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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Indigenous Language Conference

A couple of weeks ago, down the road from my house, south of Albuquerque at the Isleta Pueblo hotel/casino, the Indigenous Language Institute held one of their first theme-based symposia. I’d subscribed to their email list a year or so ago, thinking of the late Dell Hymes’ frequent message that it was a scandal that the U.S. had never established a center for the amazing variety of American Indian languages in this country. At this conference the variety was of course well known and taken for granted. The struggle is to keep those languages alive. So I decided to attend to learn. I’m an anthropologist who knows practically nothing about American Indians, a fact that fueled many jokes from Indian colleagues when I did some work for the National Indian Board of Alcohol and Drug Abuse years ago. Often Vine Deloria was quoted to me, that the definition of an Indian family was the parents, the kids, and the anthropologist. And I still remember the story of a grad student who worked in a southwest pueblo and, after an hour or so, the old man said to the budding linguist who was interviewing him, “You’re very good. You know, I worked with Edward Sapir.”

The reputation of academia is still contradictory. The first presenter at the conference was a non-Indian academic who has worked with Indian languages for years and is in fact a member of the ISI board. One theme of the conference, and his talk, was creating words, a major problem for most attendees who need to adapt an elder’s vocabulary to the communicative practices of a 21st century youth. He did a terrific job laying out the territory of where new words can come from, and he made morphology more interesting than anyone ever thought it could be. Clearly he is an academic with a stellar reputation among the mostly American Indian participants. On the other hand, another presenter, a young PhD student and tribal member, described a recent ethnography that cast her tribe’s efforts to revitalize their language as the commodification of an inauthentic culture. Post-structural research, in her view, has a worse reputation than the old-time anthropologists that it supposedly had improved upon.

I didn’t have any particular professional agenda myself. I was curious about Indian languages and their use today, something it’s hard not to be when you live in New Mexico. I was overwhelmed with what I learned and won’t try to cover it all here. I mean, I hardly ever take notes at a conference but at this one I wrote both days.

Many speakers acknowledged the pioneering work of native language revitalization by Maori and Hawaiians, a global Polynesian trail into Indian country. It felt to me like those distant places--a Hawaiian came to make a presentation--were the slow growth part of the curve and the Isleta conference was the turning point as it goes exponential.

There were many talks about many things. Two young Cherokee guys, artists turned geeks, talked about their discovery of unicode and their work with Apple to get the writing system into their products. They skyped the Apple rep into the conference who helped with the work. You can now select a Cherokee keyboard on your iPhone, and they say that Cherokee kids in the immersion schools do, all the time. A dynamic Ojibwe prof described a range of actions, publications, immersion, vocabulary development. He joked that he tells people that if they’re interested in a foreign language they should go over to the Department of English. A Canadian woman skyped in from Hong Kong to teach us about the field of “terminology management,” something I’d never heard of before. A teacher from Santa Clara pueblo described their immersion school and how her job was to continue the Tewa language instruction when the kids entered public high school.

I could use this conference as a basis to start in on a book. But I won’t. An Indian author will. A theme of the conference--no surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with U.S./Indian history--is the U.S. destruction of Indian languages/cultures--what I called ‘languaculture” in a book I wrote. The result is the long list of “endangered” Indian languages now, usually meaning aging speakers, declining use, English-only among younger tribal members. But this conference wasn’t about preserving something dead for the museum, reminiscent of the old anthropological idea of “salvage ethnography.’ instead, this was about bringing something back to life as part of how Indian youth live now. I mean, Cherokee syllabary on an iPhone? Does that sound like freezing the past in a museum case?

So I won’t even think about a book because this isn’t an Anglo project, except by invitation. It’s an Indian project, thank you very much. The differences that were articulated I could also write about for a long time. Only one speaker acknowledged the irony of meeting on Columbus Day, but he did so by joking how Columbus was actually a pirate. Another talked about how when he was young they’d sit around and listen to white professors tell them about their language and how crazy that was compared to what they knew about what their language meant. I was treated well at the conference, as were other Anglo participants, including an Irish guy who demoed how to use a web crawler to create translation resources in Choctaw. Nothing personal about any of this. But there were clear boundaries. This was not, and never was going to be, yet another outsider project in a long series of academic and applied efforts.

I was most fascinated with the immersion school concept. Several were described. Most impressive were the repeated anecdotes about how kids wanted to go to school, as well as indicator data that showed how the immersion students did better on standardized tests--in English--and went on to college in higher numbers, when compared to kids who started out in English medium of instructions schools. Kids now have adult help in creating the new words the language needs and incorporating technology so that you do Facebook in an Indian language as well as in English. I decided to perform the stereotype and made a closing comment about all the applied research questions this success created, questions to generate knowledge to feed back into the programs. How did it work? How was it similar and different in different places? Which kids went and which didn’t and why? Like that. No response, but then other attendees said some of that in a better way, especially a woman who wondered why there wasn’t a “youth panel” at the conference.

So as I drove home I got a picture of older people who speak a language, adults who for the most part do not, at least not well, and waves of kids coming up who speak it comfortably in their bilingual/bicultural identity. The projections of “language death” did not reckon with the immersion schools. The young woman getting her Ph.D. had said her academic committee insisted on a traditional theory and she showed us activity theory and how it served the purpose. But really, she said, the theory was more like this--and she put up a slide of what she called a “bridge theory,” a “bridge of generations” diagram that made more sense given what she’d learned, from her research and from her new job as language manager for the tribe. The bridge connected with the past though the language that is shared, organized the present using that same connection, and adapted and changed day by day as it expanded to meet the needs of its speakers. She concluded that “heritage revitalization is both traditional and innovative.”

Besides being fascinating intellectually and inspiring personally, the conference also made me smile at history on the drive back home. I like to use anthropology, and a lot of other things I’ve picked up along the way, to help solve problems. The linguistic anthropologist who made the first presentation at the conference certainly did that, to the obvious appreciation of the participants, by showing what his field knows about how to make new words, a problem they all need to solve. But for me, it was pretty obvious that the main thing to do was stay out of the way and, if I wanted to do anything, donate some money. You can too, at http://www.indigenous-language.org/.
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