San Diego State University American Indian Studies Department

News & Events - October 7, 2019

Linguist Margaret Field brings Kumeyaay oral histories to life in new trilingual book

Linguist Margaret Field brings Kumeyaay oral histories to life in new trilingual book

By Leslie L.J. Reilly

Margaret Field spent the last ten years cultivating Kumeyaay stories. Weekly trips to Ensenada, Mexico gave her the seeds to form the recently published trilingual book she edited with translation assistance from Ana Daniela Leyva and Gerardo Chavez. Her colleagues, linguist Amy Miller and anthropologist Michael Wilken Robertson, also contributed sections of the book called Mii Anmak Nyamak Kweyiwpo: Jwanya Kumiai Kuwak (Huellas del pasado hacia el futuro: Cuentos kumiai de baja california) / Footsteps From the Past into the Future: Kumeyaay Stories of Baja California) — A Trilingual Collection In Kumeyaay, Spanish, & English.

“How do you make tortillas, a pot, or a basket?” These are some of the questions Margaret Field and her colleague Amy Miller might ask during research interviews with Kumeyaay speakers. Field and Miller have been translating Kumeyaay oral stories from people living in Baja California for more than a decade. In the new book, a collection of nine narratives by five storytellers, Kumeyaay history and culture come to life in written form for future generations to read.

Project challenges

Most of the speakers live in very rural and mountainous regions of Mexico. Ninety percent are women. “We have to pay them as an incentive to come to the city to work with us,” Field said. “Most are poor, and spend two to three hours of travel to see us. Adding to the difficulty is when subjects spend 48 hours with us, they also need to plan for childcare or eldercare while they are away from home. Occasionally, I was lucky to have Ana Daniela Leyva drive me out to the rural mountainous regions, which made it easier on the speakers.”

Finding support to pay people for their time was a necessity. Much of the funding came from the original major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Field said, “The first grant allowed us to make all the recordings — hundreds of hours of interviews over a four-year period.” The second grant from the University of London, Endangered Language Document Programme (ELDP) lasted another four years. “Another small grant from SDSU’s Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming program gave us funding to work on the Kumeyaay language between these two grants,” Field said.

“It’s not easy to get people to share. They need to get to know you first,” Field said. “Many times they were not telling ‘stories’ per se, but were offering oral histories or biographies.”

One subject that aided in gathering stories was ethnobotany. “We would go into a garden with these women, and they would tell us all about their plants,” Field said, “I have a long two-hour discussion about women and childbirth and it all begins with a conversation among three sisters talking about plants!” The women who made a recording themselves, with one of the tape recorders given out in the project, recall stories about how plants were used to make childbirth easier.

To transcribe the recorded sessions, Field and Miller play a sentence at a time and then try to say it back to the interviewees. Listening for inflections and differences in Kumeyaay language across communities is challenging. Field said, “For example there are two kinds of ‘t’ sounds. Sometimes “tt” can sound like a ‘ch.’ There are four kinds of “l” and short vowels and long vowels.”

What is unique about this publication is that every single line of copy across the three languages (Kumeyaay/Spanish/English) is synchronized in order to aid Kumeyaay language learners on both sides of the border. It offers an excellent tool for teaching the language.

Importance of telling these stories now

Sadly, the storytellers are aging and passing away before all of their stories can be told. The original plan was to document the language and determine the differences across Baja Kumeyaay communities. Only a handful of speakers remain today and many are too senior to leave their homes. However, there are still some fluent speakers in Mexico who are in their 50s.

Community building and cultural preservation

“What I hope is it will put a spotlight on the extent of the Kumeyaay language and bring the communities on both sides of the border together,” Field said. “We see intercultural exchange between communities, but usually only on special days and during traditional celebrations called ‘gatherings.’”

Field hopes her research and work will lead to more educational exchange. She currently has another ten stories almost completed which may lead to more published books. A collaboration is underway with the Kumeyaay Community College to develop more classes with an emphasis on Kumeyaay language, culture and history that will lead toward a bachelor’s degree in American Indian Studies with an emphasis on Kumeyaay Studies at SDSU.

To learn more about this subject matter, please consider attending the Native Truth & Healing: California Genocide Conference, Nov. 21-24 on the campus of SDSU where native authors and speakers will present research and engage in conversations related to the genocide, oppression, resilience, and sovereignty of the first peoples of California. Field will join a panel which focuses on Kumeyaay language.

Visit for a complete program schedule.


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