Tribute to Dorothy Ramon
From left, Dorothy Ramon's grandniece Carolyn Horsman, nephew Ernest Siva, sister Katherine Howard, with Dorothy Ramon (far right) in the 1970s. Morris the cat lies in front. (Siva Family photo)
language and your history
By Eric Elliott
From Heritage Keepers newsletter Vol.1, Number 1, © 2004
When talking on the phone with a stranger most Americans can tell within several seconds whether that person is a native speaker of American English, or not. And, just by listening to what a newfound acquaintance has to say about life in America, we can also tell rather quickly whether that person knows American culture and history, or not. We are what we speak and know. We are Americans, not because we look American, but rather because we speak, think, and dream American, and because we know our culture and our version of history inside and out.
What would inspire Dorothy Ramon, a feisty little old Indian lady, to keep talking for over a decade in her native language, Serrano, to me, Eric Elliott, a somewhat geeky white guy? Mrs. Ramon understood that she, too, was what she spoke. Mrs. Ramon spoke Serrano, and she was Serrano. Mrs. Ramon also understood and wanted everyone else to understand that the real, millennia-old history of all Americans, whether we are Native Americans or not, has been passed down orally from generation to generation, not in English, but rather in the indigenous languages of this continent. She knew the Serrano language version of American history and wanted it documented in writing before it was too late.
You see, Mrs. Ramon knew full well she was the last person who thought, muttered to herself, yelled, laughed, dreamed, and did just about everything else under the sun in Serrano first. Sensing in her heart of hearts that her people’s very identity was defined by their language, Mrs. Ramon took decisive action: She talked and talked to me in Serrano.
It is very hard for us English speakers to imagine what it must be like in Mrs. Ramon’s shoes, to be the last fluent (pure) speaker of a language, and to be the last one to remember American history as she learned it, not in school, but on her mother’s and father’s knees. I know that if I die tomorrow, legions of other people will still know how to end the phrase, “One if by land, two if by ...” But stop for a minute and imagine the quiet terror that Mrs. Ramon must have felt when she realized that, upon her death, countless Serrano words and idioms, as well as her people’s history of her America, might forever vanish from the face of this Earth, unless she acted now. Mrs. Ramon is no longer with us and that is a great loss for all Californians. Thank God she didn’t go quietly.
The Serrano people and some other Native American tribes in Southern California are now blessed with relative prosperity. With this new-found financial security Native Americans can invest in their greatest asset: their own children. If we can get into the heads of young people the knowledge of their indigenous language and the original history of America that elders like Mrs. Ramon have left behind for posterity, then the elders’ last dream, their desire to keep their people’s language and history alive, will become a reality, if not for their own children, then for their children’s children.
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