On saving Indigenous language

After nearly being stamped out by colonialism and genocide, Indigenous languages are being taught again to save them from going extinct. And in-depth piece on some efforts below.

Where does language go when it isn’t traveling through the air? Sometimes its speakers carve its words into stone or shell or bone, and time buries those traces beneath layers of earth, to be found centuries later by people who won’t know how to read them. Other times it’s passed on in stories, words from new languages patching the gaps between what has been remembered and what has been forgotten. And still other times the language is preserved in the parchment documents of settlers, stored like botanical specimens so it can be studied and pulled apart.

All those words in their many forms are shadows of the living language.

A few months before my trip to the Menominee Reservation, in July 2019, Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, hosted the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages conference. That weeklong workshop marked a moment when those shadows of language began obtaining solid mass. The conference, co-directed by linguists Daryl Baldwin and Gabriela Pérez Báez, welcomed fourteen people from five Native communities—the Menominee; Oneida; Hanis, Milluk, Siuslaw; Nisenan; and Numa—to learn an innovative new software program built to help with language revitalization. While Joey and Ron were working in Wisconsin to spin the thread of their language through speaking workshops, other Menominee speakers had traveled here to complete a different kind of work: organizing documents, vocabulary lists, stories recorded by linguist Leonard Bloomfield, and audio recordings of elders. If language is a phoenix, these types of documentation form the ashes from which the words can be reborn.

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