Foundation for Endangered Languages

Home | Manifesto | Membership details | Proceedings | Grant Applications | Newsletter | Links | Bibliography


5. Conference Report

Authenticity and Identity in Indigenous Language Revitalization: by Rosemary C. Henze

a report on a session at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting held November 1996

(Ms Henze is with ARC Associates, Oakland, California)

This session was organized with the goal of exploring, through the lenses of educational anthropology and language planning, some exciting new developments and struggles taking place in indigenous language renewal efforts. It included presentations by the following participants: Rosemary Henze (ARC Associates): Introduction to the session; Leanne Hinton and Jocelyn Ahlers (University of California, Berkeley): The issue of "authenticity" in California language restoration; Nancy Hornberger and Kendall King (University of Pennsylvania): Authenticity and unification in Quechua language planning; Edna MacLean and Roy Iutzi Mitchell (Ilisagvik College): Iñupiak language revitalization on Alaska's North Slope; No‘eau Warner (University of Hawai‘i, Ma¤noa): Deciding for others: The role of non-indigenous people in the efforts to revitalize the Hawaiian language; Laiana Wong (University of Hawai‘i, Ma¤noa): Cheering for the re-make in an authenticity contest; Kahulu Palmeira (University of Hawai‘i, Ma¤noa): Authenticity: The problems of cultural negotiation in the re-genesis of the Hawaiian language; Leisy Thornton Wyman (Stanford University): Opportunity and challenge: Yup’ik oral narratives in a school-based language revitalization effort. Discussants were Kathryn Davis (University of Hawai‘i, Ma¤noa) and David Gegeo (California State University, Monterey Bay). The next paragraphs provide a summary of these papers and the discussants' comments. I apologize in advance for selecting what I thought were some of the major points made by each speaker, and perhaps ignoring other important points or explanations.

The session began with my own brief introduction to the topic. Along with citing the increasing threat to the world's indigenous languages, which is surely familiar to Iatiku's readership, I drew attention to the fact that this threat means different things to different people-- the tragedy of the depletion of the world's linguistic resources, the personal loss of indigenous identity and culture encoded and expressed through language; or simply another “fact of life” that we should accept and get on with the business of survival.

One of the premises of the session is that intervention in the decline of a language requires education in the broadest possible sense. I do not mean that school must be involved. As Fishman (1991) and others have pointed out, relying only on schooling to revitalize a language is a sure way to guarantee its demise. However, schooling is only one form of education; community-based programs, consciousness raising, child socialization practices in the home, informal apprenticeships -- all these are also forms of education. Yet little documentation exists that describes the educational process in these different language renewal settings. Successful intervention also requires language planning and policy changes at the local as well as state or national level so that the indigenous language can be supported. And finally, intervention means conscious cultural change as well as language change. In all of these realms -- educational, political, and cultural -- individuals and communities attempting to shift from a dominant language toward an indigenous minority language run directly into profound questions of authenticity and identity. What form of the language is to be passed on? Is there an "authentic" form? How will that form be viewed by different sectors of the community? Who is indigenous? Who has the right and responsibility to decide matters of indigenous language revitalization? The papers in this session explored these and other questions that help us understand both common struggles and different pathways for addressing those struggles in a variety of language communities.

Jocelyn Ahlers presented a paper she co-wrote with Leanne Hinton in which they discuss authenticity in the context of California Native languages. Most California languages have few if any remaining native speakers, all of whom are elderly. Current programs aimed at language revitalization, both of which are intertribal, include a master-apprentice program designed for language groups which still have native speakers, and a native language restoration workshop designed for those tribes with no remaining speakers. Both programs have been described in detail in other publications (e.g., Hinton, 1994). It is notable that unlike many other language revitalization efforts, neither of these programs rely on classroom instruction as the mode of transmission and acquisition. The fact that the master apprentice program, in particular, takes place through informal learning contexts gives it the advantage of less rigidity and enhances the participants' ability to tie the language to traditional activities and values. Traditional methods of word formation have proven especially fruitful as a way to enhance authenticity while simultaneously extending the corpus of the language to include modern concepts. Hinton and Ahlers described in detail some examples from Hupa in which metonymy and metaphor are used to create new words following cognitive strategies that were found to be common in the formation of older words. One of these strategies for naming objects is to associate an action that is typically done with that object, thus for example, the word for butter is 'miq'it-k'iwiLiw , which translates roughly as "on top it is smeared." Through strategies such as these, "it is possible to modernize a language while still retaining that which makes the language an expression of the culture which uses it." Increasing modernization, therefore, need not always lead away from the world view of earlier speakers.

