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5. Allied Societies and Activities

MITILI (MIT Indigenous Language Initiative) Advisory Conference
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 6 Sept, 2003
Andrea Rackowski asrackow(at)MIT.EDU reports:

There were 20 participants at the conference, 14 of them from American First Nations (Mashpee Wampanoag, Aquinnah Wampanoag, Miami, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, Tohono O’odham) and 6 on the faculty (in either Linguistics or Anthropology) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Wheelock College.

The conference began with an opening prayer said in Wampanoag by Jessie Little Doe Fermino. Following that, the President of MIT, Charles Vest, welcomed the group to MIT and thanked them for participating in the conference and sharing with us their ideas and advice on structuring the MIT Indigenous Language Initiative.

Session I: Overview of the State of Indigenous Languages

During the first session, participants spoke about language projects in their own communities. Several major themes emerged from the presentations.

1. Most communities were concentrating a lot of their effort on the language of children, working on immersion programs, classes in and out of the schools, pre-school programs (or plans for them), and training teachers. Daryl Baldwin, of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, especially stressed the need to teach the language to children, as they are the teachers of tomorrow and will be the future stewards of the language.

2. Another major issue that came up was the importance of individuals in the struggle for language maintenance and revitalization. Several of the people present at the conference were their tribe’s only linguists or language teachers and were called upon to “wear many different hats” in satisfying the need for language expertise. Not only are individuals called upon to teach the language, they are also doing linguistic and archival research on it, working on dictionaries, training other teachers, conducting sociolinguistic studies of who is still speaking it, managing tribal language programs, and conducting outreach to the community.

3. Technology and its place in language revitalization was also discussed. Some tribes have had success with using computer technology to enhance language learning or write dictionaries. Producing such materials can, however, be expensive and is time-consuming. Most participants at the conference agreed that these tools could be useful as supplements for language learning, but should not be relied upon exclusively in teaching or maintaining a language.

Session II: How MITILI can address the issue of language endangerment

The second session of the day began with an overview of the American Indian Language Development Institute given by Ofelia Zepeda, who is one of the founders of that organization. Every year, the AILDI holds a summer institute at the University of Arizona that offers university courses for credit. Most participants at the institute are language teachers or researchers and many use the credits they earn at AILDI to get teacher certification.

Professor Zepeda noted that language maintenance was not a big theme of the institute until the mid-1990s, but since then the importance of language revitalization has become a central part of the AILDI. More and more courses on immersion methods and how to teach endangered languages are being offered and these offerings are very popular.

Following the discussion of the AILDI, talk turned to how the new MIT Master’s degree in indigenous languages should be structured. Wayne Newell brought up the issue of the Master’s thesis and whether it should be allowed to be written in a language other than English. His concern was that requiring the thesis to be in English might discourage some potential students from applying to the program, especially the people who might be most connected to the language and most expert in it and might therefore feel the least comfortable in English. Participants discussed the possibility of allowing people to record an oral project in place of a written thesis, or to allow people to write the thesis in their native language (although evaluating such a work presents obvious problems).

Another issue was the kind and amount of social and logistical support there would be for students in the program. Jessie Little Doe suggested that program materials should make it clear that support of available. The local community of Wampanoag is willing to offer all sorts of social and moral support for students who might be homesick or in need of encouragement.

The next discussion centered on the length of the MIT Master’s program – whether it should be a 2 year program with an optional additional “qualifying” year or a full 3 year program. There is a tension between providing a lot of training that will be useful to graduates of the program and not wanting to take people away from their communities for too long – even two years seems like too much for some potential students, and some participants at the conference felt that if the Master’s were a three-year program it would be difficult to get people to agree to stay for the full amount of time. On the other hand, Jessie Little Doe pointed out that it takes an enormous amount of work to run a tribal language program and teach classes and it can be very difficult for someone to do this without adequate training. One of the possible solutions discussed was to allow students to take their final, thesis year back in their home community while they stayed in touch with their MIT advisor over email and telephone and periodic visits back to Cambridge.

A second issue with having a three year program is that it would require an additional year’s worth of funding for each student. Since MIT is committed to fully funding all of the students in the program, the addition of a third year to the length of the degree program greatly increases the amount of fundraising that the department must do. There thus might be a tension between having fewer students in the program for longer, and having more students pass through the program.

