UW News

September 29, 2005

Workshop helps tribes revive native languages

A language is a terrible thing to lose, and that’s why nearly two dozen community members of Northwest Indian tribes and nations spent a week at the UW learning ways to breathe new life into endangered indigenous languages.

Workshop attendees with interests in the languages of the Upper Skagit, Colville, Nimipu (Nez Perce), Muckleshoot, Wenatchee, Tutudin (Southern Oregon Athabaskan), Montana Salish, Klamath, Samish and Chinook tribes and nations participated in the second UW Breath of Life workshop Sept. 12–16.

The workshop was designed to show the participants, who are involved in revitalizing imperiled languages, the resources available at the UW and provide them with new tools. They worked with linguists, both professionals and graduate students, and library archivists to learn the basics of linguistics and explore material on their languages that is stored in the UW library and archives and at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

“The workshop allows reconnecting broken links in a chain. A lot of material collected by linguists and anthropologists doing fieldwork is unknown to Indian peoples and we want to open the resources of the University to them,” said Alicia Wassink, assistant professor of linguistics, who co-directed the workshop.

She said one of the participants in the 2003 workshop found a recording of a tribal story made by her grandfather. Another took a copy of a tape home, not realizing that it contained the voice of his grandfather singing. Other participants were searching for specific stories and were excited to find complete transcripts for stories of which they had previously only heard fragments.

Alice Taff, a UW research associate who organized the first Breath of Life workshop two years ago and is involved in a project to preserve the Aleut language in the Aleutian and Pribilof islands of Alaska, is the co-director.

During the workshop, participants went to classes in the morning to learn linguistics skills that will aid them in their archival searches. They also were introduced to new software and specialized fonts that have been developed for creating on-line dictionaries and Web sites.

In the afternoon, archivists helped them explore and sort through material on their tribal language. Each participant also worked on a project related to revitalizing his or her language.

The UW holds a wealth of materials relating to Northwest Indian languages. Among them are the Melville Jacobs, Northwest Linguistics and Ethnomusicology collections. The Jacobs collection includes numerous field recordings, notebooks and other materials related to Indian languages and music in Washington collected between 1926 and 1939 by the former chairman of the anthropology department. The Northwest Linguistics collection consists of more than 800 audiotapes and numerous microfilm copies of linguistics field notes. The Ethnomusicology Collection is one of the largest in the country and includes songs of Pacific Northwest Indians.