What is the National Breath of Life Institute for Indigenous Languages?

Many are familiar with the Myaamia Center’s work in archive-based language revitalization on behalf of the Miami Tribe. Due to our history of forced removal, land loss, and assimilation policies that resulted in the loss of our language, the Miami Tribe has utilized archival documents to reconstruct and aid in our revitalization efforts. Archive-based language revitalization is a relatively new field (approximately 20+ years) and is therefore still developing. Because revitalizing a language from documentation is largely unprecedented work, the Myaamia Center is often forced to find new and innovative ways to carry out its mission to reclaim our language, and in some cases, we are forced to develop our own ‘tools of the trade’. 

One area of development that is rapidly changing the way we work involves the use of technology. Until recently, there were no software systems that were useful in this area of development. In collaboration with Miami University Computer Science and Engineering, and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Myaamia Center developed the Indigenous Languages Digital Archive (ILDA, previously the Miami-Illinois Digital Archive). This software allows us to organize and directly connect analyzed data with high resolution scans of the original language manuscripts. The Miami-Illinois language has nearly a 270 year span of written documentation. Our ability to organize and search thousands of pages of materials for specific language information has transformed the way we utilize these manuscripts and increased our community program teachers’ ability to prepare their materials more efficiently. Additionally, the ILDA software is directly linked to other tools within the ILDA software suite, including the online Myaamia Dictionary and associated apps. All these tools share archival data in the background. Already, we are planning for future apps that will utilize the databases generated from both the digital archive (ILDA) and our online dictionary.

A Haida Language participant viewing an archived photo during National Breath of Life Archival Institute at National Anthropological Archives, Suitland, MA. 2017.
A Haida Language participant viewing an archived photo during National Breath of Life Archival Institute at National Anthropological Archives, Suitland, MA. 2017. Photo by Karen L. Baldwin

What some may not be as familiar with is the way that the Myaamia Center shares this expertise and software development with other tribal communities engaged in revitalization work. We share our experiences, approaches and tools through the National Breath of Life Institute for Indigenous Languages (National BoL). National BoL is an outreach program with national reach that is housed within the Myaamia Center and modeled after the Breath of Life Institute created in the mid 1990s by the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. Since 2011, National BoL has held workshops in Washington, D.C. with the goal of connecting tribal communities with their archival documents from the vast archives in the D.C. area. These two-week, in-person workshops, known as Module 1, have occurred 4 times between 2011 and 2017. Module 1 workshops have been primarily funded by the National Science Foundation-Documenting Endangered Languages Program with program management support provided by the Endangered Languages Fund from 2011 until 2015. 

Participants and staff of the Module 2 Workshop for National Breath of Life Archival Institute held at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. 2019.
Participants and staff of the Module 2 Workshop for National Breath of Life Archival Institute held at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. 2019. Photo by Karen L. Balwdin

Due to ongoing advancements and progress in the field of archive-based revitalization, National BoL has developed new workshops based on a training model developed by the National BoL team that assist communities in moving their language efforts forward through training in the use of the ILDA software. In 2019, National BoL held its first Module 2 workshop at Miami University. The new workshops allow communities who had already collected their archival documentation (usually at BoL Module 1) to receive training in the use of the ILDA software suite.  The next Module 2 workshop will take place this August at the University of Oregon. These Module 2 workshops were funded through grants from the NEH.

This year, National BoL received funding through a NEH Preservation and Access Education and Training Grant for Module 3 development, its newest workshop. The new module 3 training will build self-paced online modules that continue to advance the development of community curated language archives to a level that allow for implementation into existing language programs. A new component of the program includes apprenticeship opportunities for our more advanced community partners. The apprenticeship program provides support for 24 months to specifically advance training and ILDA archive development.  This Module 3 program will allow for the capacity building work that is needed to make the ILDA software suite useful for communities, especially in language learning and teaching.

Co-Director Daryl Baldwin and Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Chief Douglas Lankford observing Northern Paiute participants at National Breath of Life Archival Institute, Module 2 at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. 2019
Co-Director Daryl Baldwin and Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Chief Douglas Lankford observing Northern Paiute participants at National Breath of Life Archival Institute, Module 2 at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. 2019. Photo by Karen L. Baldwin

While the vast majority of our work through the Myaamia Center continues to directly support the needs of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, we also feel the responsibility to contribute to the growing field of archive-based language revitalization. We make this commitment through sharing what we have learned and the tools we create with other communities. There is a growing number of Tribal communities who find themselves in a position to utilize archives for language revitalization as they continue to lose first-language speakers. National Breath of Life is one of the few programs available that train for capacity building around archive-based research for revitalization and the development of community curated language archives. As of this date, National Breath of Life has served 137 tribal Community Researchers representing 65 different language communities across the United States.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.