AAAL 2024: Invited Colloquium

Indigenous language work: “Unhinging” the linguistic-language paradox to think otherwise; enact change


 Sheilah Nicholas, University of Arizona
Kelly Baur, Arizona State University

Colloquium Abstract

This invited colloquium offers a critique—an Indigenous perspective—of AAAL and the 2024 theme, "thinking otherwise; acting for change,” and is informed by our cumulative experiences in Indigenous language work within and adjacent to the conference space. First, the paucity of a strong Indigenous presence and voice remains an enduring legacy in AAAL. Secondly, ‘thinking,’ and ‘acting’ as gerunds, beg for a deeper understanding of Indigenous language needs and goals; that is, how language is defined, given sociocultural meaning, and informs a community’s motivations for doing Indigenous language work (Leonard, 2017). Despite being deeply tied to the very essence of how language is understood by Indigenous peoples, Indigenous language work is delegitimized and undervalued within the parameters of traditional applied linguistics; the focus on Second Language Acquisition and Teaching English as a Second Language do not speak to, or about, our experiences. We feel the deep-seated tensions between linguistics as a theory and language as a necessary cultural practice of our peoples. Our experiences have left us with serious concerns. Indeed, there are still very few spaces where we can collectively begin the critical work to actualize and realize what it entails to “think otherwise; enact change.” We aim to create respectful space for Indigenous scholars and original peoples to collectively articulate the values that could actuate “genuinely different types of interactions” (Garroutte,2006, p. 169), conversations, and mutually beneficial relationships between linguist-researchers and Indigenous peoples. We seek to alleviate the burden of “the First Peoples of this land. . . with the responsibility of ensuring that Indigenous languages do not die,” (McIvor, 2020, p. 79). “Unhinging” the Linguistic-language paradox by centering insights from “place- based and globally interconnected” (Huaman, 2022). Indigenous language work—to listen and to hear Indigenous “epistemological claims” (Garroutte, 2006) is a critical step to think otherwise; enact change.

The way it should be.”  Hopi language work as an enactment of decoloniality

Sheilah E. Nicholas, University of Arizona 

Abstract: “I’m observing our youth, and gauging their understanding about the rainbow. . . I am recognizing that they are gaining [the] meaning of the rainbow in the Hopi world. I am so happy to see this growth in our youth.” This was a Hopi Elder’s emotionally expressed oral reflection on her observation of a Hopi language teacher who succinctly conveyed how the rainbow, perceived as a more than human actor in the Hopi world, becomes visible as it “stands up” fully dressed in its colors—tangaqwunuptu. The language learners were an intergenerational mix of pre-school to adult non-speakers! The language instructor, a culturally and linguistically proficient community member, and also a certified classroom teacher, focused on two key terms with an accompanying activity: kuwanta/kuwanlawu, to create a rainbow design/symbol (on paper plates) with markers/crayons as a coloring activity, contrasted with yuuyahiwa, to become a rainbow, an experiential activity through which learners “dressed themselves” in shirts representing the colors of the rainbow. The culminating activity was to use their rainbow symbol artifacts as representing the wicker or coiled yucca plaques that Hopi women use in the Lakon (Basket) ceremony to keep time to a song, composed by another language teacher, in homage to as well as to describe the rainbow becoming visible—standing up in its array of color. As an instructor observer of this same lesson, and a relearner of my ancestral Uto-Aztecan language, Hopilavayi, the experience of such learning and understanding of Hopi cosmology remains indelible. Such expressions of Hopi perception and experience (Ortiz, 1977) of Hopi cosmology—exemplars of Hopi vitalities and continuance that comprise a “living” ancestral anticolonial tradition—are further illuminated as enduring “incommensurable enactments of decoloniality” (Huaman, 2022). Ongoing Hopi language work sustains them as an inherent right; this is “the way it should be.”

Indigenization, Decolonization, and Revitalization in Academia

Koodéik' (Joseph Marks), University of Arizona 

Abstract: “Acting for change” invokes images of where we, Indigenous People, academics and those who work with Indigenouscommunities, have been, where we are now, and where we may be going, but more importantly, how we are in a state of in-betweenness, neither at our origins nor our destination. The graduate school experience can be challenging as well as rewarding for students of all backgrounds. This talk draws from my own graduate experiences as an Indigenous student in linguistic anthropology and linguistics and my ongoing struggles at the intersection of academic pressures and maintaining the integrity of my Indigeneity. Thus, Indigeneity will be centered, utilized, and relied on, storying into how I grapple with terms such as Indigenization, decolonization, and revitalization within academic institutions. Such terms require some kind of re-orientation and/or redefinition, especially for those of us who work with our communities– whom we answer to, and whom we represent—while finding ourselves incessantly positioned to respond to as well as navigating contradictory ways of knowing and being, i.e. Indigeneity and settler colonialism. As a result, when Indigenous students center community and traditions within the academic experience, often it comes at a harmful cost. Yet, we look to and pursue academia for what it has to offer and is useful to the extent that it respects and builds upon our cultural integrity, connects with our cultural predispositions and aspirations (Kirkness and Barnhardt, 2001) to serve our communities. We are often regarded and serve as conduits between academia and our communities that should be recognized as critical student potential offering possibilities for reciprocal knowledge sharing and cross-cultural understanding. As an emerging Indigenous scholar, I offer insight for advanced and career academics or administrators of universities in creating and maintaining sustainable spaces for Indigenous graduate students to not only survive but thrive.

