For American Indian Professor, Linguistics and Activism Intersect

Grant will fund groundbreaking Native American language workshop

Wesley Leonard

Wesley Leonard

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — As a citizen of the 5,000-member Miami Tribe of Oklahoma with a Ph.D. in linguistics, Wesley Leonard straddles two worlds.

Leonard, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, is one of just eight American Indian or Alaska Native academics to have earned a linguistics Ph.D. in the United States between 2004 and 2014. His pursuit of the degree was a decision inspired by witnessing the revival of his own tribal nation’s language, myaamia, which had fallen out of popular usage decades earlier.

Driven by the community rather than externally motivated, myaamia’s revitalization was the subject of Leonard’s dissertation. Since then he has been involved in several projects that have awakened “sleeping” languages once mistakenly believed to be obsolete because they lacked fluent speakers.

Across North America, such efforts are part of a larger movement to reclaim tribal languages that were actively suppressed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Leonard’s latest challenge: bridging the gap between community-based language reclamation efforts and the academic discipline of linguistics, an arena in which Native Americans are sorely underrepresented.

Funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Leonard will host a workshop, “Expanding Linguistic Science by Broadening Native American Participation,” in Salt Lake City in January.

The competitive, application-only workshop—open to participants who have demonstrated significant leadership or activity in community language programs—will precede the 92nd annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), also held in Salt Lake City the weekend of Jan. 4-7.

As part of the experience, participants will attend the LSA conference, where Leonard will lead an unprecedented, three-hour symposium titled “Sharing Our Views: Native Americans Speak About Language and Linguistics.”

Leonard said the session’s eight presenters are the first group of all American Indian or Alaska Native presenters to be featured in a symposium at the conference. They will offer community perspectives on Native American ideas about language and how the linguistics field can better incorporate Native American attitudes toward language as a source of culture, spirituality and identity.

For Leonard, the workshop offers a unique opportunity to broaden the academic discipline of linguistics, which typically focuses on concepts like grammatical features and usage patterns, to better consider the sociological factors involved in language reclamation.

“When a language starts to go out of use, it’s not because of the language itself,” he said. “Likewise, Native American communities have long intellectual histories and ways of viewing and relating to languages that tend to be overlooked in traditional linguistic science; professional linguists often talk about these languages as if they are games to be solved, but it’s much more personal than that.”

Going forward, Leonard hopes linguists and the public will take into account the external forces that lead to a language falling out of use.

In many Native American tribes, colonization, resettlement, and obligatory enrollment in boarding schools where students were punished for speaking tribal languages resulted in their erasure.

But as part of a growing grassroots movement in tribes that coincided with the passage of the Native American Languages Act of 1990, which called for federal protection and promotion of Native American languages, community language reclamation programs have flourished in tribes across North America.

Nowadays, language reclamation ranks alongside land and water rights, economic development and sovereignty as a top priority for many tribes.

“Sleeping languages need the tools of linguistics for reclamation purposes,” Leonard said, adding the goal of his workshop is to catalyze meaningful conversations and build relationships between Native American and academic linguistics communities. “These efforts will serve to broaden participation in much more fruitful ways.”

In addition to Leonard, the LSA panel will include: Megan Lukaniec of the Huron-Wendat Nation and the University of California, Santa Barbara; Christina Laree Newhall of the Native Village of Unga and the University of California, Los Angeles; Kari A.B. Chew of the Chickasaw Nation and the University of Arizona; Sherrie Begay of the Chickasaw Nation; Crystal Richardson of the Karuk and Yurok peoples and the University of California, Davis; William Madrigal Jr. of the Cahuilla people and the University of California, Riverside; and Raymond Huaute of the Cahuilla and Chumash peoples.

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