Anthropologist Receives Mellon Fellowship Award to Study Endangered Ojibwe Language and Native American Traditions

New classes in Ojibwe language and the construction and launch of a traditional birch bark canoe are among the programs funded by $206,500 grant

  • newswise-fullscreen Anthropologist Receives Mellon Fellowship Award to Study Endangered Ojibwe Language and Native American Traditions

    Credit: UMass Amherst

    Sonya Atalay

  • newswise-fullscreen Anthropologist Receives Mellon Fellowship Award to Study Endangered Ojibwe Language and Native American Traditions

    Credit: UMass Amherst

    Howard Kimewon (left) and students peel bark as part of the construction of an authentic native canoe built of birch bark and white ash.

Newswise — AMHERST, Mass. – A University of Massachusetts Amherst anthropologist has received a major fellowship award to master the endangered Anishinaabemowin language of Native American Ojibwe tribal communities, in order to expand research and understanding of ancient tribal knowledge and practices that are under an increasing threat of becoming lost forever.

Sonya Atalay, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has been awarded a $206,500 New Directions Fellowship from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which will support her research through the summer of 2016. The fellowship grant will enable Atalay, who herself is Anishinaabe-Ojibwe, to take the time to develop a thorough knowledge of her native language, which is required to understand the meaning of giant earthwork mounds, ancient rock art and sacred birch bark scrolls that hold thousands of years of ceremonial knowledge and cultural teachings.

“Being able to communicate with elders and spiritual leaders about our sacred sites, landscapes and teachings in Anishinaabemowin is crucial to trying to understand and protect this history,” Atalay explains. “The only problem is that I only know about 200 words in the language. I can introduce myself, say thank you (miigwech), name a few animals and foods and say a few common phrases, and that’s about it. I need to learn Anishinabemowin. My goal is to become proficient in the language in one year. My grant provides me the luxury of having a year of teaching leave to focus on this full time – something few people are able to do.”

As the remaining numbers of those entrusted as “keepers of tradition” among the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe people decline and sacred tribal sites are constantly under threat of destruction by development, the knowledge Atalay will gain from the fellowship will be critical in creating partnerships between tribal elders and the community. To ensure that the songs, stories, beliefs, practices and culture of the Anishinaabe are respectfully protected and preserved for future generations of tribal descendants, researchers, historians and the general public, she will work with elders and spiritual leaders to determine which cultural knowledge is appropriate to share and what needs to remain private.

“Anishinaabe language and traditional knowledge contain complex and nuanced ways of understanding the natural world all around us,” Atalay says. “With this grant I’m attempting to gather and braid together strands of knowledge that are often separated and studied independently in universities. I’m drawing connections between earthworks, archaeological mounds and ancient rock art to reclaim teachings that our ancestors left written on the land, saw in waterways and recognized through traditional star knowledge. The Mellon Foundation’s New Directions Fellowship will allow me to use digital technologies to connect traditional tribal knowledge with sophisticated geographic information system (GIS) mapping to learn how people of the Great Lakes engaged with the landscape and natural environment thousands of years ago. This can help us understand our contemporary world, even provide solutions for navigating some of our most pressing global concerns.”

To learn the language, Atalay has used a portion of her grant award to bring Howard Kimewon to the UMass Amherst campus as a lecturer on Ojibwe in the anthropology department. Kimewon, a first-language speaker of Anishinaabemowin who was born and raised on the Wikwemikong First Nation reserve in Canada, will teach Ojibwe language and culture courses at both UMass and Amherst College through a partnership with the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages.

Supported with funding from the UMass anthropology department, Amherst College and the Five College Consortium, Kimewon is also leading Atalay and UMass students in the construction of an authentic native canoe built of birch bark and white ash, which will be launched in the Connecticut River next spring. Atalay and Kimewon believe that the event will mark the first time a traditional native birch bark canoe has been launched in Western Massachusetts in well over 200 years.

“In working on the birch bark canoe I’ve realized how language reflects culture,” she says. “Take the word notkwemahza –in Anishinaabemowin this single verb means ‘he passes by in a canoe, singing a love song to his sweetheart.’ Imagine the depth of meaning and care for the natural environment and social relationships that would be glossed over or lost completely if we lose this language. Language immersion on the canoe also highlights the importance of water in Anishinaabe culture. Our rivers and waterways are hurting as we face an escalating global crisis for clean water. Similarly, we are in a time of crisis for our Anishinaabe language. It takes commitment and partnerships, but also practical things, like time and funding, to ensure that the sound of the Anishinaabe language continues to flow into the future. Time is critical. As our remaining fluent first-language speakers age, it’s during this generation that the Anishinaabe language will be lost or make a comeback. I see our work here at UMass Amherst as part of a shared journey to reclaim our language and all the complex and nuanced cultural knowledge it carries.”

In addition to cutting-edge GIS software, Atalay is using a number of new media, social media and academic technology tools during her fellowship. She and Kimewon are recording and digitizing every Ojibwe class held on the UMass campus, and Atalay is video blogging about the project on YouTube and using Twitter to share new words and phrases she learns using #TweetADayOjibwe.

“There are few people who have the opportunity to focus full time on learning a language – and particularly an endangered indigenous language. So, I’ve decided to document this journey of language reclamation,” she says. “In reflecting on this over the past few months, I’ve come to realize that learning Anishinaabemowin is far more than just acquiring a skill that’s needed for a new research project. This effort is part of a larger commitment and passion I have for decolonizing my research practices, and it contributes to larger efforts in many communities for the revitalization of our beautiful Anishinaabe culture, teachings, language and lifeways. But this is also a very personal journey – a journey of re-connecting to my ancestors, to those who came before me, and passing on some of their knowledge, in the very same spoken words and language, for the generations who will follow.”

New Directions Fellowships assist faculty members in the humanities, broadly understood to include the arts, history, languages, area studies, and zones of such fields as anthropology and geography that bridge the humanities and social sciences, who seek to acquire systematic training outside their own areas of special interest. The program is intended to enable strong scholars in the humanities to work on problems that interest them most, at an appropriately advanced level of sophistication. In addition to facilitating the work of individual faculty members, the awards benefit humanistic scholarship more generally by encouraging the highest standards in cross-disciplinary research.

Unlike other fellowship awards, the New Directions Fellowship program does not aim to facilitate short-term outcomes, such as the completion of a book or research paper. Rather, it is meant to facilitate a longer-term investment in scholars’ intellectual range and productivity.

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