Alaska Native Collections

September 28, 2008 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Alaska, Education, Maps, Naming, Siberia | 4 Comments
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Today I want to share a very good general resource I found las week: the Alaska Native Collections site, by the Smithsonian institute. Despite its name, the site includes information about Alaska but also about Russia or other polar contruies. The site is not only beautifully designed but also packed with a lot of maps, photographies and information, allowing the visitor to learn about the arctic cultures easily. If you just want to learn a few basics, you can do a quick reading, if you want to deep more, you just need to open the “Read more” sections.

Through the Sharing Knowledge project, members of Indigenous communities from across Alaska and northeast Siberia are working with the Smithsonian Institution and the Anchorage Museum to interpret the materials, techniques, cultural meanings, history, and artistry represented by objects in the western arctic and subarctic collections of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. The Arctic Studies Center, which organized and implemented the project, is a special research program within the Department of Anthropology, NMNH, with offices in Washington and at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska.

The goals of Sharing Knowledge are to make the Smithsonian collections accessible to all and to support cross-cultural learning among Indigenous home communities, in schools, and around the world. Interest in the extraordinary arts and cultural heritage of the North is truly global in scope. Participants in this project are Elders, scholars, artists, and teachers who invite all to explore, learn, and appreciate.

The combined holdings of NMNH and NMAI are vast—more than 30,000 items from Alaska and northeast Siberia, most collected between the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century. The great majority has never been published, exhibited, or seen by contemporary residents of source communities in the North. Collaborative study of these collections for Sharing Knowledge began in 2001-2005, with a series of trips to the museums in Washington by more than forty Elders and regional representatives. This documentation process will continue as many more objects are brought from Washington to new Smithsonian exhibition galleries and Arctic Studies Center facilities at the Anchorage Museum, starting in 2010. Through its alliance with the Arctic Studies Center (since 1993) and its planned physical expansion to house these programs and collections, the Anchorage Museum has become an important Smithsonian partner in fostering the collaborative work of museums and Native communities.

Object records on this site include edited transcripts of museum discussions as well as summaries drawn from history, anthropology, and recorded oral tradition. The Cultures section includes regional introductions and information about contributors. The Resources section offers reading materials, web links, and a curriculum guide with lesson plans designed for middle and high school students.

The Sharing Knowledge site reflects the current state of an on-going project, with inevitable gaps and uneven representation of the different cultural regions. It will grow over time as more information is recorded and new contributors can be brought into the discussion. Please watch the site for continually updated materials and features.

Photography (C) Larry McNeil

As I mentioned this place has tones and tones of info about the cultures and the people, so it seems an unforgetable place to ask for help whenever I can manage to do the big trip!

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The Atlas of Canadian Languages

September 22, 2008 at 11:25 pm | Posted in Alaska, Canada, Language, Maps | 1 Comment
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I arrived to this series of maps by the Atlas of Canada via the Alaska Native Languages Map blog. They offer information about the situation of languages in Canada, from three different perspectives: the linguistic group, the usage and the continuity:

Atlas of Canada

The linguistic group map

The current 50 languages of Canada’s indigenous peoples belong to 11 major language families – ten First Nations and Inuktitut. Canada’s Aboriginal languages are many and diverse, and their importance to indigenous people immense. This map shows the major aboriginal language families by community in Canada for the year 1996, and it is a part of a series of three maps that comprise Aboriginal Languages.

Some language families are large and strong in terms of viability, others small and vulnerable. The three largest families, which together represent 93% of persons with an Aboriginal mother tongue, are Algonquian (with 147 000 people whose mother tongue is Algonquian), Inuktitut (with 28 000) and Athabaskan (with 20 000). The other eight account for the remaining 7%. Tlingit, one of the smallest families, has a mere 145 people in Canada whose mother tongue is that language. Similar variations apply to individual languages – Cree, with a mother tongue population of 88 000, appears immense when compared with Malecite at 660.
Influence of Geography on the Size and Diversity of Languages

Geography is an important contributor to the diversity, size and distribution of Aboriginal languages across Canada’s regions. Open plains and hilly woodlands, for example, are ideal for accommodating large groups of people. Because of the terrain, groups in these locations can travel and communicate with each other relatively easily, and often tend to spread over larger areas.

On the other hand, soaring mountains and deep gorges tend to restrict settlements to small pockets of isolated groups. British Columbia’s mountainous landscape with its numerous physical barriers was likely an important factor in the evolution of the province’s many separate, now mostly small, languages. Divided by terrain, languages such as Salish, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Haida, Tlingit and Kutenai could not develop as large a population base as the widely spread Algonquinian (particularly Cree and Ojibway) and the Athapaskan languages, whose homes are the more open central plains and eastern woodlands.

Geography can also influence the likelihood of a language’s survival. Groups located in relatively isolated regions, away from the dominant culture, face fewer pressures to abandon their language. They tend to use their own language in schooling, broadcasting and other communication services and, as a result, are likely to stay more self-sufficient. Communities living in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, the northern regions of Quebec and Labrador – the Inuit, Attikamek and Montagnais-Naskapi – are examples of such groups.

Because of their large, widely dispersed populations, the Algonquian languages account for the highest share of Aboriginal languages in all provinces except British Columbia and in the territories, ranging from 72% in Newfoundland to nearly 100% in the other Atlantic provinces. In both British Columbia and the Yukon, the Athapascan languages make up the largest share (26% and 80%, respectively), while Inuktitut is the most prominent Aboriginal language in the Northwest Territories and practically the only one in Nunavut. British Columbia, home to about half of all individual Aboriginal languages, is the most diverse in Aboriginal language composition. However, because of the small size of these language groups, the province accounts for only 7% of people with an Aboriginal mother tongue.

