NHA on the Hill: NEH Funding for Revitalizing Indigenous Languages

On July 19, the National Humanities Alliance held on a briefing on how the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) supports Indigenous American languages. Titled “The National Endowment for the Humanities: Revitalizing Indigenous American Languages,” the event featured leaders in the field of language preservation who spoke about the projects they had undertaken with NEH funding. Support for language revitalization spans the NEH’s grantmaking programs, and includes a partnership with the National Science Foundation specifically focused on Documenting Endangered Languages.

Congresswoman Judy Chu and NEH Chair Shelly Lowe opened the program with brief remarks attesting to the importance of projects like these and NEH support for language revitalization. As Chair Lowe reflected, “When we lose the language, we lose all the knowledge, history and values of that culture that are embedded in the language. Our languages are rooted in the places we call home and our identity as a community. The product of the ideas and experiences of generations after generations of our ancestors, languages are living knowledge and carry in them the spirit of our peoples.” 

In a conversation facilitated by NHA research fellow, Mariel Aquino, speakers reflected on the significance of their work to Indigenous language speakers and communities more broadly.  Daryl Baldwin, from the Myaamia Center at Miami University, spoke about two projects that are building the capacity of Indigenous language communities to use archival materials in their revitalization efforts: the Indigenous Digital Language Archive (ILDA) and the National Breathe of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages (BoL). Larry Kimura and Bruce Torres Fischer, from the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, spoke about the Kaniʻāina (Voices of the Land) project. Kaniʻāina is an online, bilingual repository of Ka Leo Hawaiʻi—a groundbreaking Native Hawaiian language radio show that Kimura developed and broadcast from 1972-1988. And Audra Vincent, a language instructor with the Coeur d’Alene tribe, spoke about her work on the Coeur d’Alene Online Language Resource Center (COLRC), which acts as a single searchable repository for language resources ranging from dictionaries to archival recordings of personal narratives and coyote stories.

All of these projects are part of broader efforts in the field to revitalize Indigenous American languages, and they provide essential resources for language learners and instructors. From connecting individual language learners to the voices of their family members, to building technological and instructional capacity, to improving graduation rates among tribal students, these projects and the many others supported by the NEH have ongoing, positive impacts on Indigenous communities throughout the U.S. Importantly, as Baldwin noted, language learning “has become a healing process for many of our tribal communities,” helping them recover from over 200 years of efforts to undermine tribal cultures and languages. “It’s important,” he said, “to our stability if we're going to contribute to the building of this country. We have to be healthy people and our language and culture are central to that process.”

To hear directly from these speakers and to learn more about the NEH’s support for revitalizing Indigenous American languages, you can view the briefing on Youtube.

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