Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Science of Language Revitalization

Recovering Voices aims to make the Smithsonian’s collections more accessible and create opportunities for language and knowledge revitalization. We host workshops, symposia, seminars, and public events on a variety of topics, in collaboration with our partners within the Smithsonian and around the world. One of the largest programs we organize is the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages.

Over the past four iterations of the National Breath of Life, participants have contributed towards shaping the concept of a community researcher. They come from various professions, trades, and academic backgrounds, traveling together from their home communities to work on revitalizing or reclaiming their native language. They are, at the same time, cultural experts and advocates of language and cultural conservation. They are scholars of their language. After 2 weeks of linguistics instruction, they demonstrate a sound understanding and command of a number of linguistic tools and methodology, naturally draw on them, and actively utilize this science throughout their research projects.

The fourth National Breath of Life, hosted by the Smithsonian Institution and the Myaamia Center, successfully concluded on Friday June 9, 2017. The workshop ended with each group of community researchers presenting their final projects, demonstrating what they had learned and discovered, and what their research plans would be beyond Breath of Life. The 2-week institute and the final project presentations were evidence of the high caliber of knowledge, expertise, and scientific rigor acquired by Breath of Life participants.

Photographs held by archives are sometimes/many times/just as important as the manuscript materials. The Haida language group took some time to study photographs of historic Haida villages. Photo by James Di Loreto.

For their final project, the Hupa group chose a seemingly simplistic project to translate the meaning of a number of the Breath of Life participants’ names into the hupa language. The project turned out to be everything but simplistic! To achieve this, the researcher carried out an analysis of sociocultural particulars (death taboos, sociocultural roles), cultural values and equivalents across cultures (ethnographic analysis), community origins and archeological evidence for it (i.e. carved writing on stone at community house dated 10,000 years), as well as cross-linguistic etymological research. The project required knowledge of specialized vocabulary and sentence structure in the Hupa language.

For their final presentation, the Haida language group told a story in Haida. Photo by Ashleigh Arrington.

The Haida participants presented a Haida narrative from the archives, connecting it to new learnings about Haida grammar and culture, which they in turn presented with the help of photos from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) collections. To do this, the research team determined that they needed to jointly transcribe into Haida the practical orthography in a text from the J.R. Swanton 1900-1901 materials in the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) collection - (Stiidgaa Ḵ’amaalaa #22), and identify grammatical forms of particular interest that are not commonly known. Finally, they highlighted interesting cultural contexts of the story as it relates to place, artifacts, and knowledge. This project demanded analysis of orthographic representation in archival documentation and an understanding of current orthographic practices, as well as careful analysis of syntax and semantics across two very structurally distinct languages. All of this accomplished in just a few days’ time.

Getting down to business, Myaamia Center and Recovering Voices staff meet with the Tututni group working on the RVIDA pilot. Photo by Judith Andrews.

One important mission of BOL is setting the researchers up for success post-BOL. After four years of workshops and follow up with participants, Directors Gabriela Pérez Báez and Daryl Baldwin recognized a need for a very precise tool that community researchers could use beyond BOL to manage the copious data that emerges from the archival research. In response to this need, this year BOL piloted the Recovering Voices Indigenous Digital Archive (RVIDA). Baldwin and Pérez Báez are now actively planning a roll out of RVIDA to be available to communities across North America.

Classroom instruction makes up only part of what the Breath of Life Community researchers learn during the Institute. Photo by Ashleigh Arrington.

It could be said that Breath of Life represents a snapshot of a growing trend in language reclamation and revitalization in North America and globally. Tribes and communities are seeking opportunities and support, and seizing them to both prevent further loss of culture and language, and to rebuild their communities and the language they share. Breath of Life is one program, held every two years, attempting to meet this growing demand and provide the training groups need to get to the next level. It is the hope that the Breath of Life model will continue to serve language revitalization and inspire the next generation of community research scientists.

Sarah Baburi, Recovering Voices Program Assistant
Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History

No comments:

Post a Comment