Scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest, flickering like distant campfires, the embers of ancient languages are flaring back to life.
Scorned, ignored and nearly stamped out over the course of the last century, numerous native tongues are slowly being rekindlednot by scholars but by descendants of the people who once spoke the words every day.
"It's such a big part of who we are as a people," says Misty Kalama-Miller, a member of the Puyallup Tribe and teacher at the Wa He Lut Indian School on the Puyallup Reservation.
For Kalama-Miller and others like her, rediscovering the lost languages of their ancestors is a proud, but difficult, quest. With no written tradition, the trail grows fainter all the time as the last fluent speakers of many native languages are agingand dyingbefore their knowledge can be saved.
There is one path, however, that is well-preserved, if not always well-known. It leads to the basement of the south wing of the Allen Library at the University of Washington. There, tucked away in the Manuscripts, Special Collections and Archives Division of the UW Libraries, reside 130 cardboard boxes.
Inside the boxes lie dozens of meticulously inscribed notebooksthe life's work of a dedicated scholar and a precious resource for those trying to revive the Pacific Northwest's native tongues. While far from being the only gem in the University's Northwest Linguistics Collection, the Melville Jacobs Collection is most certainly the crown jewel.
"The Jacobs Collection is one of the most important collections in the entire University archives," says Gary Lundell, a library specialist and former Jacobs student who has handled the collection for more than 30 years.
Anthropology Professor Melville Jacobs records the voice of Annie Miner Peterson with his newly built portable electric phonograph during his visit to Charleston, Ore., in July 1934. Photo courtesy MSCUA, University of Washington Libraries, Negative #UW23239z.
No wonder it takes more than a library card to view the Melville Jacobs Collection. Between the standing rules of the University archives and special rules imposed by the collection's guardians, access to the collection requires jumping through an unusual number of hoops.
For trained scholars, the hoops may be a nuisance, but they're not insurmountable. On the other hand, for those whose interest in the collection is most intrinsic and passionate, the region's tribal communities, the hoops can be a barrier, limiting both awareness of the collection and access to its contents.
"I think some of the information that was collected a long time ago was collected with good intentions ... but it's just never been available," says Lois Henry, a member of the Tulalip Tribe and a teacher at Tulalip Elementary School.
Last fall, all that changed. Inspired by a similar event at the University of California, Berkeley, Alice Taff, a research associate in the UW's linguistics department, organized a Breath of Life workshop. Stretched across an entire week, the workshop guided more than 40 members of 13 local tribes through all the hoops standing between them and the Jacobs materials as well as other important collections.
Thanks to "outstanding support" from numerous University departments, the Breath of Life was a free event staffed by docents, all with ties to the UW, who worked the entire week without pay, says Taff. "I think [participants] found for the most part that there is even more here than they expected," says Taff. "We're hoping that people will feel comfortable about coming back to the archives on their own and finding what they need."
When they do return, chances are the Jacobs Collection will command a great deal of their attention. A disciple of renowned Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas, Melville Jacobs taught anthropology at the University of Washington from 1928 until 1971. However, it was in the field, not the classroom, that Jacobs forged his legacy. Documenting Pacific Northwest tribal cultures by focusing on their grammar, vocabulary and folklore, he spent the early part of his career traveling to numerous tribal communities, filling notebook after notebookand a few recordingswith interviews and conversations, stories and songs, collected from native people in their native tongues.
Born in New York City, Jacobs studied history and philosophy at the College of the City of New York and history and anthropology at Columbia University. It was there that Jacobs met the mentor and benefactor who set him on the path that he followed for the rest of his life.
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