Imagine Otherwise: Jenny L. Davis on Indigenous Language Revitalization

by | Jan 2, 2019

What does Indigenous language revitalization look and sound like in our contemporary digital age? How are Indigenous communities redefining language learning and capacity building outside of traditional academic spaces? What would it mean to reframe language revitalization as a process of repairing and reweaving?

In episode 79 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews linguistic anthropologist and Indigenous studies scholar Jenny L. Davis about the vibrant world of Chickasaw language revitalization; how Indigenous language activism is interwoven with documentary film, dance, ethnobotany, and other cultural productions; the importance of transnational skill sharing and capacity sharing; and why building a world where all Indigenous people get to eventually be elders is how Jenny imagines otherwise.

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Guest: Jenny L. Davis

Jenny L. Davis is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is the director of the Native American and Indigenous Languages (NAIL) Lab and an affiliate faculty of American Indian studies and gender and women’s studies.

Her research focuses on contemporary Indigenous language(s) and identity, with dual focuses on Indigenous language revitalization and Indigenous gender and sexuality.

She is the author of Talking Indian: Identity and Language Revitalization in the Chickasaw Renaissance (University of Arizona Press, 2018). She is also the co-editor of Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality (Oxford University Press, 2014), which was awarded the Ruth Benedict Book Prize from the Association for Queer Anthropology and the American Anthropological Association.

Episode Sponsor

This episode is sponsored by the MA in Critical Studies Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The goal of the MA in Critical Studies is to produce creative critical thinkers prepared to address pressing contemporary issues at the intersection of cultural production and critical theory. Program graduates develop the research, writing, and communication skills necessary for rigorously investigating the forces shaping contemporary culture with imagination, creativity, and collaboration. MA program applications are open now. For more information visit pnca.edu/criticalstudies

Jenny Davis wearing a blue shirt and glasses in front of a bookcase. Text reads: I want a world in which we all get to be elders. I also want a world where people spend more time learning than presuming to teach and spend more time listening than presuming to speak. Where we slow down a little and de-center newness.

We chatted about

  • Jenny’s new book Talking Indian: Identity and Language Revitalization in the Chickasaw Renaissance (02:27)
  • Changes in Indigenous language revitalization (06:35)
  • The Native American and Indigenous Languages (NAIL) Lab at UIUC (09:45)
  • The intertwining of art, activism, and scholarship in Jenny’s work (11:36)
  • The Two Spirit movement in the US and Canada (13:12)
  • Imagining otherwise (14:33)

Takeaways

Talking Indian

The book is about the last decade of language revitalization in the Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma, which is my community, my tribe. The book is thinking about what language revitalization looks like on the ground in everyday practices. It also ended up being about what contemporary Native lives are like: how people talk to each other, what they choose to wear and how they engage with things like social media and digital domains.

Chickasaw language revitalization

What’s really notable for me is the shift in how people outside the community and, most importantly, people inside the community are thinking about the Chickasaw language. Everybody has a lot more access. Kids today who are ten or younger have grown up with the language circulating in new ways that are very different from my childhood. The language shows up on signs around town; it shows up on people’s t-shirts and bumper stickers.

The Native American and Indigenous Languages (NAIL) Lab

We’re thinking about Indigenous languages not just for communities that are Indigenous to this space, but also Indigenous to other spaces, including our communities from Mexico and Latin America. We have a large population here in the area [the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area]. We’re thinking about strategies and barriers for those communities, language-wise, and what it means to have translators available for medical access or legal processes.

The Two Spirit movement

I’ve been a member and activist within the Two Spirit movement within the US and Canada. I’ve been thinking about and trying to capture the ways that this movement exists separate from and as a part of other types of activism, like other types of Native American activism and LGBT rights activism. I am also trying to articulate what it means for people who have multiple marginalization—in this case, people who are marginalized for being Native American and for being what more or less is equivalent to LGBT or queer. I’m thinking about what it means to be visible and how to think about and talk about this type of activism for audiences that may be familiar with one area of it, but maybe not all of them.

