NW Indian Language Institute grant will aid online courses

Friends at the NILI summer institute
July 20, 2020 - 11:00am

When the Northwest Indian Language Institute at UO was faced with cancelling its 22nd annual training for indigenous language teachers due to COVID-19, organizers knew that couldn’t happen.

But the institute had to find a way to continue language revitalization safely – and to fund its work. A recent grant award from the National Endowment for the Humanities for online curriculum development has provided a path forward.

“Our elders are so precious,” Associate Director Robert Elliot said. “They’re the ones that are fluent in the language, and they’re also the most at risk.”

This June, the institute offered its first Language Revitalization Learning Series, a free, experimental online program. The lost tuition, around $150,000, created a large fiscal gap for the institute, so the CARES Act grant of $174,000, awarded midway through the program, was especially timely. 

NEH received 2,333 applications and will fund 311, just seven of those in Oregon. The grant will further the institute’s work in developing online versions of its language revitalization courses, which not only allows the institute to remain flexible in times of social distancing but also greatly expands accessibility.

The institute normally draws about 50 participants for its summer training, but this year’s series enrolled 450 from all over the world.

“We wanted to be as inclusive as possible, and a lot of people in Indian country have low connectivity,” Elliott said.

Nearly all of the materials, even live sessions, were made available for “self-study” or working through at one’s own pace. Atkiq Snyder tuned in from Anchorage, Alaska. She heard about the program on social media and was thrilled to be able to partake.

“In our region, a lot of our communities’ languages aren’t being spoken anymore,” Snyder said. “For me, it’s really worrisome. We’re kind of in a dire situation where we really need to start bringing back our languages before it’s too late.”

Snyder is the culture camp project director for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, which incorporates the Yugtun, Sugt’stun and Dena’ina languages indigenous to their region. 

Participants and organizers say the best part of the institute is seeing what these often small and far-flung communities are doing on a small scale and being inspired to do that work in one’s own community.

Megan Walker, a Klamath-Modoc language and grade school teacher in Chiloquin, said that concluding a training and entering the real world of language revitalization can feel like being deposited on a desert island, with no community or resources to rely on. Though she’s participated in person before, she said this year’s institute was her favorite.

“There were people from all over the world, fighting to protect their language communities,” Walker said. “When you are able to share in the experiences of others, you start to see language loss and language revitalization as human rights issues that deserve much more attention.”

—By Anna Glavash, University Communications