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Mountain Chief, Chief of Montana Blackfeet, in Native Dress With Bow, Arrows, and Lance, Listening to Song Being Played On Phonograph and Interpreting It in Sign Language to Frances Densmore, Ethnologist, March 1916, by Harris & Ewing, Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives
Alaska| Hopi Pueblo |Meskwaki & Sauk |Papua New Guinea | Zapotec

Members of the Recovering Voices research team conduct collaborative research projects with communities around the world.

Athabascan communities in Alaska, USA

An Athabascan Snowshoe Master Artists Workshop at the Anchorage Museum in May 2011 was held with snowshoefunding from the Smithsonian Recovering Voices program, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and National Endowment for the Arts.

George Albert (of Ruby, AK), George “Butch” Yaska (Huslia), and Trimble Gilbert (Arctic Village) spent a week in joint residence at the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center in the Anchorage exhibition gallery, working in the arts production space to construct traditional birch snowshoe frames strung with intricately-patterned moose and caribou hide mesh. The three distinguished makers taught the technique to apprentices from their communities, recorded the terminology of their craft in the Gwich’in and Koyukon languages, interpreted 19th century snowshoes on display in the Living Our Cultures gallery, and gave extended interviews to document the cultural practices and beliefs that surround this focal item of Athabascan culture.

Apprentices Al Yatlin (Huslia), Daniel Tritt (Arctic Village), and William McCarty (Ruby) each completed his own set of snowshoes by the end of the workshop. Throughout the week the artists demonstrated their work to public visitors and met with over 250 middle school students who had just completed a science unit on snowshoe physics. Speaking in English and his native Gwich’in, Trimble Gilbert related how Snowshoe Hare first taught human beings to make and use these implements to spread out their weight on top of soft snow, just like the hare’s own wide foot pads.

The workshop was professionally video recorded for an Arctic Studies Center documentary film and multilingual print publication, and the event received wide media coverage. The master-apprentice teams will continue to work together in their home villages to complete the training process. The snowshoe workshop was a pilot project to test the concept of master artist residencies as a format for documenting endangered indigenous knowledge and languages.

Click here for additional Recovering Voices related projects hosted by the Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage.

Hopi Pueblo in Northern Arizona, USA

gywnGwyneira Isaac works in collaboration with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office (HCPO), Hopi potters Karen Charley and Valerie Kahe, and affliliated researcher, Lea McChesney, to establish community engaged research methods that connect Hopi citizens with NMNH collections. Our current collaborative--the Hopi Pottery Oral Tradition Project--centers round our desire to rethink conventional models for collecting oral histories. With this project, Hopi elders and youths interview their own community members, thereby building an important community-generated repository of Hopi knowledge and language.

In Hopi, pottery plays a key role in forming personal ties between individuals, families and clans. These vessels are understood to teach people about social networks and long-term exchange relationships that are a part of traditional subsistence and, therefore, the active role of kinship in daily life. Through building a community-collaborative team that is working on the Smithsonian Hopi collections, we are using a long-term time frame to consider not only the social changes that have taken place through tourism and the art market, but the remarkable continuity found between ancient and contemporary practices. Team members also include the director of the HCPO, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, and archivist, Stewart Koyiyumptewa, as well as Robert Bruenig, director of the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Meskwaki and the Sauk communities in Iowa and Oklahoma, USA

Recovering Voices' Algonquian Project centers mainly on two closely-related Eastern Algonquian languages, Munsee and Unami (both also called "Lenape" and "Delaware") and one Central Algonquian language, Meskwaki (which has also been called "Fox").  Studies of other Algonquian languages and their relationships are additional components.

The work on the Delaware languages began in 1965, when Ives Goddard undertook linguistic fieldwork with Munsee speakers in Ontario, Canada, and included fieldwork with speakers of Unami in Oklahoma beginning in 1966.  Goddard’s doctoral dissertation “Delaware Verbal Morphology: A Descriptive and Comparative Study” (1969), covering the two languages, was published with revisions in 1979.  Currently the fieldnotes and sound recordings from several summers of linguistic and ethnographic study with speakers of these languages are being analyzed, along with data from other sources. 