Imagining otherwise

I want a world in which we all get to be elders. I also am interested in a world where people spend more time learning than presuming to teach and spend more time listening than presuming to speak. It’s a general perspective where we slow down a little and de-center newness as the thing we’re always operating towards.

More from Jenny

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

Transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This episode is sponsored by the MA in Critical Studies Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The Critical Studies Program produces creative, critical thinkers with the research, writing, and communication skills necessary to address pressing issues at the intersection of cultural production and critical theory. MA program applications are open now. For more information on the program and the enrollment process, you can visit pnca.edu/criticalstudies.

[00:49] This is episode 79 and my guest today is Jenny L. Davis.

Jenny is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is the director of the Native American and Indigenous Languages (NAIL) Lab and an affiliate faculty of American Indian studies and gender and women’s studies.

Her research focuses on contemporary Indigenous language(s) and identity, with dual focuses on Indigenous language revitalization and Indigenous gender and sexuality.

She is the author of Talking Indian: Identity and Language Revitalization in the Chickasaw Renaissance (University of Arizona Press, 2018). She is also the co-editor of Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality (Oxford University Press, 2014), which was awarded the Ruth Benedict Book Prize from the Association for Queer Anthropology and the American Anthropological Association.

In our interview, Jenny and I discuss the vibrant world of Chickasaw language revitalization; how Indigenous language activism is interwoven with documentary film, dance, ethnobotany, and other cultural productions; the importance of transnational skill sharing and capacity sharing; and why building a world where all Indigenous people get to eventually be elders is how Jenny imagines otherwise.

[To Jenny] Thanks so much for being with us today.

Jenny L. Davis: Thank you for having me.

Cathy: So you’re the author of really fantastic new book called Talking Indian: Identity and Language Revitalization in the Chickasaw Renaissance. Can you give our listeners a sense of what that book covers and what got you interested in the issue of language revitalization?

Jenny [02:27]: The book is about the last decade of language revitalization in the Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma, which is my community, my tribe. [The book] is thinking about what language revitalization looks like on the ground in everyday practices. It also ended up being about what contemporary Native lives are like: how people talk to each other, what they choose to wear and how they engage with things like social media and digital domains. [It is also about] how all those things are connected both to each other and to things like language activism.

I look at how specific things within the community, like our relocation from our homelands to Oklahoma via the Indian Removal Act all the way up to contemporary dynamics of the economy and politics. I look at how those shape what’s possible and what people are doing and how that might be different than even a community that’s just down the road or very similar to a community that’s on the other side of the planet. I’m really trying to tie those things together.

Cathy [03:27]: In the book, you talk a lot about the politics, the complicated histories, and the important political stakes of language revitalization. I’d love to dive a little deeper into the research process. What were some of the challenges that you came across,—either that your interviewees talked about or that you experienced yourself about language revitalization?

Jenny [03:57]: I can break that down into a couple of things. One, there are still very few Native Americans who do work in either linguistics or linguistic anthropology, which are the two areas my work fits. So it’s unusual to have this kind of perspective in research. That’s not to say that there haven’t been any [Native American linguistic anthropologists], there have been a couple of key figures who have done it and are doing it, but it’s still very rare.

So part of the process was navigating the academy and its expectations for what research looks like, how it would be set up, what the processes are, or even what an academic voice sounds like when you’re talking about your own community and your own family, versus a perspective that is talking about an Other, whether that’s by culture or people or language.

Jenny [04:36]: So my own process was trying to navigate that and figure out exactly what that looks like when there weren’t a whole lot of examples to draw on and really thinking about the specifics of my community. It’s why I was always thinking, “Well that’s an interesting discussion or theory or perspective, but that doesn’t quite work right for my community or this situation.”

