Future Tense

Indigenous Activists Are Reimagining Language Preservation Under Quarantine

JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, speaks with the Columbia River in the background near The Dalles, Oregon, on Oct. 14, 2019.
JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation, speaks with the Columbia River in the background near The Dalles, Oregon, on Oct. 14, 2019. Gillian Flaccus/AP

When Virginia Beavert received her Ph.D. in linguistics at the age of 90, it was the culmination of almost eight decades of work preserving the Ichishkiín language. A member of the Yakama Nation, she had started doing language documentation at the age of 12, when she served as an interpreter and transcriber for researchers studying languages of the Pacific Northwest’s indigenous groups. As an adult, Beavert worked on the first-ever Ichishkiín dictionary, recorded Yakama myths, and contributed to grammars and word lists of her mother tongue.

Earlier this summer, when she addressed fellow language activists from around the world via Zoom at a conference, she struck a determined tone. “I want to let you know that we are here,” she said to the camera at one point, “and we are supportive.”

As is the case for so many during the pandemic, language activists, linguists, and others who work on revitalization campaigns are reimagining their work at a time when coronavirus has made in-person meetings impossible. It’s a transition that has taken on particular urgency given the fact that the speaker pool for the world’s threatened and endangered languages skews older—precisely the population most at risk from the pandemic. This problem is compounded by the fact that indigenous communities not just in the United States but around the world are disproportionately affected both by the virus and by the economic toll of the shutdown.
Against this backdrop, the push to keep language revitalization going under lockdown is a symbol of cultural resilience—and, for many, an opportunity to build national and international solidarity among indigenous peoples around the world.

Many indigenous groups in the United States have long had provisions for distance learning. This is particularly the case for reservations that are “checkerboards,” with plots owned by native and non-native people intermingled, the legacy of 19th-century policies aimed at forcing assimilation by carving up communally owned land into private allotments. In some places, however, persistent connectivity issues make transitioning to online revitalization work a challenge. Despite calls from indigenous communities to address disparities, the FCC estimated in 2018 that 35 percent of tribal land residents still don’t have broadband access.

In spite of these obstacles, a number of language revitalization professionals report that their projects are not just continuing under quarantine—they’re expanding. Such was the case at Northwest Indian Language Institute, which Beavert addressed via Zoom after its in-person summer intensive was moved online. In the run-up to the program’s kickoff this year, NILI Associate Director Robert Elliott says he and his colleagues were shocked to see enrollment hit 450—a huge jump from the 60-65 people who usually attend the in-person workshops. Scheduling the program, Elliot told me, had always been tricky, given that many local tribes observe major cultural events such as canoe journeys during the summer. Putting the workshops online allows people to take part without leaving their communities during such significant times. Not only that, but there were now participants were from around the world—linguists, teachers, and indigenous community members from Australia, India, Nepal, and elsewhere who were looking to learn and share stories and strategies with indigenous people in the U.S. Elliot now envisions a permanent online component, running in parallel with in-person teaching whenever it is safe to resume. “We’ve been playing around with online learning for a while,” he says. “The pandemic has forced us to go into the deep end—no more sticking your toe in the water and trying this out. … Now that we’re in the water, there’s no going back to the way it used to be.”

Programs like these come as UNESCO gears up to inaugurate the International Decade of Indigenous Languages starting in 2022, with the goal of preserving the world’s linguistic diversity. Currently, 43 percent of the world’s languages are believed to be endangered. In a roadmap for language promotion released in preparation for the decade, UNESCO explicitly highlighted the importance of digital activists as teachers for the future. One activist contributing to programming in preparation for UNESCO’s indigenous language revitalization push is Jacey Firth-Hagen, a young Gwich’in woman from Inuvik, Canada, who is heavily involved with youth development in her community. When the quarantine began in her area, Firth-Hagen told me, she wanted to take the opportunity to recommit to her language work. “I thought, ‘This is the perfect time to share the language, and if someone wants to learn they may have more time on their hands.’ ”

The cornerstone of Firth-Hagen’s project, #SpeakGwich’inToMe, is bite-sized, easily accessible language lessons delivered via videos and photos that she uploads to Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms, a format inspired by the work of Sámi language revitalizers in the Nordic countries. Her focus is on words and phrases that could be used in real life—whether it’s zhaaka, meaning “jeez,” or èjeii’ drin, meaning “Happy Halloween.” When the pandemic began, she busied herself with more video production and also shared her story with other youth in the Arctic who might be thinking about starting similar efforts for their own communities.

Firth-Hagen is hardly alone in feeling a renewed pull toward language revitalization during quarantine. Linguistic anthropologist Anna Luisa Daigneault, program director at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages in Oregon, told me that some of the initiatives she’s worked on have expanded in recent months as her collaborators find themselves with more free time. A downloadable toolkit created by Living Tongues and the online language documentation initiative Wikitongues provides information on how to set up autocorrect in a new language, record oral histories, and apply for grant funding—all tasks that can be accomplished during quarantine.

One project that has seen particular growth during the pandemic has been talking dictionaries, open-source lexicons that feature audio entries. Since the outbreak began, Daigneault has been holding regular webinars with collaborators around the world on how speakers can work on dictionaries from home. “It creates visibility for the languages on the internet,” she says of the project, “and it empowers the community to really take charge of their own documentation.” At present, Living Tongues hosts more than 80 such dictionaries on its site.

In recent weeks, Daigneault and her colleagues have been reaching out to collaborators every day, eliciting new words, going over old linguistic data, and asking clarification questions about grammar and vocabulary over the phone. “It’s a good way to connect with a lot of the speakers we work with who feel very isolated right now,” she says.

But technological solutions cannot solve every problem posed for language revitalization at this time. Firth-Hagen found herself needing to take a step back from recording work after her initial spurt of activity. “In regards to mental health, it is such a difficult and challenging time for all of us. At first I was really pumped, but it got a little too much for me,” she says. Firth-Hagen’s experience reflects a question that many language activists must face at this time: how to balance the urgency of their work, the sense of responsibility they feel toward past and future generations, and the societal pressure to be more productive than ever during quarantine with the very real need to preserve their own well-being. And at a time when the shadow of the pandemic looms particularly long over indigenous communities, it can be difficult, amid worrying for one’s family, livelihood, and future, to find energy for the daily labor of language learning and teaching.

But if life under the pandemic is frequently characterized by anxiety and loneliness, communal language revitalization projects go some way towards combatting precisely those feelings. “People feel like they’re working in isolation,” Elliott says of many language campaigners who attend the Northwest Indian Language Institute. “A lot of times, working in a tribe, there’s a couple people working on the language and there’s maybe a dozen, two dozen people who are interested in the language and taking part actively.” But on a Zoom call with people from across the globe sharing teaching tips and research findings, he says, it’s a feeling that quickly fades. “When you get that kind of discussion going, it breaks down the isolation.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.