Translating Across Space and Time: Endangered Languages, Cultural Revitalization, and the Work of History,” a symposium held in Philadelphia from October 13 through October 15, 2016, convened scholars, practitioners, and Indigenous knowledge keepers from across the United States and Canada.

Hosted by the American Philosophical Society’s (APS) Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR) and co-sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum at the University of Pennsylvania, the conference coincided with the APS Museum exhibition, Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America, which showcased the APS’s work in Native American language collection and revitalization from Jefferson to the present. Over 69,000 visitors attended the exhibition between April and December 2016. This scholarly conference drew over 100 in-person attendees and over 100 more via live web stream. Panelists from across the United States and Canada presented 21 papers on topics related to endangered languages, translation, and language revitalization projects in Native American and Indigenous communities.

The conference kicked off with a keynote address from Winona LaDuke, Executive Director of Honor the Earth and Founder of White Earth Land Recovery, who appeared live from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation during the Dakota Access Pipeline encampment. She described the current situation at Standing Rock and the environmental and cultural consequences of a pipeline passing through Native land. “Every major pipeline project in North America must in fact cross Indigenous land or Indian Country, and that has become a problem for them,” LaDuke said. This “unusual moment,” she reminded the room, is part of a much longer Indian resistance against the police and other forces that have tried to disenfranchise Native people of their land and languages. “This time,” she said, “instead of the Seventh Cavalry, or the Indian police dispatched to assassinate Sitting Bull, it is Enbridge and Dakota Access Pipeline.” Asking “What would Sitting Bull do?” LaDuke had a clear answer: the time is now for Native people to come together and forge a new future.

Winona LaDuke Skypes in live from Standing Rock. Photo credit: Jessica Frankenfield.

LaDuke’s talk was an apt start to the two days of presentations at the American Philosophical Society. The symposium included papers from nearly 40 authors covering topics ranging from archival digitization projects to holistic community-wide language immersion projects. Panelists presented on practical strategies, including the use of digital tools, for language learning developed in collaboration with Native communities, and methods for creating language immersion in schools, on street signs, and in community workplaces. Many of the papers discussed collaborative university, archive, and community projects. Others focused on using historical and archival materials to rebuild language tools and to make historical collections relevant to contemporary communities. Many of these used language documentation coupled with digital technologies and live digital dictionary projects to promote the active use of languages in community contexts.

Lisa Conathan, Williams College, speaks on the use of digital tools for transcribing Cherokee language texts contained in the Kilpatrick Collection housed at The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Photo credit: Diana Marsh.

It was a friendly forum for critique. At one point, a participant covered the presentation time clock, saying, “this is the Native American Philosophical Society now.” Throughout the symposium, panelists acknowledged the difficult colonial history of language collecting and assimilation that led to the present state of language endangerment. Indeed, many archival repositories, including the APS Library, are relics of this colonial past. As Jane Anderson (New York University) and James E. Francis, Sr. (Penobscot Nation) noted, many archival systems, categories, and legal frameworks prioritize colonial collectors and affiliations. For community-based scholars and projects, this presents challenges not only because collections are catalogued in preordained English systems, but also because they are, as Richard Grounds (Yuchi) pointed out, put into formats that linguists alone know how to use, and not in a way speakers of the language would find useful or accessible. Furthermore, many Native and Indigenous speakers are downplayed or left out of the archival record altogether. Even digital tools were acknowledged as inadequate to revitalize languages. As Mark Turin, Director of the First Nations Program at the University of British Columbia, remarked, “Digital tools don’t, can’t, and won’t save endangered languages: speakers do.”

Yet many of the panels had a hopeful tone—today, collaborations between academic- and community-based scholars are making headway in the fight for language revitalization. Indeed, as HAN Advisory Board member Regna Darnell noted, this is the only way to decolonize our universities, repositories, and research projects. The conference’s productive conversations were a testament to the collaborative work the APS and other historical institutions are doing to reframe their relationships with Native peoples. The conversation also signaled a change in the way archival repositories are cataloguing and sharing information. As Brian Carpenter at the APS noted, new subject guides and metadata based on Indigenous knowledge are being incorporated into the Library’s records through CNAIR’s collaborative projects.

The panels even attested to the power of language to promote mental and physical health in Native communities. Returning to language and culture is “restorative,” noted Kayla Begay (Hoopa). These projects are not only bringing younger generations together, but improving health and wellbeing in these communities.

Throughout, many of the symposium’s speakers acknowledged the Lenni-Lenape homelands on which the Society buildings sit, as well as the continuing presence of Indigenous nations today. As one presenter noted, the three portraits of Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin mounted above the stage acted as “founding witnesses to this meeting of Native and non-Native people and knowledge.” In a closing moment on the first full day, elder Bruce Starlight filled the room with a closing song in the Tsuut’ina language. This was a significant departure for the APS, a historically white, colonial institution. This decolonizing event, alongside the incisive exhibition, Gathering Voices, signaled a broader shift at the Society and in other historical repositories.

Scholarly and community interest in endangered language research and revitalization is growing. This conference alone fielded some 100 proposals for paper topics, evidence of enthusiastic interest in such research. In fact, there was so much interest that the conference organizers felt obliged to add a second full day to the program. This year’s Penn Humanities Forum had also chosen “Translation” as a theme, and so acted as co-sponsors of the event. CNAIR has subsequently received a $949,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the creation of the APS’s Native American Scholars Initiative, which will go toward support for undergraduate students, Native American scholars, Tribal College faculty members, and researchers who work closely with archives and Native communities to revitalize endangered languages and to strengthen and honor cultural traditions through the use of new technologies.


Diana E. Marsh: contributions / website /
Jessica Frankenfield: contributions /