Language and culture are often thought of as the seminal core of any given group.
But what happens when one’s own language is endangered?
A new effort at The University of Arizona’s College of Education is focused on indigenous populations and trying to help keep indigenous languages from disappearing – and to do this, children and adolescent literature will be used.
With a $15,000 donation from the Tohono O’odham Nation, the college’s International Collection of Children’s and Adolescent Literature is initiating a project to bring some of the world’s most rare American Indian and indigenous peoples books to Tucson.
“We want to have books that reflect on indigenous populations around the world,” said Kathy G. Short, a professor in the college's language, reading and culture department.
The books will build on the existing collection, which is a teaching and research library that contains 30,000 books housed in the College of Education’s basement. The full library is one of the largest collections of international children's literature in the world.
Many of the children's books reflecting on the lives of indigenous people are produced by large, national publishing companies and are most often written in English by people who do not self-identify as American Indian.
Also, Short said, many of the books are about history or historical events.
She said the challenge with finding books that accurately portay indigenous people, either written in English or native languages, is that such books are generally very difficult to find because they most often are printed by much smaller publishing companies and tribal presses.
Short, who oversees the collection at the UA, is not deterred – she already has access to databases that have gathered information about books written in varying languages.
“So, now, we have to search them out and figure out how to get the books here,” she said.
“What we’re hoping is that we end up with an exemplary collection, and I think it will be used by different scholars,” she said. “I see that collection as being so important to different interests in the University and across the state, and also teachers coming from all over North America."
Such work is one among a number of different efforts across campus attempting to both preserve and document native and indigenous languages and culture.
- ArizonaNativeNet.com, which is a Web site run out of the James E. Rogers College of Law that offers distance learning and telecommunications for tribal nations.
- The Knowledge River program out of the School of Information Resources and Library Science, teaching about librarianship issues in the context of the American Indian perspective, as well as that of Hispanic populations.
- The American Indian Language Development Institute is a residential summer program held at the UA. Run out of Short’s department, the institute educates participants on ways to incorporate cultural and linguistic teachings into schools and provides assistance to tribal nations attempting to preserve their respective languages.
- The UA offers degree programs in Native American linguistics and American Indian studies.
- The University of Arizona Libraries keeps a permanent collection of material written in the central Mexico language of Nahuatl, which is periodically on display. Also, certain library staff teach and share material specific to indigenous groups.
And there is even more.
Short’s new initiative is important not only for children, but likely will be important to all organizations and scholars researching American Indian culture or trying to preserve their languages, she said.
“Given those strong programs, our location in Arizona, and the focus on language revitalization, it helps our focus on having a very strong indigenous collection,” Short said. “Having a collection like that will be important to their work. That is really important.”