This is a story that starts with someone who wanted to learn more about his language, Qeuchan. Along the way he ran across a name that’s not well known, a man who devoted his life to documenting Indigenous languages.
This is Trahant Reports.
Last week I interviewed Daniel Golding for Indian Country Today. He has a new film coming out this month on American Public Television, “Chasing Voices.” It’s the story of John Peabody Harrington. An ethnologist and linguist who spent more than fifty years conducting exhaustive research that preserved some 150 languages (including detailed notes with more than 1 million pages).
I was involved years ago with language. I wanted to do master apprentice language learning to speak my language from my Quechan on language. I was doing that master apprentice stuff. And during my learning the language, I came across Harrington who had documented our creation story from a man named Joe Homer back in like the early 1900s, 1907, somewhere in there.”
“And so I just kind of researched him a little bit and I was kind of fascinated by his story. I thought it was just this really kind of interesting story of what he had done and the fact that nobody has really ever heard of him. He’s this eccentric linguist ethnographer who documented all these different languages over million pages of notes on over 150 different Native American languages.”
In the film Golding talks about how some tribes have used the collection to rebuild languages that could have been lost.
Or even compare notes. Imaging knowing how a language sounded in the 1920s and comparing that to what we hear today. That’s extraordinary information about a culture. Other tribes have used this collection to document sacred sites. Or even to make their case for federal recognition.
Golding says the amount of time that Harrington spent with elders is an important part of the story too. He did not just record the language as it’s supposed to be, but chronicled how people actually spoke it. He got the nuances right.
We hear the phrase a “dying language” all the time. And it’s true that many languages are losing fluency. But then again you never know when you’ll run into a million pages of notes that’s an unexpected bonus.
“I encourage everyone to make an effort to try and learn a little bit of your language. It’s such an important part of who we are as Native people.”
I am Mark Trahant.