Nancy Hornberger and Kendall King discussed authenticity in the context of Quechua language planning. They described two cases (in Peru and Ecuador) in which seemingly insurmountable controversies over unification and the maintenance of authenticity have led to deep divides among interest groups who purportedly share a common desire to revitalize the indigenous language. In the Peruvian case the debate focused on whether standardized Quechua should use a three or a five-vowel system. The three-vowel system is newer and considered linguistically more "correct" in reflecting the vowel phonemes of the language, whereas the five-vowel system is older but also more reflective of Spanish colonial influences. Peruvian linguists, the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), and the Peruvian Academy of the Quechua Language have become entrenched in a debate in which the vowel system serves as the terrain for contesting other, deeper issues; "namely, the basis of authority on the language, and the defense of its authenticity and autonomy." In Saraguro, Ecuador, the controversy over authenticity and unification in Quichua has taken a different, but no less contentious path. King has studied two communities in particular, Lagunas and Tambopamba, where tensions between advocates for "Authentic Quichua" and "Unified Quichua" tend to follow age and social and economic class lines. Among other findings, she noted that older community members and those of less education and tend to use only "Authentic Quichua" whereas younger and better educated people tend to use only "Unified Quichua." The authors comment that "such linguistic and communicative division further fragments already embattled linguistic minority communities." In the case of the Peruvian vowel controversy, it has also considerably slowed the production of written materials while publishers wait to see the resolution of the debates. The authors find Bentahila and Davies' distinction between restoration and transformation useful here in trying to sort out different acquisition planning aims. The restorative aim seeks to return "the language to a previously more healthy state" whereas transformation "seeks to forge new roles for the language." (Bentahila and Davies, 1993:355). Hornberger and King argue more transformatively for a relaxation of strongly held positions in favor of compromise that will enable the language revitalization efforts to move forward, with a written standard and encouragement for continued use of regionally distinct spoken varieties.

Roy Iutzi-Mitchell presented a paper co-authored with Edna Agheak MacLean in which they focus on how Ilisagvik College is responding to the language shift from Iñupiak (the traditional language of the North Alaskan Iñupiat) to English. Currently on the North Slope, few Iñupiat under age 40 are fully fluent, and Iñupiat semi-speakers are common in their 30s, rare in their 20s. Ilisagvik College is a two-year college which, according to the authors, has taken on the responsibility to provide leadership in reversing the trend of language shift. This in itself is an inspiring stance, since most institutions of higher education want no part in such responsibilities. The authors recognized both positive first steps and shortcomings or areas for improvement. Among these, they noted that though the college does teach Iñupiak as a second language, the emphasis is on spelling, rudiments of grammar, and memorization of simple phrases, not on conversational fluency. They recommended an immersion program for adults with conversational fluency as the goal. An immersion program does exist (since 1994) for children, but the college needs to provide professional development in immersion theory and practice for all those school district staff who implement the program. The authors also identified a need for community forums in which local residents could discuss larger issues of language revitalisation and cultural survival. These could serve the dual purpose of raising awareness and generating more community support for language programs. Such awareness raising would need to address the fact that despite the good-willed efforts of the schools to teach Iñupiak as a second language, mother tongue transmission of the language is essential to language continuity. "Not only must young Inuit become able to speak they language; they must speak Iñupiak as a genuine medium of communication."

No‘eau Warner, Laiana Wong, and Kahulu Palmeira each discussed different aspects of their work in schools, university, and community on O‘ahu. Since 1984, when the first Pünana Leo (language nest) pre-school began, over a thousand people, most of them children and young adults of college age, have become fluent speakers of Hawaiian as a second language. Kula Kaiapuni (Hawaiian immersion schools) which as of 1997 serve children in grades K-10, are slated to continue through Grade 12 by 1999. Programs are now in place to extend this learning beyond the schools into community-based language learning activities, thus addressing the concern that school by itself is not enough (Fishman, 1991). Thirteen years of language revitalization work, alongside political efforts to achieve sovereignty and economic stability, have given Hawaiian a strong new beginning. There has been considerable program spread, and the immersion program along with efforts in homes and community have produced a new generation of children who are fluent speakers. Compared to thirteen years ago, when Hawaiian was almost silenced, this is remarkable progress. However, the three presenters see a great deal more work ahead before Hawaiian could possibly enter a stable state of diglossia.

