Navid Golemohammadi | Mustang News

Before there was a college town on the Central Coast, there were villages comprised of tule mat grass huts that belonged to the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini, a tribe of indigenous Chumash people.

In an attempt to honor the Central Coast’s first people, Cal Poly chose to student housing complex opening Fall 2018 yakʔitʸutʸu (ytt).

The project is a collaborative effort between local members of the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini tribe, Cal Poly faculty, staff, University Housing and Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey. Humphrey said he first came up with the idea to name the new housing development after the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini tribe, whose name translates to “the people of San Luis Obispo.”

“In addition to the names, which help to resurrect the Chumash language which is no longer spoken, the residence halls will all have educational experiences that allow the entire complex to serve as a heritage site. Our hope is that students will learn more about the first people of San Luis Obispo County,” Humphrey wrote in an email.

Cultural context of yakʸitʸutʸu

The seven residence halls are named after seven local tribal sites:

  1. tiłhini, meaning “place of the full moon,” represents San Luis Obispo.
  2. elewexe, meaning “swordfish,” represents Paso Robles.
  3. tsɨtqawɨ, meaning “place of the dogs,” represents Morro Bay.
  4. tsɨtpxatu, meaning “place of the whales,” represents Avila.
  5. nipumuʔ, meaning “place of the big house,” represents Nipomo.
  6. tšɨłkukunɨtš, meaning “place of the rabbits,” represents Carrizo Plain.
  7. tsɨtkawayu, meaning “place of the horses,” represents Cambria.

To provide cultural context in the new buildings, each residence hall will include educational components, indigenous plants, cultural visuals, murals and stories of significance to each tribal site, according to Executive Director for University Housing Jo Campbell.

Leah Mata, a member of the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini tribe, is the lead for cultural components of the housing project. She is also a teacher at the Institute of American Indian Art in New Mexico and a contemporary artist, creating regalia and jewelry in traditional styles.

“For the project lead, what our community is doing is we’re sharing our intellectual property and our intellectual heritage with Cal Poly in a way that hasn’t been done before,” Mata said.

Mata said her tribe and community worked closely with Cal Poly administration to make sure the project wasn’t taking advantage of her tribe’s intellectual property and heritage.

“For our tribe and community to really move forward with the project, we really had to weigh in on whether this would harm or exploit it, and so far we felt [the vice president of student affairs] and [the] president were sincere in their collaboration to bring awareness of the local indigenous community to the Cal Poly community,” Mata said.

In conversations about the development, Mata said she’s pushing students and community members in San Luis Obispo County to use the correct tribal name, yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini. The term “Northern Chumash” didn’t originate with the tribe, but is a post-colonial term largely used to geographically distinguish Chumash tribal bands.

“Another part of [thinking of San Luis Obispo’s indigenous culture] is [understanding] that this is someone’s heritage, it is a privilege that we’re sharing it in a way that’s very vulnerable,” Mata said. “Appropriation is very common, we see young people at Coachella and a lot of indigenous places appropriating indigenous attire, and [sharing our culture] is a risk on so many levels. As a host, it’s our responsibility to teach people proper protocols and behaviors within our home. I don’t mean a physical structure when I say home, it’s the all-encompassing area of our people.”

For any students with mispronunciation  concerns, Mata urges them to consider how the language of the Chumash people was the first language ever spoken on the Central Coast.

“If you got into Cal Poly, you’re probably smart enough and capable enough [to learn how to pronounce the names of the villages]. This language is the first language, English is the second language to this area,” Mata said.

Educating students and staff on the Chumash language

Alicia Moretti, an English lecturer who works to support the tribe’s language committee, said the orthography, or conventional spelling system, currently used by the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini tribe was adopted by the tribe a few years ago after a few iterations. It uses many symbols from phonetic alphabets and doesn’t use capital letters.

Moretti said between English and the Chumash language family, there are only three consonants that English doesn’t have and two consonants that English does have but writes differently. This includes the glottal stop (seen in words like “uh-oh”), which English has, but doesn’t write. The rules about how sounds combine are also different (for example, when starting a word with “ts”).

Currently, campus software doesn’t support all of the characters in the regional Chumash language. Downloads for the language characters are available for MAC and PC, and the font is available for download.

To educate faculty, staff and students on the indigenous yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini heritage and culture, Moretti worked with College of Liberal Arts (CLA) Librarian Brett Bodemer to create a page of resources including pronunciation videos, names and translations, study guides and maps.

Video by Mandie Geller 

The university also has educational phases under works, according to university spokesperson Matt Lazier. This past year’s Freshman Student Life Orientation Day, or “Slo Days,” featured an audio-interactive board and a blueprint of the buildings with buttons for pronunciations of the new building names.

Moretti wrote in an email, “the Chumashan language family has some pretty remarkable features (like word order and sound harmonies)” that bring tremendous cultural and academic value to campus. Without familiarity with another language, she said she understands why students would feel insecure about pronunciation.

“The sounds and spellings are unfamiliar, and students weren’t really given sufficient educational support when the announcement was made. However, I believe the whole campus community can rise to the challenge and benefit from learning the names in the year ahead,” Moretti wrote in an email.

Correction: A previous version of this article featured an interactive graphic with inaccurate spellings and pronunciations. This graphic has been removed and links to the proper pronunciations courtesy of University Housing have been added. 

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