In 2011 Goddard and Lucy Thomason, who joined the Algonquian Project in 1992, posted to the web fourteen transcribed, analyzed, and translated Unami narratives told in 1966 by Ollie Beaver Anderson of Dewey, Oklahoma, and a prayer and a three-part story recorded that year by Martha Snake Ellis of Anadarko. Working from notes deriving from his collaborations with the narrators, Goddard transcribed these oral texts into written Unami, analyzed their linguistic components (including  the "morphemes" that make up each word), and translated them into English.  (Unlike English, Algonquian languages typically have many meaningful parts per word: the Unami word ka•ha•ko•wí•k•i, for instance, which means "things that are dried sticks", consists of a piece ka•h- that means `dry' plus -a•k(w)- `stick' and -o•wi•- `be', with added grammatical inflections -k•- and -i that indicate that the whole thing is an inanimate plural participle, giving the meaning ‘the things that (are)’.)  (The raised dot indicates that the vowel or consonant is contrastively long.)  The Unami texts are accompanied by sound files of the original recordings.  Both women are remembered for their eloquent use of Unami, and anyone who clicks on one of their sound files can now hear an unusually beautiful rendering of the language that was spoken in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania before Europeans ever set foot on the continent.

The Meskwaki Project began in 1972, when Goddard began examining and re-editing the Meskwaki manuscripts in the National Anthropological Archives that had been written for Truman Michelson of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1911 and the years following.  Michelson's collection includes more than 26,000 pages of text written by some 25 native speakers of Meskwaki.  And not only were these texts written by the speakers themselves, they were written in a range of styles and on a wide range of subjects, by both men and women of all ages, and at a time when English had not yet replaced Meskwaki as the primary language spoken on the Meskwaki Settlement (in Tama Co., Iowa).  Many of the authors were extremely gifted storytellers, and all of them were fluently literate in a writing system that had been around at least since their grandparents' time.  A number of studies by Goddard, Thomason, and other scholars have been based on these materials, including Thomason’s doctoral dissertation “The Proximate and Obviative Contrast in Meskwaki” (2003), which includes many analyzed passages from the Meskwaki writings.

The current phase of the Meskwaki Project consists of the transcription and preliminary linguistic analysis of the as-yet unentered texts, the translation, narrative analysis, and more fine-grained linguistic analysis of the already entered texts, the transcription and redaction of Goddard's sixteen summers of language work with Meskwaki elders, dictionary work (Thomason's Meskwaki lexicon now contains more than 25,000 entries), contributions to the contemporary and historical understanding of the Algonquian language family, and, of increasing importance, contributions to several language maintenance and revitalization projects.

In 2011 Thomason posted to the web transcriptions of fourteen Meskwaki narratives written by seven different authors, ten edited, analyzed, and translated by herself and four edited and translated by Goddard.  One of the ultimate goals of the Meskwaki Project is to make edited versions of all the texts from the Michelson collection available online.

Over the years the Algonquian Project has benefited greatly from data entry by interns and volunteers, from visits by speakers of Algonquian languages, and from visits by Algonquianist linguists, ethnologists, historians, and archaeologists.  We hope to continue and expand those collaborations in the future.


Environment, Heritage and Knowledge Systems in Papua New Guniea

Joshua Bell works with Eric Vai'i in Aikavalavi section of Mapaio to clarify language terms. Photograph by Sebastine Haraha, 2010One of the most culturally, linguistically and biologically diverse areas of the world, Papua New Guinea is an incredible place to examine the dynamics of indigenous knowledge and language use. Currently Recovering Voices has two projects being carried out in PNG. The first involves Joshua A. Bell. Since 2000, Bell has been working to document the histories, material culture and cultural transformations of Purari speaking communities in the Purari Delta of PNG's Gulf Province. An ecologically rich region, the Purari Delta has a long-term history of entanglement with outsiders, which has resulted in communities experiencing social and economic shifts due to iconoclasm, Christianity, and urban migration. Since the late 1990s these transformations have been compounded and accelerated by resource extraction, namely the extraction of timber and natural gas. Asked by community members to address this growing problem, in 2010 Bell began a new collaboration with residents of Mapaio village to document aspects of their intangible and tangible heritage to help develop materials for the elementary school curriculum. To date, this has involved continued fieldwork in the Delta, and bringing community members, such as Henry Ke'a, to Washington D.C. The work has resulted in a book of F.E. Williams 1922 photographs in I'ai and English, two posters highlighting different facets of ethnobotanical knowledge, and a working map of sites of cultural importance. 

