A few crumbs are left from the near-extinct language of the Tataviam, our Indian forbearers here in Santa Clarita. The last full-blooded Tataviam passed away in 1924 and with him, the language and culture of one of America’s most mysterious tribes. It’s hard enough to take care of history. When it’s just oral, it’s like Xeroxing a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox. Etc.
Neighboring tribes noted our Tataviam, isolated hikers of Shoshone lineage walked to Santa Clarita around 450 A.D. and eventually created their own unusual tongue, filled with odd grunts and clicking sounds.
Like Parisian French?
In the 1930s, a UCLA anthropologist visited the Little Santa Clara River Valley to study our ancestors. As our Indians were extinct, he asked neighboring Native Americans to fill in the blanks. One must be careful who one talks with. The professor queried a Fort Tejon medicine man, who didn’t particularly care for our SCV indigenous peoples. When asked what names his neighbors of 1,600 years went by, the Frazier Park gentleman dismissively answered: “Alliklik.”
The name stuck — for about 50 years. We “honored” their memory by creating an Alliklik chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a Boy Scout troop and other community “honors.” It wasn’t until the 1970s when a distant ancestor wincingly pointed out that Alliklik meant: “naked, dirt-eating stutterer.”
There’s an ex-wife joke there. We shall be gentleman enough to avoid it.
Today, “Tataviam,” or, “dwellers of the sunny slope,” is the preferred nickname. And THAT may not be true. Another translation, from neighboring Antelope Valley’s Kitanemuk swears it’s “dwellers of the SOUTHERN slope,” not “SUNNY.” Anywho. Kudos to the tireless labors of the valley’s first historian, A.B. Perkins. Thanks to his treks to the San Fernando Mission to translate records from Spanish and interviews of long-forgotten old-timers, Perk stitched together much of what little we know of this tribe.
There were about 25 semi-permanent clans living here prior to 1800. Each clan was broken into two castes — Mountain Lion and Coyote. While Lion was considered upper class, you couldn’t marry within your totem and both groups worked together.
Astoundingly, the Tataviam had a creation story — an exegesis — similar to evolution, Genesis and the New Testament. The Tataviam story depicts a dark void out of which was formed the moon, stars and Earth, first made of but rock, followed by water. Then came plants, then animals, then man, who migrated from a central location all around the globe. The Son of the Father died, but, before He did, He told His descendants that He would one day return to live with them.
How startling is that?
That I know of, there’s only 11 words or phrases surviving from that long-dead culture. Ik-wee means friend, miiyu equals “hello.” There’s a Tataviam phrase that constantly haunts me. It’s a question, multi-layered.
Hami kwa umi?
Not like anyone of any elevation is left to complain about my spelling.
Perk and I shared an office on 6th Street. I could kick myself for being young, foolish and not asking more questions. The aging historian shared that Hami kwa umi had deeper meanings, like — what direction are you headed in your life? Are you on the right path? Something a pastor, $140-an-hour therapist, wise friend or relative might ask today.
Hami kwa umi?
A family of four Tataviam would eat about a quarter-ton of acorns each year. I read an account where some Indians captured a young bear cub and trained it to climb oaks and knock off the acorns for harvest. History is the non-stop observation of pushing. The Anasazi, or “Ancient Ones,” were here in Santa Clarita 5,000 years ago, maybe longer. They may have been pushed out, or absorbed, by that hiking clan of Shoshone who would become our Tataviam, who would be eradicated/absorbed by Spanish, Mexicans and whites. Oaks would be cleared for fields to be planted, for permanent homes. In a blink, there’s freeways. Ag fields next were pushed out by condos, shops and grinning-out-of-context yuppies.
There’s a tendency of many people to bemoan that we moderns are spoiled. We live in air-conditioned homes, free of marauding one-ton man-eating bears, blizzards, dysentery (the Tataviam ate red ants, whole, in pre-Alka Seltzer days, as a cure) and the occasional war raid by a neighbor. I say, “Yippee coyote.” I can climb in my car, listen to a podcast or rock dirge, drive to a local market and buy blueberries from South Africa. On the way home, I can stop off at a store filled with freezers and 31 different kinds of ice cream.
Hami kwa umi? Where am I going?
I love modern life, where I can command my home temperature, hot or cold, within a degree. Or get a piping hot cheeseburger at 1 a.m. I can slouch in front of a computer screen the size of a small surfboard and buy life-giving English tea — from England — and Amazon delivers it, free, the next day.
The Tataviam lived in their version of a Garden of Eden. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, there were roughly a quarter-million pure-blooded Indians in California. By 1823, the end of the Mission Period, there were around 72,000. By 1865, 23,000. By 1880, 15,000. The few remaining were swept away by History’s Wave, pushed into slavery, indentured servitude or genetically incorporated into the new culture, with all its plusses and minuses.
That invisible yet undeniable force of pushing — well. It pushed, as it historically does. Forests and game disappeared. Streams dried up. Instead of grizzly bears, or banditos, we are beset upon by HOAs, Wokeness, mini-tyrants and paper stacks of laws tall enough to reach the moon. Mountain Lion doesn’t help Coyote. We tear at each other. Something wicked is in the air.
Hami kwa umi? Where are — we — going?
I’m not sure I’m going to like the answer.
John Boston is earth’s most prolific humorist and satirist. Visit his bookstore at johnbostonbooks.com.