The communicative potential of the Mapuche ancestral game

Carolina Kürüf Poblete, Universidad Catolica de Temuco (Chile)

Abstract: When academic spaces frame generations of Indigenous knowledge within the dominant paradigm, Indigenous Peoples and our collaborators are faced with a situation that severely limits the mission of these intellectual spaces that claim to be at the service of humanity. It is very common, in this sense, that the ancestral wisdoms of the first nations do not fit in or find it difficult to enter into dialogue with the Western understanding of science. A concise example has been this abstract, which required a Mapuche worldview being translated through two colonial languages, Spanish, then English, and finally formatted into an academic genre, in order to be considered legitimate discourse. The Indigenous experience of accessing academic spaces can also be an opportunity to question the hegemonic order of the concept of linguistics (Fernandez and Capellán, 2011). One opportunity to challenge this order is through the practice of Mapuche ancestral games. This practice has created linguistic narratives and an oral tradition for the transmission of knowledge and relationships with our environment and non-human elements. This necessitates a broad debate on the forms of validation of knowledge and the methodologies used to understand and enhance the development of these in training spaces for education. The aim is to debate from and with an understanding of these as respectful spaces of freedom where we can teach and generate knowledge (Freire, 1965) that allows us to live intersectionally and interculturally (Walsh, 2010) in other ways (hooks, 2021). This presentation seeks to raise convergent edges to the problems of tension, in unconventional scenarios, such as the implementation of ancestral Mapuche games as a pedagogy for language revitalization work. The experiences of new language learners participating in these ludic practices show us how communicating in our own language allows us to walk towards possibilities and concrete solutions.

Mapu ñi kimvn, ka mapu ñi mogen (la sabiduría y vida de la tierra)

Silvia Calfuqueo, Escuela Kom Pu Lof (Chile) 

Abstract: Our elders were rendered speechless because they were forced to speak a language that did not represent them.Colonization has forced us to insert ourselves into a society that consumes us every day, that destroys and squeezes the life out of us. Mapuche poet, Lara Millapan, asserts that “only by speaking and understanding our language, Mapuzugun, can we understand our history and our culture, since language is an element that allows us to express our thoughts, feelings, emotions and access the understanding of our world” (2014). Consequently, we are rebuilding our society, which for years Western cultures have wanted to destroy. Today the Mapuche people are reconstructing the language of the earth, Mapuzugun, together with our understanding of mogen (life). We explore how to maintain an equilibrium in the spaces where cultivating our own endogenous rakizuam (thought) entails learning how to act towards other beings without altering harmony. As Oneida Elder Gerald Hill explained, we must “go into our languages and begin to think in a different way; this is where the work starts” (Nicholas & McCarty, 2022). Our language is the code to enter a wonderful world and discover how important it is to be part of this world in which we can all build something new. The experience of a formal Mapuche school and a summer film camp that teaches Mapuche youth the basics of producing short films about their identity and in their own language are examples of living and maintaining our culture.Looking at our culture from the inside leads us to understand that we are still alive, as long as there are older people, they are our base and sustenance so that knowledge continues through the empowerment of young people to strengthen the language and thought of a culture in resistance.

"You’re Doing It Wrong”: Potential consequences of outsider- intervention in Indigenous language revitalization

Kelly Baur, Arizona State University

Abstract: According to the United Nations, many Indigenous languages in the Americas are now considered “endangered” because of the systematic destruction of Indigenous communities through the process of colonization. However, many communities reject the dominant narrative of inevitable language death (Leonard, 2008) and have initiated language revitalization and maintenance projects within their territories in order to reclaim their language. Despite the potential to support Indigenous communities in embracing their cultural identity and language, this process can often result in the continuation of colonial relationships when people from outside of the community are involved or involve themselves in these endogenous projects. What can outsiders ask themselves before engaging with Indigenous communities so that we can be aligned in our goals? This auto- ethnographic case study focuses on a two-week Indigenous Language Course executed by a nonprofit organization created and run by white Europeans. It explores the ideologies that inform the literacy practices of the members of The Nonprofit and their overarching approach to language teaching and learning.It is necessary to examine the appropriateness and potential harm caused by the model implemented by The Nonprofit in their Indigenous Language Course because “for those receiving the new literacy, the impact of the culture and of the politico-economic structures of those bringing it is likely to be more significant than the impact of the technical skills associated with reading and writing” (Street, 1995). Through participant-observation and semi-structured interviews with Indigenous language activists, this paper explores the possible consequences of outsider intervention in spaces of language revitalization from the perspective of an outsider who has had a variety of experiences aligning (or not) with the goals of Indigenous communities, as an anti-capitalist documentary filmmaker and linguist.

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