The ability map

The Index of Ability compares the number of people who report being able to speak the language with the number who have that Aboriginal language as a mother tongue. The index has been compiled and mapped for each of the Aboriginal communities shown in the map Aboriginal Languages by Community, 1996. Relatively higher values of this index may suggest some degree of language revival. This map is part of a series of three maps that comprise Aboriginal Languages.

The INDEX OF ABILITY may be used to suggest some degree of language revival. The index of ability compares the number of people who report being able to speak the language with the number who have that Aboriginal language as a mother tongue (consult text Data and Mapping Notes for further information).

There are a number of factors which contribute to a language’s ability to survive. First and foremost is the size of the population with an Aboriginal mother tongue or home language. Since a large base of speakers is essential to ensure long-term viability, the more speakers a language has, the better its chances of survival. Indeed, Inuktitut, Cree and Ojibway – the three most flourishing languages – all boast over 20 000 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue. In contrast, endangered languages rarely have more than a few thousand speakers; often they have only a few hundred. For instance, the two smallest and weakest language groups, Kutenai and Tlingit, have mother tongue populations of 120 and 145 respectively.

To survive, a language must be passed on from one generation to the next. The most effective way of making this happen is to speak it in the home where children will learn it as their mother tongue. Spoken in the home, language is used as the working tool of everyday life. In contrast, when learned as a second language, it is often used in potentially limited situations, only as may be the case, for example, in immersion programs. There is, therefore, no equivalent to learning a language as a mother tongue. Unlike other minority language groups, Aboriginals cannot rely on new immigrants to maintain or increase their population of speakers. Consequently, passing on the language from parents to children is critical for the survival of all Aboriginal languages.

The continuity map

The Index of Continuity measures language continuity, or vitality, by comparing the number of those who speak a given language at home to the number of those who learned the language as their mother tongue. The index has been compiled and mapped for each of the Aboriginal communities shown in the map Aboriginal Languages by Community, 1996. The lower the score, the greater the decline or erosion of language continuity. This map is part of a series of three maps that comprise Aboriginal Languages.

One way of measuring language continuity or vitality is the INDEX OF CONTINUITY. This index measures language continuity or vitality by comparing the number of those who speak an Aboriginal language at home to the number of those who learned the language as their mother tongue (consult text Data and Mapping Notes for further information).

Between 1981 and 1996, the index of continuity declined for all Aboriginal languages. Although the number of people reporting an Aboriginal mother tongue increased by nearly 24% between 1981 and 1996, the number of those who spoke an Aboriginal language at home grew by only 6%. As a result, for every 100 people with an Aboriginal mother tongue, the number who used an indigenous language most often at home declined from 76 to 65 between 1981 and 1996.

The index of continuity has some relationship to the ratings of languages as viable or endangered. Although most languages experienced a steady erosion in linguistic vitality during these years, endangered ones suffered the most. For example, the index of continuity for Salish languages fell from 35 in 1981 to only 12 by 1996. Tlingit and Kutenai, as languages most often spoken at home, had practically disappeared by the 1990s. Given that in 1996 there were only 120 people with a Kutenai mother tongue, it is not hard to see why there is a serious concern for the survival of this language. In contrast, although the continuity index dipped for the relatively strong Cree as well, it did so by considerably less: from 78 to 65. Although Inuktitut did experience a slight erosion in the early 1980’s, the past decade has seen its index stabilize at 84.

Groups that live in remote communities or in settlements with concentrated populations of indigenous speakers appear to find it easier to retain their language. Indeed, two such groups, on-reserve Registered Indians and the Inuit, show the highest indexes of language continuity among all groups: 80 and 85, respectively. In contrast, non-status Indians and Metis, who tend to live off-reserve, as well as off-reserve registered Indians have home-language-mother tongue ratios of 58, 50 and 40 respectively. This suggests a more pronounced state of language decline. Clearly, the off-reserve environment poses major threats to Aboriginal languages.

By 1996, these rates of language erosion resulted in strikingly different continuity levels for viable and endangered languages as a whole. For every 100 speakers with an Aboriginal mother tongue, an average of about 70 used an Aboriginal home language among viable groups, compared with 30 or fewer among endangered groups.

You can read data and mapping notes here.

Michael Krauss and the Eyak language

September 4, 2008 at 4:45 pm | Posted in Alaska, Language | Leave a comment
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Michael E. Krauss (born 1934) is a linguist who has worked extensively on the Na-Dené language family, especially on proto-Athabaskan, pre-proto-Athabaskan, the Eyak language, which became extinct in January 2008, and also numerous other Athabaskan and Eskimo-Aleut languages.

With his 1991 address to the Linguistic Society of America, Krauss was among the first to create an awareness of the global problem of endangered languages. He has since worked to encourage the documentation and re-vitalization of endangered languages across the world.

Krauss, professor emeritus, joined the faculty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1960 and served as director of the Alaska Native Language Center from its inception in 1972 until his retirement in June 2000. He remains active in efforts to document Alaska’s Native languages and encouraged awareness of the global problem of endangered languages.

Krauss’ largest contribution to language documentation is his work on Eyak, conducted through much of the 1960s. Eyak was then already the most endangered of the Alaskan languages, and Krauss’ work is all the more notable considering that it represents what today might be considered salvage linguistics. While some Eyak data had been previously available, they were overlooked by previous scholars, including Edward Sapir. However, Eyak proved to be a crucial missing link for historical linguistics, being equally closely related to neighboring Ahtna and to distant Navajo. With good Eyak data it became possible to establish the existence of the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit language family, though phonological evidence for links to Haida remained at the time elusive. Further, the system of vowel modifications present in Eyak inspired Krauss’ theory of Athabaskan tonogenesis, whereby tone develops from vowel constriction.

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