The second project in PNG is being carried out by Dr. Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, a former Smithsonian Fellow, and revolves around the research, consolidation and repatriation Jerry W. Leach Trobriand Folklore Collection (1969-78).  A large corpus of oral folklore from the Trobriand Islands of PNG, these narratives help to materialize important sets of knowledge about the environment and Trobriand worldview. The ultimate scope of this project is to return the narratives and their associated systems of knowledge in the form of a bilingual volume (Kilivila-English) to the Trobriand Islands (Kiriwina) in order to preserve an endangered language and to foster new forms of creative engagement with Trobriand tradition by locals. It is hoped that this collaborative project will result in the publication of said book and its free distribution throughout the Trobriand Islands and other provinces of PNG where there is a Trobriand population, to help teachers and others preserve and divulge Trobriand culture.

Multi-sited, multi-faceted research on Zapotec languages

Gabriela in the FieldGabriela Pérez Báez works on the documentation and analysis of Zapotec languages (Otomanguean). She is the primary author of an extensive dictionary of Isthmus Zapotec of over 12,000 entries. Among other endeavors intended to inform this database, Pérez Báez along with an interdisciplinary group of experts from the Isthmus Zapotec community of La Ventosa, in Botany and the Arts , is conducting an extensive survey of the floristic diversity of La Ventosa, its local classification and nomenclature and the knowledge associated with it. The work on the database has given rise to a number of analytical and revitalization projects. First, the study of body part terms, meronymy in general and spatial language in Isthmus Zapotec has given rise to ongoing international collaborations to study the relationship between language and spatial cognition in numerous languages of the world. Second, the lexical documentation has been at the core of an international collaboration on the study of verbal morphology, dialectology and change in Zapotec languages of the Isthmus (Central) and Western regions of the Zapotec language area. Third, and through a collaboration with representatives of the Isthmus Zapotec language community in La Ventosa and its administrative head of Juchitán de Zaragoza, a team is actively engaged in developing a program of retention of results stemming from this multi-faceted research endeavors in support of local revitalization initiatives.

Pérez Báez has also devoted the last ten years to the analysis of factors affecting language maintenance, with a focus on migration. This is multi-sited research involving the San Lucas Quiaviní Zapotec (SLQZ) language –related to Isthmus Zapotec but quite distinct with the two being mutually unintelligible– which is spoken by some 3,000 speakers roughly divided between the home community in Oaxaca and a sister community in Los Angeles, California. Pérez Báez has worked with this community for a decade. In her research, she suggests that migration should be considered the greatest threat to the vitality of SLQZ as it has resulted in a reduction of about half the speaker base in San Lucas, including a 45% reduction in the number of children under age 10 growing up in San Lucas speaking SLQZ. In San Lucas, the language continues to be learned by children but in Los Angeles there is virtually no language transmission yielding active child speakers. When families, and especially children raised in Los Angeles, visit San Lucas, they “export” back their patterns of language shift away from Zapotec. This research focuses on three core topics: Dynamics of Intergenerational Transmission of Knowledge, Multi-sited and comparative ethnography and retention of research results. Given the transnational nature of this community, research in the two sister communities is essential in order to understand the levels of influence that each community has on the other. Any efforts to promote maintenance of Zapotec in San Lucas, therefore needs to understand the dynamics of intergenerational transmission of knowledge among Los Angeles families. Knowledge learned from this investigation may assist in developing strategies of language maintenance in Los Angeles itself that may help sustain the language in San Lucas.