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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Recovering Voices

Man with a movie camera. Vanuatu, 1974.
Photograph by Kalmun Muller. HSFA, SI.
Here at the National Museum of Natural History, the Department of Anthropology has launched a major new initiative focusing on endangered languages and indigenous knowledge, called Recovering Voices. The Smithsonian is well-situated to engage with the world-wide issue of language loss, in large part because of the rich collections housed here in the Department of Anthropology. Objects in the Ethnology Collections, manuscripts and audio recordings at the National Anthropological Archives, and the audiovisual holdings of the Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA) can all be useful tools in this endeavor, whether they directly document language, demonstrate knowledge that is closely linked to language, or encourage native speakers to recall fading vocabulary.

Cameraman Ragpa Dorjee recording sync
sound film for the National Anthropological
Film Center, c. 1980. HSFA, SI.
The HSFA has many collections of linguistic interest, including recordings of endangered and threatened languages. Thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian Women's Committee, we have been able to put samples of some of this material online.  HSFA has thousands of hours of film, video, and audio, so digitizing all of our collections may not ever be possible, but we are trying to increase the discoverability of our materials by digitizing short samples and attaching these to SIRIS catalog records.  We hope these digital video and audio clips will be useful to researchers, giving them a sense of the quality and style of the material and informing their research plans.  

A large amount of our language-related material was recorded in the 1960's and '70's, a prolific period for ethnographic and research film.  Many of the cultures and lifeways documented during that time have seen dramatic changes since then, including language loss. Research film created by the National Anthropological Film Center (NAFC), precursor to the HSFA, in Micronesia, Vanuatu, India, Nepal, Brazil, and the Cook Islands is an invaluable record of language, ritual, knowledge of the land and its resources, and daily life. Other lengthy film records (of the Ju/'hoansi of Namibia, Yanomamo of Brazil, Jie of Uganda, and Kodi of Indonesia, to name just a few) provide materials of enduring value to both scholars and the communities that have been documented.

Even silent film can be a tool for studying or reviving language.  HSFA has numerous annotations for film footage.  Some annotations were recorded by the filmmaker(s), offering rich contextual information for what is seen on screen.  Other annotations have been done by the very people who were filmed, their descendants, or other members of their communities.  In these annotations, information the filmmakers could never have known surfaces, as people and places are identified, local names for wildlife and environmental features are given, and new layers of knowledge are added to the documentary record.

Here are a few of my favorites from our language-related collections:

A clip from the John Marshall Ju/'hoan Bushman Film and Video Collection documenting storytelling, from 1955. Can you tell who is telling the story, and who is listening?

Annotated clip of ice fishing from Bering Sea Eskimos (1968).  Even in this short segment, the annotation provides a wealth of information about the environment and wildlife of this area of Alaska, even identifying the month in which the footage was probably shot.

Audio recording, "Letawai tells a story", from Scott Williams' Micronesian Film Project, 1975.  This recording was made on Ifalik or Woleai atoll in the Western Caroline Islands. It is likely an example of the Woleai language, listed in UNESCO's Atlas of Languages in Danger as "severely endangered".  We don't have a translation available, so I don't know what Letawai's story is about.  But I love to listen to it all the same.

Follow this link to see more online examples of materials relating to endangered languages and indigenous knowledge held at the HSFA. Also, our online catalog records are now open to public tagging! If there are things or places you can identify in our online clips that are not noted in the catalog record, you, too, can add to the recorded knowledge about these materials.

Karma Foley, Human Studies Film Archives


  1. Interesting to come upon this post today. Yesterday, I was researching for a post I'll run later this month the work of Tim Brookes, who has two related projects: Endangered Alphabets and Endangered Poem.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful initiative. We're working to invigorate Balinese through similar storytelling telling/videos means. Although Balinese still has 1 million speakers, its script is already endangered (yes, we've connected with Tim Brookes about it), and the spoken language is in sharp decline, threatened by pervasive use of Indonesian, in the media, schools, and recently, in cyberspace, and with an increasing discomfort with using a language that requires identifying the caste of the speaker relative to the listener. We're also hoping to encourage others to value the diversity of languages before they reach a threatened, much less endangered, state.

    Alissa Stern
    Executive Director