I was trying to think about what I could do in my own research that contributed to research discussions, but also that fairly represented my community and other communities out there that also aren’t represented. That includes working against the general idea that all Native American and Indigenous people are the same. So lots of people have heard of the Diné (the Navajo), the Lakota, or the Cherokee and they just assume that all tribes are the same as those that they’ve heard of or (even worse) that they’re like what they’ve seen on TV and in the movies. So some of the work is always working to counter those expectations or stereotypes

Jenny [05:32]: The thing that came up the most in the community with the folks that I was interviewing and talking to, what people brought up regularly, was the dynamic where people outside of Indigenous communities tend to forget American history. They forget what happened before this moment that created the situation we’re in now. So then they’re surprised that people haven’t been taught our heritage languages or that people stopped speaking them.

[Non-Indigenous people] don’t know or they don’t want to remember that up until about 1990, the US government actively and aggressively worked to prevent Native Americans from speaking Indigenous languages, including preventing people from being able to learn them in a school setting. So a lot of the discussions that [Indigenous] people have are trying to remind everyone of that history. Sometimes they’re even put in a position where they have to defend themselves against those [non-Indigenous] expectations or the fact that [non-Indigenous] people don’t remember those dynamics.

Cathy [06:35]: Another thing that you talk quite extensively about in the book is how these revitalization efforts have changed dramatically over time. And you talk about this has been a very long project for you. I’d love to hear a little bit about this. What are some of those big shifts and where do you see language revitalization going in the future?

Jenny [06:53]: Yeah, so it’s been more than ten years that I’ve been working with Chickasaw language documentation and revitalization, thinking about it both as a participant and a researcher. Over those ten years, it’s been really incredible to see those shifts and to also be talking with people in our community, especially our elders and our speakers who of course have a much longer view and can talk to the last century of changed.

What’s really notable for me is the shift in how people outside the community and, most importantly, people inside the community are thinking about the Chickasaw language. Everybody has a lot more access. Kids today who are ten or younger have grown up with the language circulating in new ways that are very different from my childhood. [The language] shows up on signs around town; it shows up on people’s t-shirts and bumper stickers.

[07:46] There are ways to use a phone app or Rosetta Stone, those kinds of things. So there’s a general shift in the access people have to the language even if they aren’t the child or the grandchild of one of our few first-language Native speakers. So that’s a big difference. A lot of people now have access and have had access, have more of a passive knowledge of things and then they thus have a very different investment about learning more and seeing more. So there’s a general greater level of excitement at being able to learn pieces or maybe take a community or a university class. So that’s a shift.

The other thing that’s happening in the Chickasaw community and in a lot of Native communities is that we’re able to look at what works for us and what doesn’t in terms of thinking dominant models of education and language learning. We can evaluate whether or not something works best for our language learners by looking at what we want people to learn and why.

[08:41] I think the most exciting thing that I’ve seen—and what I see as the trend for the future for that part of your question—is that the language activism and language revitalization efforts are increasingly being interwoven with documenting reclaiming practices like ethnobotany and other kinds of cultural and artistic practices and expressions—things like maintaining knowledge of basket weaving or various dances.

So [language revitalization] has been interwoven with a lot of other efforts, a lot of other key areas of daily life and community life, so it’s not just about being a separate language aspect anymore (if it ever was). Instead, it’s being connected and interconnected with a lot of other efforts in ways that highlight how central language is to everything. All of those different movements then reinforce each other.

Cathy [09:45]: In addition to your scholarly research, you also direct the Native American and Indigenous Languages Lab. What are some of your big goals for that project over the coming years?

Jenny [09:57]: We’re working really hard to collaborate with a couple of different initiatives on campus. I have some incredible colleagues who also do work in activism and in developing methods and strategies for engaged, activist anthropology.

We’re thinking about Indigenous languages not just for communities that are Indigenous to this space, but also Indigenous to other spaces, including our communities from Mexico and Latin America. We have a large population here in the area [the Champaign-Urbana metropolitan area]. We’re thinking about strategies and barriers for those communities, language-wise, and what it means to have translators available for medical access or legal processes. We’re seeing where we can pair up with those other initiatives.

[10:52] The lab itself is building our efforts to provide and facilitate community training for communities—our home communities but especially in urban centers. So just up the road, we’re lucky enough to have Chicago, which has one of the largest Native American populations in the country. It also has the oldest American Indian center.

