Keeping Their Language Alive: Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center Launches Website

Amy Lawrence - Posted on 09 November 2009

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By Amy Lawrence, ACTA's Operations Manager

Photo of Kawaiisu Elders"Nuwa, without our language, who are we?" is the fundamental question appearing prominently at the top of the Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center’s new website.  Indeed, just a few short years ago only several individuals could speak the Kawaiisu native language.  Realizing that keeping their language alive was crucial to sustaining their culture, several individuals began to work together to ensure their language would never be lost. 

The Kawaiisu, also known as the Nuwa, are indigenous to Kern County.  The tribe inhabited the region from Bakersfield to Tehachapi for thousands of years.  Relocation by the United States government resulted in a loss of much of tribe’s traditional dress, music, and knowledge.  Today, the Kawaiisu numbers just under 300 people and is not a federally recognized tribe.  Realizing that there were only five native speakers and little knowledge of the tribe’s traditional stories or survival skills, several individuals came together to pass this important knowledge on to others.

The Kawaiisu Language and Cultural Center was formed in 2002 to revitalize the language and teach traditional skills.  The Center received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 2007 and formed an eleven member Board of Directors to oversee revitalization activities.  The Kawaiisu met with great success, creating audio and visual recordings of their language and stories as teaching tools and for archival documentation and taught other tribes how to do the same work.  However, getting the word out to all potential language learners became a problem.  As Julie Turner, tribal administer, explained, “One factor keeping us from creating new second language learners is that we not reaching a broad enough base of potential language students.  Tribal members are widely scattered geographically so participation in local classes in Tehachapi, where the fluent teachers lives, for example, is not practical for those living in Los Angeles.  Now the only way newcomers interested in learning the Kawaiisu obtain information about classes or language learning materials is through announcements in the Tehachapi News and the quarterly tribal newsletter, and by word of mouth.  We are not reaching many potential second language learners.”

Photo of Luther Girado grinding poppy rootTo create more visibility, the Center applied to ACTA’s Traditional Arts Development Program and was awarded a contract to create a website.  Laura Grant, who has worked with the Kawaiisu on their language media before, was contracted to design and implement the site.  Launched in September 2009, the site created a place for language learners to find DVDs and CDs, connect with other language learners, and keep updated on all tribal activities.  More than this, it assisted the Kawaiisu in a vital part of their mission: creating public awareness of endangered indigenous cultures and the importance of revitalizing and sustaining indigenous cultures.  “It has made it easier for us to share with tribal members, local communities, funders and all interested parties what we have been up to.  The website has made us more accessible and not just a name on a nonprofit list,” noted Turner.  

There are many plans for expanding the website.  In the future, they would like to have a place on the site for networking and communications, more interactive games, ways to learn the Kawaiisu language direct from the site online, clips from videos, a place for suggestions and comments, and a posting of upcoming events in both the Kawaiisu and other Native communities.  

The Kawaiisu continue to use their website and other technology to teach their language.  Recently, they received a grant from the Administration of Native Americans to fund a practical grammar book.  This new curriculum will help many of their language learners progress beyond the advanced beginner stage of language development.  Ultimately, the Kawaiisu hope to have a large base of second language speakers and new teachers to help future generations learn their language.  They hope to have a cultural center in Tehachapi for public outreach, events, teachings, and an archives.

To find out more about the Kawaiisu, go to

ACTA's Comment Disclaimer

can you tell me the kawaiisu word for acorn or oak tree.

thank you ,


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