Walter Mencken 7 p.m., Dec. 10
As a graduate student in linguistics at SDSU in the spring of 1982, the guest speaker at our spring colloquium was Joseph Greenberg, a noted specialist in language universals and language typology. Like many such specialists, he had a particular interest in American Indian languages. Thus, for a few weeks before the big day, most of the professors worked into their lectures some references to American Indian languages.
I was new to the field, having as experience only an interest in and proficiency with several European languages gained during my then-recent military service. I met Greenberg and even chatted with him a bit that day, but had no idea who he was professionally. He just seemed like an older fellow with a knack for expressing the sort of common sense things everybody knows intuitively in uncomplicated terms. Having had to slog through some of Sapir's writings on phonology and typology in my early coursework, I'd feared until then that a kind of verbose obtuseness was characteristic to the field.
My take on him, admittedly, reflected a lack of scientific rigour. Like the WMDs in Iraq, the obvious isn't always as it seems, and things can get awfully screwed up when influential people fail to realize that. It was only later that I understood that he could speak in such broad terms and express things that made intuitive sense but would get most people laughed out of an academic gathering because he'd done a lot of work to demonstrate that there was in fact a scientific basis for what he was saying.
It would be several years later, toward the end of his career, that he would boldly state that most of the American Indian languages, North and South American, were related. The relationship isn't close, any more than Icelandic is close to Hindi among the Indo-European languages, but there is in fact a fair amount of evidence for it in the phonology or sound system, and in certain vocabulary. Of course, one always has to be careful in coming to conclusions about the latter, as words and phrases can be "borrowed" between languages without there being a genetic relationship between them; think Cinco de Mayo. Greenberg did his homework, though.
This was part of an even broader theory of his that related, among other things, the Indo-European languages to other language families of Eurasia and made Japanese, for example, a distant cousin of English. This might seem preposterous and anything but intuitive to anyone who hasn't studied the two languages, and perhaps even to someone who has. Yet there are certain things about constructing meaning in either of the two that makes one feel that it certainly doesn't involve some sort of extraterrestrial thought process when translating between them.
Stepping back a couple of decades from my graduate school days, I was told once in the mid-1960s during elementary school at Henry Clay that San Diego had its own indigenous people, called in those days the Diegueño; no one would call them "Kumeyaay" until years later. The consensus was that they were a rather underachieving bunch, who did little more than grind acorns in holes they made in large rocks.
This was a major letdown to a grade school kid like me. I'd asked before if there were cowboys in San Diego, and was told that this part of the country wasn't really very important to Wild West history. No cowboys; no particularly exciting Indians. It was as bad as studying the civil war and finding that it had never really been happening all that much here. Every kid who ever joined the Cub Scouts probably thought at one time or other that the blue uniforms vaguely resembled those of Union soldiers; I'd even safety-pinned a pair of toilet brush heads onto my shoulders as epaulets. Now we're told that there were no civil war battles fought here, and no real cowboy-and-Indian action either.
I'd look around for arrowheads on the hill behind our old house on College Avenue because people were forever talking about finding Indian artifacts, but always came up emptyhanded. It really kind of sucked, in a way.
Years went by and my thoughts became more adult-like, I guess. Then, over the past decade or so, I began to read up on Southwestern tribes, their territories, and interactions between them. I became curious about the history of my own neighborhood, but alas, on consulting a historian for the area was told that the Kumeyaay never showed much interest in the rolling hills of what later would become known as "Rolando." It was grass and manzanita, with a tributary running down what is now Alamo Drive from the mesa and feeding into Chollas Creek on the other side of University Avenue, but our uninteresting Indians likewise showed no interest in the area of my future habitat.
Then early this year, I began to make plans for a summer raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Though the participants will do their own paddling, it will be a rather luxurious experience, with guided hikes and hot meals and my car shuttled from the South Rim to Lake Mead. A guidebook to the area arrived in the mail a couple of weeks ago, and being of the linguistic persuasion I became interested in the Havasupai, the current permanent inhabitants of a section of the Grand Canyon.