An important part of this debate, however, is that MIT intends to maintain strong bonds with graduates of the Master’s degree program, so that even once people have graduated, they will still be able to talk to their advisors and others in the department with questions or issues that come up in their linguistic work in their communities. Even if students only stayed in the program for two years, they would still have support and training available to them after graduation.

No final decision was reached about how long the program should be, although a tentative plan was to state the requirements for the Master’s degree and then sketch out several possible timelines for finishing the coursework and thesis. Students could then finish the degree in whichever amount of time suited them best.

(It should be noted also that in order to help alleviate the enormous amount of work that can be expected of one person who is the tribal linguist, MIT also plans to solicit “teams” of students to attend the program at the same time, so that two people from the same community to come to MIT for the Master’s degree and then would be able to return to their community and work together on language revitalization.)

The next topic discussed was how to ensure that the students accepted into the program are really qualified and really committed to working in their communities. It was agreed that part of the application process should include letters of support from the community. Daryl Baldwin noted that Miami University has a similar procedure already in place for some of its programs – they write to the community to ask about a student’s language ability when considering applicants.

Session IV: Future Directions

The last session of the day centered on the next steps for the MITILI to take. Jessie Little Doe suggested that there should be an advisory committee with Indian representation that would meet regularly to discuss running the initiative. She also suggested that the advisory committee should be available for regular email consultation as issues arise.

Another important next step will be securing the funding necessary to run the program. The MITILI is currently pursuing both public and private funding, but still needs to secure a significant amount in order to be able to realize the goal of a full program that funds all students equally.



Finally, the group discussed what the MITILI can offer to indigenous language communities, apart from the Master’s degree program in linguistics. One thing that MIT as an institution can offer is connections to both academic and governmental organizations. The linguistics department is also well-connected within the field of linguistics and can offer advice on where to go for advice and who to ask for information. For example, if a tribe were looking to hire a linguist, we would be able to assist them with their search. The linguistics department can also offer linguistic help with specific problems, or can direct people to other sources of help.

President’s Travels

After the conference in Broome, I joined the FEL excursion, and headed east and south to Fitzroy Crossing. On the way, we visited Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek, two highly scenic sites in the King Leopold Range, one a sheltered pass, rich in barramundi, archer fish, and basking freshwater crocodiles, the other an under-mountain labyrinth reminiscent of Tolkien’s Moria. Here in the 1890s the Robin-Hood-like hero of the Bunuba people, Jandamarra, held off many posses of stockmen who were out to get him, before finally being hunted down and killed by a renegade Aboriginal. He was still in his mid-20s. As fate would have it, June Oscar, head of the Kimberley language resource centre, and a major figure in our conference, is of the Bunuba; and Jandamarra’s chief pursuer was Joseph Blythe, none other than the great-grandfather of our conference chairman. There is a moral, as well as an action movie, in the making here.

In Fitzroy Crossing, I was picked up once again by my friends, Australia’s Flying Linguists (see Ogmios 2.8), and in their Cessna we flew on to the south-east. At Balgo, where many residents speak Kukatja, we saw the new arts centre, which anyone can at least glimpse at
regions/balgo-art.html. It is a riot of cultural photographs, symbolic mosaics and weaving, and above all a gallery of pictures. Thence to Yurntumu, another Aboriginal settlement, but this time of Warlpiri-speakers; it is home to the another arts centre, and also the production of the hit comedy Bush Mechanics. This turned out to be a sad visit, since one friend of my carrier-linguists had just recently lost her son, no more than 30 years old. Her upper body painted in mourning white, she made a touching figure sitting under a mulgar tree. Still under a speech taboo, she could only express her grief to my friends through signs.

Another friend and long-time resident, Wendy Baarda, told us of her work in teaching children to read and write two languages, perplexing for all concerned because the A E I O U indicate such different sounds in Warlpiri and in English: how much simpler it would have been if the Spanish or Italians could have been the colonial power in the Northern Territory! To Wendy we owe issues of the local newsletter which have now joined the FEL library at Bailbrook Lane.