No‘eau Warner talked about the problem of "speaking for others" in Hawai‘i. He provided some historical examples of how decision making about Hawaiian issues has not involved Hawaiians as key decision makers (including the overthrow of the Hawaiian government, definitions of Hawaiian identity, disputes over water rights, land rights, and even the 1996 election in which sovereignty was an issue). He also provided a brief description of the progress that has been made in language and cultural revitalization. Against this background, however, he contended that "non-indigenous people are once again silencing Hawaiians." The primary problem is that "non-Hawaiians are playing leadership roles in the implementation of policies which separate language and culture from the Hawaiian people, arguing that the Hawaiian language and culture are autonomous entities distinct from the people from whom they evolved."



Warner drew on the Hawaiian concept of kuleana (responsibility and right) to explain why, if we assume indigenous people have kuleana for their language and culture, they must have authority in decision making about these issues. He was careful to point out that while some have called this position racist, he is not suggesting that non-Hawaiians be excluded from participating in revitalization activities; rather, he is advocating for the inclusion of Hawaiians as key decision makers. He also made suggestions about appropriate roles for non-Hawaiian linguists, anthropologists, and other interested people. [Those who followed a recent discussion on the "Endangered Languages" e-mail list concerning Maori rights and responsibilities for things Maori (including language) will find Warner's paper raises similar issues].

Laiana Wong's presentation demonstrated, through examples from the Hawaiian situation, why "authenticity, on an absolute level, may or may not exist." Because language is not a static entity but "constantly adapts to its present context, its authentication can be viewed as a construct of society, the result of a process of promotion and negotiation." He noted that the gap between what is called "Hawaiian" in the present context of immersion schooling and what is generally considered to be "authentic" Hawaiian is continually widening. Current forms of Hawaiian are often called "book Hawaiian" or "university Hawaiian" because the teachers are for the most part second language speakers who have learned the language through other second language speakers at the university. Imperfect acquisition and modernization are often considered to be "contaminants which weaken the integrity of the language, perhaps leaving it unworthy of attention or inappropriate as a marker of ethnic identity." However, such a perception can seriously hamper efforts to revitalize the language. Not only that, but efforts to influence language use norms in the community imply a relationship between authenticity and prescriptivism, with the promotion of one form over another resulting in a binary standard of "right" and "wrong." While the groping for authenticity may seem silly to some linguists familiar with natural language change and variation, for community members it has tremendous power, especially for learners whose status as "competent speakers of Hawaiian" is never free from doubt. Thus, it is unlikely that authenticity will lose its value as a goal for the community, however abstract and elusive such a goal may be. Rather, language revitalization proponents should concentrate on the negotiation and promotion processes that can authenticate language for the present context.

Kahulu Palmeira's presentation focused on the problems of cultural negotiation that pervade the Kula Kaiapuni schools and the difficulties of realizing authenticity. For example, the program "continues to be viewed [by the Hawai‘i Department of Education, which funds it] as having a parallel curriculum to the English program, rather than one based on indigenous models of meaning and learning." While equity and access to the mainstream curriculum are important goals (as seen in the Kamehameha schools, for example), there are other goals that the Kula Kaiapuni are trying to achieve, namely indigenous determination of the "why, what, and how" of schooling (Stairs, 1994). Another issue is that "much of the children's exposure to traditional Hawaiian culture is related to ways of the distant past, not the current society." In fact, the question of whose culture is to be acquired in such a program is a very complex one, given that many students in the program have mixed ancestry including Chinese, Japanese, Haole (white), Portuguese, and others. Furthermore, since the teachers and curriculum developers, like the children, are English language and culture dominant, their world views, beliefs, and values become reflected in pedagogy that is supposed to validate Hawaiian cultural heritage. Palmeira also raised the question of how many children benefit from programs like the Kula Kaiapuni. Not many, unfortunately. The vast majority of Hawaiian children are not in these or other special programs, and while one has to start somewhere, it is important not to lose sight of the other children who could potentially benefit.

The last presentation by Leisy Thornton Wyman examined an oral history project, the Kipnuk Language and Culture Preservation Project (KLCCP), in the Yup’ik community of Kipnuk, Alaska. The Central Yup’ik language, unlike Hawaiian and California languages, is still spoken as a native language by children in some communities. Kipnuk is one of the stronger and more traditional communities in the area, and Wyman pointed out that in this village, it is considered shameful not to know Yup’ik. Nonetheless, large numbers of elementary school children are now using English most or all the time, and secondary students, though dominant Yup’ik speakers, are having trouble understanding the language of their elders. The KLCCP was designed to address the perceived need for enhancing inter-generational communication between students and elders in the community. Wyman's presentation focused on how a group of local language activists use the claim of authenticity to gain control over tensions centering on (1) the pull towards standardization of Yup’ik, and (2), the pull to enhance inter-generational transmission of the language at the local level. In particular, she examined two of the micro-decisions that were made during the development of a book of elders' narratives. One of these was the decision to write in two Yup’ik orthographies rather than one, in view of the fact that the region is currently in a transition period between the older missionary-developed orthographies (Moravian, in this village), which are familiar to village elders, and the newer phonetic orthography that is used in the schools. Respect for the elders' forms figured prominently in this decision. The other was the decision to keep older, more difficult words in the text undefined in order to encourage young people to ask teachers, parents and elders about them, thereby leaving the authority not in the text but rather "with the living local sources of the language, the elders themselves." Both decisions exemplify how language activists managed to maintain local control over language planning.

