SOU professor awakens 'sleeping languages'

Students can learn Native American tongues in an academic setting
Southern Oregon University Associate Professor Wesley Leonard has devoted his career to the reclamation of Native American languages.Julia Moore

The Southern Oregon University campus was quiet last week, since students have retreated for the holidays, and most faculty and staff stayed home when a snow day was called.

But if you listened closely in Taylor Hall, you may have heard about a Native American language that scholars believe was awakened from sleep, resurrected from implied extinction, with the help of Dr. Wesley Leonard.

Leonard, a linguistic anthropologist and associate professor of Native American Studies, arrived on campus only a year ago, but his research is changing the language of linguistics and his classes are transforming the way students perceive and study indigenous cultures and languages.

"There is tremendous interest and enthusiasm to learn about Indian language," says Leonard, sitting behind his desk in his tidy office.

Dangling under his shirt collar is a bolo tie given to him by his grandfather, the late chief of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. Printed on the clasp is an image of a golden crane, a symbol for "clan" in the Miami culture and for mystical creatures in Japan, where Leonard's mother was born.

Participants in Leonard's Teaching and Learning Indian Languages course are Native Americans who want to study their own language or students who have stumbled upon the class and decide to take it to learn a language grammatically different than those widely taught or a specific indigenous language.

One SOU student was interested in the Navajo code talkers and then studied ancient Navajo. A student Leonard taught at the University of California at Davis hoped to become a naturalist and learned the indigenous vocabulary of local floral and fauna.

"And there is the New Age element in Ashland that believes that Native Americans are more connected to spirituality or the land, which is not true," Leonard says with a shrug, implying that they are still welcome.

Over eight weeks, students study a native language of their choice, research words and their meanings through dictionaries — "some that are not user-friendly," says Leonard — and then deliver minutes-long monologues or dialogues in the language to the class.

"There aren't many opportunities to do that in an academic setting," says Leonard. "This class challenges a common belief that Native American languages have a limited place in contemporary society and are restricted to ceremonies."

He says students learn a lot about cultures they had little exposure to before the course and later understand that if United States policy had been different, Native American languages might have been used far more often than they are today.

The Miami tribe — once tens of thousands strong — was forced to leave its ancestral land in Ohio in 1846 to live in Kansas and then Miami, Okla. By the early 1900s, children were sent to boarding schools and were not taught their native language by fluent speakers. Because of this, academic literature referred to the Miami language as extinct.

"I find it damaging to fellow tribal members to be told their language is extinct because it implies the culture is extinct and that Native Americans belong in the past," says Leonard, who grew up in Ohio near the Miami ancestral home. He earned a bachelor's degree in linguistics and French literature at Miami University in Ohio and a master's degree and Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of California at Berkeley. His dissertation was a case study on the reclamation of the Miami language.

Thankfully, Leonard and other scholars were able to collect thousands of pages of documents written from 1670 to 1960 on the Miami language by Jesuit missionaries and others. From these so-called legacy documents and phonetic charts, as well as interviews with "language rememberers" — tribal members who spoke or heard Myaamia, including Leonard's grandfather — the language has been revived.

Today, children are learning it as their first or second language.

In 2008, Leonard published a paper in which he formalized the term "sleeping language" for languages without fluent speakers but that exist in documentation and can be claimed by heritage people.

Over his career, Leonard also has challenged the idea that a language is authentic only if it is unchanged relative to some notion of its past. "Language has to change with its people," says Leonard, who was given a Crane Award from the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Education Committee as well as other honors for his work.

He continues to work with members of other communities that have sleeping languages. At a conference, a woman told the audience that Leonard made her believe it was possible to awaken her native language.

"By sharing the Miami story, it gives people a larger sense of hope," he says, "and on a theoretical level, it changes the sleeping language from an imagined category into a more tested one."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com.


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