word list was created by Spanish missionary and linguist Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta with Suisun Patwin speaker Samuel Capita more than 200 years ago. Since then, numerous scholars began work on descriptions of Patwin grammar but never completed one. 

“I’m pretty adamant that I played a non-central role in the continuance of the language because it’s not the right approach to think I’m playing a heroic role,” Lawyer said. “I’m very happy to use the skills that I have as a linguist to make reference material but nothing I can do will make this language continue and survive.”

Lawyer acknowledges that the Patwin people are keeping their language alive and researchers like himself can help by providing materials to inform the rest of the world about different cultures. 

“Indigenous communities like the Patwin have faced a long history of violence and injustice,” Lawyer said. “If they don’t want to lose the language, then they shouldn’t have to lose the language. It’s human rights: it’s a People’s right to have a language. And that’s the problem with languages falling asleep.”

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