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The Legacy of Maria Solares (1842-1923)

written by Gary Robinson by request from the Chumash Elders Board
© 2009 Chumash Elders Board, Santa Ynez, CA

It is known that a band of Chumash Indians has lived in the Santa Ynez Valley (located in Santa Barbara County) for at least 9,000 years, developing their own ways of living and their own dialect of the Chumash language, known as Samala. With the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1700s, and the subsequent conquests by Mexico and finally the United States, these life-ways were eroded and almost entirely obliterated. And due to many factors, including disease brought by Europeans, the tribe’s population was decimated over a period of two hundred years.

A great deal of what we know about the culture and language spoken by the Chumash in the Santa Ynez Valley comes to us as a result of the patience and dedication of one woman, Maria Solares, who, as a young child, was chosen to learn in detail the stories, songs, history and language of her people.

While most of the Samala Chumash had been forced to forget their own language, culture and religious teachings and replace them with Catholicism and Spanish, Maria managed to maintain the memory of what her father had taught her about her people.

Around 1914, an anthropologist and linguist named John P. Harrington arrived on the scene. He dedicated much of his life to capturing and recording what he could of the disappearing native languages of California. When he came to the Santa Ynez Valley, he chose Maria to work with.

Between 1914 and 1918, Maria provided Harrington with a wealth of information on the language, beliefs, culture and customs of the Samala People and their neighbors.  He recorded more than 100,000 pages of hand-written notes of their conversations and interviews.

For decades, the boxes of Harrington’s notes languished in a basement room in the Linguistics Department at the University of California at Berkeley. Finally in the early 1970s, a linguistics student named Richard Applegate decided to take on the daunting task of studying and organizing these pages. He did his doctoral dissertation on the Samala Language and produced its first dictionary.

Meanwhile, back on the Chumash reservation, Maria’s children and grandchildren had been punished in school for speaking their native tongue, and not wanting their own descendants to be punished as they had been, kept the language a secret from the younger generations. The last remaining fluent speaker of the language died in approximately 1985.

In 2003, members of the tribe heard about the work of Dr. Richard Applegate, contacted him and asked if he would be interested in teaching tribal members their own language. Delighted with the request, Dr. Applegate began working with the tribe that year.

Today, Maria’s descendants are re-learning their nearly lost language and re-capturing aspects of their once-forbidden culture. Thanks to the efforts of Maria and Harrington, Dr. Richard Applegate, links provided by Chumash Elders and the dedication of a group of young Samala Language Apprentices, this language and culture are destined to live on for generations to come.

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