We’re starting to work out what partnerships look like in terms of skill sharing and capacity building outside of a traditional academic framework so people don’t need to come get a college degree just to learn how to do language documentation or revitalization. That is building off of other programs that are available, like the Collaborative Language Institute that I teach at and some others around the country and the globe that are thinking about activism outside of academia.

Cathy [11:36]: So we’ve talked around this question of activism and your book certainly gets into this quite extensively. How do you see your various projects combining your interest in academia, activism, and art or maybe creativity?

Jenny [11:50]: This is a conversation we have very frequently across a number of spaces. I go at it from a couple of different areas. One of them is that my research is almost always with and in communities that I’m already a part of. So that is a type of activism within the academy of making sure that the type of research and representations that are happening are ethical and actually in the best interest with those communities. It’s also about recognizing the kinds of knowledge and scholarship that already exists there.

Outside of that, a lot of my activism toward social justice involves taking skills that I’ve learned or have access to in one area and bringing them into another. That might mean taking something like grant writing or how to access higher education and doing a workshop in a community. But it also might mean taking the skills and practices from the community that are really successful and trying to retrain academics to be better in that regard and to make the academic space and some of these other spaces more accessible to new people and audiences.

I try to always have a combination of academic work, art, and activism in ways that anchor me away from just prioritizing one over the other. And a lot of that involves bridging conversations, being aware of what people are doing in each of those spaces and making sure that various voices aren’t getting erased or de-legitimized.

Cathy [13:12]: What projects are you working on now?

Jenny [13:14]: Now that the book is out, I’m able to work on another project that is very important to me and I’ve been working on for a long time. I’ve been a member and activist within the Two Spirit movement within the US and Canada. I’ve been thinking about and trying to capture the ways that this movement exists separate from and as a part of other types of activism, like other types of Native American activism and LGBT rights activism.

I am also trying to articulate what it means for people who have multiple marginalization—in this case, people who are marginalized for being Native American and for being what more or less is equivalent to LGBT or queer. I’m thinking about what it means to be visible and how to think about and talk about this type of activism for audiences that may be familiar with one area of it, but maybe not all of them.

It’s an area where I’ve also done quite a lot of my own personal activism as a co-director of two different Two Spirit societies and a co-organizer of one of the international gatherings. There’s been an increase in the visibility and the types of activism that’s possible within the Two Spirit movement. I’m hoping to highlight who those actors are and what that looks like.

Cathy [14:33]: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask guests, which gets at the heart of why you do what you do and the vision that you have for all of your projects. That’s the vision of a better world that you’re working towards, that world that you help build when you teach students, when you do your scholarship, when you lead community workshops, when you do community activism. What kind of world do you want?

Jenny [14:57]: Broadly speaking, all of my different areas of activism are usually centered around the goal of allowing Indigenous people to exist—literally to live. And then also to be able to maintain and practice our cultures and our epistemologies—things we’ve handed down from generation to generation as well as the new innovations that we make—on our own terms.

In terms of language activism, that means allowing my community and others to celebrate and practice and learn or create new areas with our languages and culture. Again, this is as a response to a long history of having those be the target for elimination.

Within the Two Spirit world, that usually centers around addressing all of the things that provide barriers to living to be an adult or even to old age. There are a number of barriers that make that very, very unlikely for most of us.

[15:54] I want a world in which we all get to be elders. I also am interested in a world where people spend more time learning than presuming to teach and spend more time listening than presuming to speak. It’s a general perspective where we slow down a little and de-center newness as the thing we’re always operating towards.

I heard a beautiful metaphor from some folks I was just talking to regarding language revitalization and framing it around reweaving and repairing. So not tossing aside something because it isn’t perfect or because it has damage to it. I’m thinking about how we can reweave things and not abandon older aspects or even newer aspects, but instead carefully rework them in ways that highlight the connectedness between people and between time periods but also between spaces and beings. I guess that would be my grand scheme.

Cathy: Thank you so much for being with us and giving us so many different ways that you imagine otherwise.

Jenny: Thank you again for the invitation to have this conversation.

Cathy [17:03]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]

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