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Monday, September 12, 2011

Digitizing Iroquois: Intern Perspectives

NAA MS 843, National Anthropological
Archives, Smithsonian Institution
 A language offers a special window into a culture. But what happens when a language is no longer widely used in everyday life? The United Nations estimates that without preservation efforts, half of the 6,000 languages spoken around the world today will disappear. In the United States, Native American languages are especially endangered.

This past summer at the National Anthropological Archives Digitization Lab, we’ve been working to help preserve language documentation through an extensive project to digitize some 6,000 pages of Iroquoian language materials.

Many of these materials are part of the papers of John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt, who worked for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) from 1886 until his death in 1937. Hewitt was himself of Tuscaroran descent. Though he originally wanted to be a physician, like his father, after taking a job working for Erminnie A. Smith, who collected Iroquois myths for the BAE, he found his true calling. Upon her death, he took up her work at the BAE. Hewitt was the leading academic authority in his time on the Iroquois League and the customs, ceremonies and languages of its tribes; he could speak Mohawk and Onondaga, and also had some familiarity with Algonquian dialects. 
NAA MS 48, National Anthropological
Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Hewitt’s materials contain a variety of content – comparative vocabularies, myths and legends, and histories, as well as notes on grammar, medicinal remedies, names, and more. Some of the materials are in Iroquois languages, some are English translations, and many include both languages side by side. The digital surrogates of these materials will soon be available through SIRIS, the Smithsonian’s online catalog, the better to assist researchers, linguists, tribal members, and others interested in preserving Iroquois languages.

This project is made possible through a Save America’s Treasures Grant and the Six Nations of Canada.

-- Carin Yavorcik, Digital Imaging Intern, NAA Summer 2011

NAA MS 436, National Anthropological
Archives, Smithsonian Institution

There is a saying among some in the digitization field that goes, “If it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.” Though we know this is not the case, having the ability to increase access to archival materials while at the same time aiding in its long term preservation through reduced handling, kills the proverbial two birds with one stone. Digital access creates a larger audience for collections, while reducing handling, exposure and thus mitigating risk. In tandem, such things extend the life of collections for future generations. Furthermore, the digital preservation of anthropological and ethnographic material is of the utmost importance to the field, making more information available to more individuals, creating a larger discourse about the history and theory of anthropological thought.

It is these ideals that help cut through the rigorous and sometimes monotonous task of digitizing archival manuscripts. The creation of 6,000 digital surrogates from archival originals is a multi-step process that involves skill and knowledge of a host of equipment platforms, compatible software, online resources, as well as familiarity with the collection, storage, and proper handling techniques. We follow a series of guidelines for digitization; some we have created ourselves for our workflow purposes, and some are collaboratively created among others in the field, such as the
Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative (FADGI).

Once one becomes comfortable with the hardware, software and associated guidelines, one can begin to appreciate the archival material for what it is—historical documents that provide a window to a seemingly obscure but tangible connection to Native languages and early anthropological fieldwork.

--Jeanine Nault, Digital Imaging Intern,
NAA, Summer 2011

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