Sonya Atalay UMass Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Anthropologist Sonya

Language Preservation Efforts and a Birch Bark Canoe Build at UMass Amherst

UMass Amherst

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.

Howard Kimewon (UMass Amherst)

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.

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