Wesley Leonard (Miami/myaamia) is an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside. He has extensive experience in the reclamation of his own ancestral language, myaamia, which was brought back into the community after a period without any speakers at all. He is a recognized expert in building community-based capacity for Native American languages in ways that support tribal sovereignty, and has developed a number of workshops on culturally appropriate application of the analytical tools of Linguistics for language reclamation purposes.

Presentation title and abstract:

Fostering Indigenous-Centered Collaborations in Language Reclamation

A growing belief for Indigenous language programs is that collaborative efforts that bring in multiple modes of expertise are necessary for successful Indigenous language programs, with an especially common model being to merge the skills of academic linguists, specialists in pedagogy, and Indigenous community members (who may in fact themselves be linguists or pedagogical specialists, but who in this frame are more often presented as a separate category). From such collaborations arise a number of successful efforts, particularly in situations where linguistic ruptures have been so severe that technical expertise is necessary to even gain access to the language, as occurred with the author’s heritage language, myaamia, which was a sleeping language that had to reconstructed from archival documentation. Also common in such efforts, however, are problems that arise when Indigenous knowledge systems – in this case language, and all of the protocols and practices that surround it – are recast in ways that reproduce colonial logics and power structures in linguistic analysis, resource development, language pedagogies, and beyond. For example, Indigenous languages are often described with respect to current norms in linguistic science, where structural descriptions are the norm and linguistic units can be disembodied from the cultural, historical, ecological, and spiritual contexts that underlie the way a community defines its language. More generally, working with language in academic contexts often compels educators to isolate, fragment, categorize, and atomize; to identify and dissect a hierarchy of disembodied language units in ways that can be alienating to language learners, and that also often fail to respond to the trauma that precipitated language shift in places such as the United States and Canada.

Referencing the author’s experiences as an Indigenous linguist working with several language communities, this presentation proposes a model of collaboration that firmly acknowledges and works to overcome the challenges summarized above through a framework of “language reclamation” (Leonard 2011, 2012, 2017). Language reclamation centers community definitions of language at every stage, and thus prioritizes Indigenous needs and ways of knowing in the academic research, language pedagogies, and other work that underlie a given community’s language efforts. Within a reclamation framework, outside specialists may bring in any number of valuable skills, but are called on to employ them in ways that center community needs and values. Rather than exhibiting a top-down model in which goals such as grammatical fluency or intergenerational transmission are assigned, reclamation begins with community histories and contemporary needs, which are determined by community agents, and uses this background as a basis to design and develop language work.