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Back From the Brink

Oral history project preserves vanishing languages and cultures

All over the world, indigenous languages are disappearing, explains Vera Palmer, Native American Studies Program liaison and director of the Native American Living Cultures Archive (NALCA). "Every time a language disappears, you lose a whole set of perspectives on the way humans view the world," she says. This potential for loss of cultural identity inspired the creation of the archive and its undergraduate oral history internship program.

Mary Olympic
Mary Olympic, a member of AlexAnna Salmon '08's Igiugig Tribal Village Council, paddles toward the mouth of Alaska's Battle River, which flows into Kukaklek Lake. Salmon traveled by float plane to Kukaklek Lake with village elders, including Olympic, to record their memories. (Photo by Alexanna Salon '08)

Crucial to the archive's mission is its role as a partner and stakeholder in the preservation of Native American cultures. Interns conducting tribal oral histories may do so only at the invitation of the tribe, which, in practice, means they typically record the oral histories of their own tribal communities. Marissa Spang '07 and AlexAnna Salmon '08 recently returned from their communities in Nebraska and Alaska, respectively. Both brought back information that had personal resonance as well as value for the archive.

Spang, a Northern Cheyenne, is the descendant of 19th-century leader Chief Dull Knife (also known as Chief Morning Star). Through videotaped interviews with elders in her tribe she was able to reconstruct the story of Dull Knife's and his tribe's resistance to removal and captivity in the 1870s and 80s. The narrative of the tribe's unwavering resistance to U.S. government oppression has been handed down by oral tradition, but, she says, "I don't think anyone outside the tribe really knows the story's relevance."

Salmon is a Native Alaskan of the Igiugig Tribal Village Council and of Yup'ik Eskimo descent. Her project involved recording her village's historical relationship to Kukaklek Lake. Through interviews with village elders, she hoped to reinforce the traditional native ownership of the area. (An ongoing political difficulty for Native Alaskan tribes is that they often have only surface rights to the land where they live and work. Currently, the Igiugig residents' traditional way of life is threatened by proposed mine construction.) For her project, Salmon traveled by float plane to Kukaklek Lake with elders from her village and there recorded their memories of their lives as reindeer herders at the lake.

Palmer explained that NALCA, with support from Associate Dean of the Faculty for the Humanities Lenore Grenoble, hopes to expand the training that interns receive in field interviewing techniques into a term-long course and described two other initiatives: the tribal communities partnerships and the tribal scholars residencies. The tribal partnerships are scholarly exchanges with existing native language restoration projects by three Northern New England tribes: the Penobscot, the Abenaki, and the Maliseet. The residencies bring Native American scholars to campus.

By GENEVIEVE HAAS

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Last Updated: 5/30/08