One of our discussants, Kathryn Davis pointed out that these papers speak not only to indigenous groups, but also to language minority groups world-wide, including speakers of immigrant languages, vernaculars such as African American Vernacular English, and creoles such as Hawai'i Creole English. She draws several lessons from the papers, including, (1) language planning includes culture planning (see also Harris 1994); and (2) language/culture planning is a highly political endeavor. The papers, according to Davis , can inform us particularly in terms of rights and responsibilities for language planning. A major question is whether indigenous community members are able to make informed choices about the forms and functions of their schools. For example, because parents often have limited access to information about bilingualism, bilingual education, and immersion schooling, the "informed" part of their right to choose is often overlooked. As for responsibilities in language and culture planning, Davis suggested that the critical process planning described by Wong would be a good model for other groups. Language planners should be aware of the dangers of hegemony involved in corpus planning, specifically planning for a standardized variety or in making decisions about authenticity.

Our other discussant, David Gegeo, observed that there are two angles from which language revitalization is typically approached -- political, and linguistic/sociolinguistic. Indigenous or native peoples tend to approach it from a political point of view because for them, language revitalization is counter-hegemonic; it signals the end of de-indigenization and the beginning of re-indigenization. Non-indigenous people tend to place more emphasis on language as a medium of communication, and the political implications are often secondary to this linguistic/sociolinguistic focus. While both approaches are valuable, it is important to recognize that for native people, language revitalization must go beyond an alternate medium of communication; it must encompass the revitalization of indigenous epistemology, including the ability to construct knowledge, to express one's spiritual constitution, to laugh and grieve, to swear and bitch, to dialogue about one's cosmology and to think and reason -- all in one's own language. [Gegeo's own native language, Kwara'ae, is relatively more intact than the others discussed in this session; but it too is beginning to show signs of being undone, and paramount among these signs is the undermining of indigenous epistemology.] Gegeo also questioned the opposition of restoration and transformation noted by Hornberger and King, suggesting that he would prefer to see these two aims as interrelated than diametrically opposed. "If there is firm ground (e.g., the existence of an authentic language) why can't language revitalization be restorative?"

As the organizer of this session, I am of course positively biased toward these papers. Taken as a group, I think they demonstrate what is actually involved in doing language revitalization in indigenous communities. We gain insight into the micro-decisions that must be made, and the politics of those decisions. We see how strongly connected language, culture and identity are, especially from an indigenous perspective. Because of my own background in education, anthropology, and sociolinguistics, I have been surprised at times by the absence of educational and anthropological perspectives in language revitalization. I am not suggesting that more outsiders need to step in and “rescue” language revitalization programs, but rather that the vision of language revitalization needs to include a number of perspectives, not only linguistic ones. For instance, wherever education is involved, as it is in all the cases described here, process makes a difference. How something is taught or learned can be as important as what is taught or learned, and these processes also carry cultural meaning. In devising innovative ways to support reverse language shift, we need to pay much more attention to these educational and cultural processes. Finally, I think we are beginning to see a shift in who speaks about indigenous issues, with many of the authors of these papers who are themselves indigenous people speaking about their own communities. If we desire to move out of relationships that reproduce earlier colonial patterns of hegemony and subordination, this is a critical step, and one I hope will be increasingly the norm rather than the exception.

Bentahila, A. & Davies, E.E. (1993). Language revival: Restoration or transformation? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 14 (5), 355-373.
Fishman, Joshua. (1991). Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Avon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Harris, Stephen. (1994). “Soft” and “hard” domain theory for bicultural education in indigenous groups. Peabody Journal of Education. 69 (2): 140-153.
Hinton, Leanne. (1994). Flutes of Fire: Essays on California Indian Languages. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books.
Stairs, Arlene. (1994). The cultural negotiation of indigenous education: Between microethnography and model building. Peabody Journal of Education. 69 (2): 154-171.