This in turn gave me a renewed interest in Greenberg's theories. Whittled to basics, they assert that linguistic evidence is consistent with archaological and anthropological evidence which indicate that American Indian migration occurred in three major waves, corresponding perhaps to changes in climate and even to the last Ice Age.
The first bunch came way long ago, and spread as far as the tip of South America. They comprise by far the largest group of migrants and the largest number of subgroups of languages. Somewhat later came the speakers of the Na-Dene languages, which are concentrated in Western Canada as various forms of Athabaskan languages but include the Navaho and Apache, who wandered down into the area which is now Arizona and New Mexico around 1,000 AD. The third and last to cross the Bering Strait were the Eskimos and their cousins in the Aleutians and Greenland, who didn't get as far and apparently were content to live in a part of the world that most people wouldn't consider very conducive to human habitation.
Why all this moving around occurred can only be speculated, and how the various groups interracted as they encountered each other is even harder to say. The Navaho and Apache wandered far, then broke off into two groups, one peaceful and settled and the other nomadic and quite aggressive. Likewise, the Kumeyaay of the San Diego area broke off from more warlike Yuman tribes in the Southwestern desert, who apparently never thought to climb over the coastal mountains and grab what would later be considered prime beachfront property.
Actually, the interactions were probably not so much different from those of various social groups in the average American high school. People were thrown together in one geographical space, and were not necessarily that happy about it. Words and turns of phrase were exchanged and spread around, sometimes in admiration and sometimes mockingly. Some groups cooperated, some fought, some tried to be left alone but were coerced into cooperating with more aggressive neighbors, and some just kept going until they were far enough away from everybody else to be ignored.
Tribes with names ending in -ay or -pai, presumably meaning "people," tend to be related linguistically via the Yuman language family. They include the Kumeyaay, the Yavapai of Northern Arizona (Prescott area), and the Havasupai of the Grand Canyon. The Yavapai interacted and intermarried extensively with the Apache, and my best female friend told me the other day that she's not really sure whether she's descended from one or the other or both, or is simply "Mexican," which became a later political designation as the area changed hands.
Meanwhile, the Navajo and Hopi, inhabitants of the area immediately east of the Grand Canyon, rubbed elbows in relative peace. The Hopi are speakers of an Uto-Aztecan language related to that of the famous empire based around Mexico City. It's intriguing to think that the early Native Americans had skillful linguists who devised ways for these unrelated peoples to interract.
There are even some indications, based on mythology, culture, and the structure of their tonal languages, that the Navajo and Apache could have descended from Northern Tibetans fleeing Ghengis Khan in the 1200s. That would be within the time frame that they are believed to have migrated to the Southwest, and takes the intrigue to a whole new level. The theory, however, is at this point so unscientific that I'm hesitant to even bring it up. DNA evidence among other things doesn't seem to support it, and it might prove to be another one of those obvious, self-evident things that just isn't so.
This is quite a simplification of a very complex and extensive part of human history, but sometimes complexity is best expressed simply. The Kumeyaay, I guess, weren't the most colorful or exciting of Native American tribes, but they found a pleasant place to live a comfortable life... and what more should people anywhere really be looking for?
It used to bother me as a kid that San Diego, and especially the area around my Rolando neighborhood, had such a relatively unexciting history. Manzanita, grass, jackrabbits, and squirrels don't make for a lot of stories to tell. Nowadays it's alright, though. I've gotten to know much over the past couple of decades about the water resources, the geology, the modern infrastructure, and the modest history of the part of the world where I was born, and my life is richer for it. I look forward to paddling down the river through the canyon this summer, while feeling a genuine connection to it from the things I have learned.
The everyday life of ordinary people is really kind of extraordinary when you think about it. Even Cochise, Geronimo, and some of those other colorful Apache leaders who made me think the Diegueño so dull probably spent a good deal of their time on mundane matters, and after ten years of foreign wars and political loggerheads I'd imagine the average American citizen nowadays could settle with a little celebrating of the ordinary. For those with imagination and curiousity, there will always be stories to tell.