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For Gregor, It’s Personal

Published: March 6, 2017

The first tenure-track hire in American Indian Studies (AIS) at CSULB since the 1970s wants to return indigenous American literature to the people who wrote it.

Theresa Gregor, who joined the university last fall, says it is an honor for her and her Iipay-Yaqui family and community to join the ranks of the CSULB faculty. Her area of research is literary repatriation.

“Right now, I want to retranslate the ethnographies for my own tribal community, the Kumeyaay, and interpret them back into our native language,” she explained. In the same way the Native American Graves Repatriation Act included tribes in consultation with the repatriation of remains, she wants to repatriate indigenous stories.

Currently, Gregor works with native speakers in San Diego County to repatriate the autobiography of prominent Native American Delfina Cuero.

“My goal is to obtain a mini-grant to convene a broad cross-section of speakers from the 13 tribes who are Kumeyaay,” she said. “I want to develop consensus on the translation of the Cuero autobiography including archival materials such as digital records of interviews done by Cuero’s ethnographer. I want to listen to the interviews and read the texts before working with a linguist to rewrite the narrative of the Kumeyaay woman. Then we would have our own Kumeyaay biography.”

There are many challenges to translation and translating American heritage languages is especially challenging.

“That is because so many are endangered because they have been suppressed,” she said. “They haven’t been taught and they haven’t been passed on. We are currently working with the third generation of linguists to document this language since the early 1900s.”

Literal translation is one thing but context is another.

“When I began translating about 20 lines, I found the work to do just a freelance translation of so much as five lines was greater than I had anticipated,” she said. “I found the translation from English back to the Kumeyaay language changed the meaning of the text. It resonated in a different cultural way.”

For instance, the Cuero narrative discusses the tribe’s removal in the late 1800s from the California coastline and from Mission Valley, home to many traditional Kumeyaay villages.

“She talks about her family being pushed farther and farther away, first into the mountains then south into Baja California,” said Gregor. “One passage written in English describes finding signs of indigenous habitation such as grinding rocks. But when you translate it into Kumeyaay, it becomes ‘Indians were always here.’ It was more than a sense of a people vanished with only the rocks remaining. It described a continuing presence. She was not saying, ‘We’re not here anymore.’ She was saying, ‘We were always there.’”

In the Kumeyaay language, the word for “earth” also is the word for “body,” as in “I am my body. I am an Iipay-Yaqui person.” Gregor believes philosophical questions like that help to inform the text’s context and give it nuance.

“I tell my students at CSULB that this shows the relational concepts between human language and the world around us. It is a relational configuration between people, places and experience,” she said.

Theresa Gregor
Theresa Gregor

Gregor believes it is possible to see translation as a kind of conversation with the past. “I feel a deep spiritual connection to translation as a Kumeyaay woman,” she said. “Translation illuminates so many aspects of our culture that have been repressed and which people don’t talk about. We have cultural gatherings where we sing bird songs. Those songs tell stories of creation and the community’s journey. They talk about pathways and seasonal events. They offer guides and lessons. This project offers me the opportunity to have conversation with these stories and to be allowed into the deeper space of reflection where new meaning can be created.”

Gregor was the first in her family to attend college, earning her bachelor’s degree from CSU San Marcos before moving to USC for her master’s and doctorate, the latter completed in 2010.

Mentoring is important to Gregor. “I’ve had tremendous faculty mentors as well as cultural mentors,” she said. “My mentors have raised my consciousness and helped me make the decision to enroll at USC to pursue my doctorate,” she said. “Mentors can have that powerful of an impact. I want to bring that to my students here. I want them to realize their full potential.”

Gregor is glad she made the choice to join CSULB.

“I’m a California Indian who wanted to stay relatively close to my family and homeland,” she said. “I’m from a rural reservation community and I wasn’t sure that would make a good fit. The AIS program works hard to make themselves relevant to the lives of CSULB students. I feel at home here.”