Saving the Tewa Stories: A Model for Preserving Native Languages

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A multimedia project on CD-ROM conducted by UW professor of women studies Sue- Ellen Jacobs will preserve and revitalize the endangered language of the Tewa peoples of New Mexico. "It is a project that will form a model for similar projects around the country," notes Susan Jeffords, divisional dean for social sciences in the UW College of Arts and Sciences.

Jacobs recently received funding for the work from the UW's Royalty Research Fund, as well as from the UW Center for Advanced Research and Technology in the Arts and Humanities (CARTAH), directed by Richard Karpen (see The Center for Advanced Research Technology in the Arts and Humanities).

The name Tewa (pronounced "Tay-wah") refers to linguistically-related American Indian peoples who have lived in seven pueblo communities in the Southwest from aboriginal times through the present. Six of the Tewa pueblos are located near the Rio Grande in central New Mexico; a seventh is located on a mesa in northeastern Arizona. The New Mexico Tewa pueblos comprise San Juan, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Tesuque, Pojoaque, and Nambe. Tewa culture derives from the pre-pueblo peoples known as the Anasazi, whose origins are found in archaeological sites at Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado and extending southward to New Mexico and Arizona. Today, the Tewa peoples are perhaps most widely known for the highly prized black-on-black pottery made by artists at Santa Clara and San Ildefonso and the red pottery made at San Juan and Santa Clara, as well as for the silverwork, silver and turquoise jewelry, paintings, sculpture, and fabric art made by artists at all the pueblos.

Over the years, the Tewa language has been maintained and transmitted only in spoken form; it was not until the 1960s that the language was written down. Jacobs and colleagues are developing the first systematic and comprehensive collection of original sources of San Juan Pueblo Tewa and Tewa-English texts. The effort will help ensure the survival and continued vitality of San Juan Pueblo Tewa language and culture. Materials include the San Juan Pueblo Tewa Dictionary, an edited collection of stories told in Tewa by elders, now deceased; a comprehensive grammar; and a set of instructional flashcards and word games. These materials will be produced in hard copy as well as interactive computer-based multimedia form on CD-ROM.

"The immediate benefit of this project is to the Native American people of San Juan Pueblo for whom the returned, copied, newly recorded, and otherwise collected materials constitute valuable cultural and historical resources," notes Jacobs. The project receives the full support of the Tribal Council, the governor, and community groups in New Mexico, and is "central to forestalling the potential complete loss of linguistic competency in the community," she emphasizes.

"An important part of this project is the creation of efficient computer technology for language analysis, complete with visuals, sound, and written text," notes Shirley Yee, chair of the UW women studies program. "This project is significant because it will serve as a model for computer-assisted techniques and methodologies for language preservation among Native Americans."

In May 1996, Jacobs and colleagues made their first public demonstration of the preliminary CD-ROM materials, and held an invitational conference on the use of multimedia technology in American Indian/Native American language teaching, preservation, and revitalization. Joining in the presentations were Esther Martinez and Frances Harney, co-directors of the San Juan Pueblo Tewa Language Project at San Juan Pueblo. In conjunction with that visit, the latter spent time in the CARTAH lab, helping to edit specific linguistic components, adding new sentences and sounds, and consulting with students and faculty on campus as well as with elders and language teachers from local Native American communities who attended the events. Subsequently, several Pacific Northwest tribes have begun working with CARTAH on their endangered language projects as a result of this contact.

Jacobs, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, joined the UW faculty in 1974 as the first permanent director of women studies. Nominated twice for distinguished teaching awards, Jacobs has been a key figure in building the undergraduate curriculum in the women studies program at the UW. New courses include "Research Design Methods in Women Studies," "Anthropological Studies of Women," "Women in Evolutionary Perspective,' "Women, Words, Music and Change," and "Methods in Life History Research." During spring quarter 1996, Jacobs offered a new undergraduate course on "Pueblo Women in the Southwest: Ethnohistorical and Contemporary Perspective." In spring 1997, another new course was offered on applications of multimedia technologies in women studies.

Jacobs also is author of Winds of Change: Women in Northwest Commercial Fishing, published by the UW Press in 1989. The book, notes Yee, "is significant to the region in that it represents the culmination of research during the 1980s on the role of women in the fishing industry in the Northwest." A forthcoming publication--an edited volume entitled Two Spirit People (University of Illinois Press)--presents perspectives on issues in Native American gender, sexuality, and spirituality.

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