Back in New South Wales, the next major event was the conference, at the University of Sydney, on Digital Audio Archiving, to launch the PARADISEC project, creating a Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures. The project was announced in the last issue of Ogmios. It is organized by Nick Thieberger and Linda Barwick, as if to represent the interests of language and music. The conference was attended by interested parties, linguists and broadcasters from many countries in the region — Papua-Niugini through to Aotearoa (New Zealand) — and many from Australia too, although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are served by the Aboriginal Studies Electronic Data Archive ASEDA (in AIATSIS) rather than PARADISEC. The project’s continued funding is at risk (as so often with such initiatives), but there is still hope. The day after the conference there was a launch meeting for yet another derived initiative: DELAMAN – the Digital Endangered Language and Music Archive Network, which allies PARADISEC with ELAR, the archive to emerge from the Rausing-funded ELDP at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, various archives attached to the LINGUIST list, ASEDA, DoBeS and others. The full list is available at

Latest Grants from the Endangered Language Fund

Doug Whalen wrote, on 2 Dec 2003:

The Endangered Language Fund's seventh annual request for proposals has resulted in the submission of 68 projects on languages throughout the world. As usual, the quality of the proposals was high, leading to many difficult decisions. We funded 10 of the projects, and could easily have done 20. We are hoping to expand our resources for future grants.

As always, we depend on the generosity of our members. Just a dozen new members would sponsor a new grant. Please visit if you would like to join.

The selected proposals are:

Cora McKenna and Brenda McKenna (Nambe Pueblo, NM) Tewa Dictionary and Curriculum, Nambe Dialect. Nambe Pueblo is north of Santa Fe. Current Nambe classes serve learners from age 4 to 60, so the curriculum has to be specially designed. The Endangered Language Fund grant will help collect material for the classroom and a better dictionary.

Lisa Conathan and Belle Anne Matheson (UC Berkeley) Arapaho Description and Revitalization. The Northern Arapaho community feels a need for an audio dictionary. Pitch accents are not necessary for fluent speakers to write, but they are difficult for learners to remember. Conathan and Matheson will work on this dictionary along with a better description of the rules of the sound system.

Nadezhda Shalamova (Tomsk Polytechnic U.), Andrei Filtchenko (Rice U.) and Olga Potanina (Tomsk State Pedagogical U.) Documentation of Vasyugan Khanty. This project documents the endangered language and cultural heritage of the Vasyugan Khanty, of the Eastern Khanty group. It will provide texts and descriptions for the community and for linguistic science.

Dmitri Funk (Russian Academy of Sciences) The Last Epic Singer in Shors (Western Siberia). The heroic epics of Shors are performed by one last singer, who still remembers more than 60 of them. Funk will record as many as possible, so future generations can appreciate some of what they have missed.

Arthur Schmidt, Rita Flamand and Grace Zoldy (Metis) The Camperville Michif Master-Apprentice Program. Michif is a mixed language from Cree and French. Schmidt, a native Michif, but not a speaker, will apprentice himself to Flamand and Zoldy. The Endangered Language Fund grant will allow Schmidt to spend time in Camperville in Manitoba, Canada.

Cheruiyot Kiplangat (Centre for Endangered Languages, Kenya) Working to Save Ogiek and Sengwer of Kenya. The present project works with two languages of the Rift Valley, Ogiek and Sengwer. Language material will be recorded and made available. Information from elders on cultural practices will be the most valuable.

Claire Bowern (Harvard U.) Bardi Language Documentation: The Laves Material. Bardi is an Australian language of the Nyulnyulan family. The considerable number of cultural texts collected by Gerhardt Laves in 1929 are easy to decipher if you speak the language, but difficult if you do not. Bowern will check them with the remaining fluent speakers.

Francis Egbokhare (U. Ibadan, Nigeria) Documenting Akuku Oral Traditions. Akuku is an endangered language spoken in the Edo state of Nigeria. Egbokhare will record oral narratives for the younger generation and for linguists. Results will allow a better placement of the language within the Edoid family.

Rosemary Beam de Azcona (UC Berkeley) Southern Zapotec Language Materials. It appears that there are only two remaining speakers of San Agustín Mixtepec Zapotec, a southern Zapotec language of Mexico. Coatlán-Loxicha Zapotec is declining, though it has about 170 speakers. Beam de Azcona will record as much language material as possible.

Rick Thoman and Gary Holton (U Alaska Fairbanks) The Tanacross Athabascan Sound System. This project will produce a CD-ROM illustrating the sound system of Tanacross. Speakers will pronounce selected words and phrases with the rich array of ejectives, affricates and fricatives as well as contrastive tone. This CD-ROM will be a useful resource for Tanacross.

-- Doug Whalen (whalen(at)
Haskins Laboratories
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