UA anthropologist Benedict Colombi is helping to preserve the language and heritage of the Kamchatka Peninsula. (Photo Credit: Ken Sterns)
UA anthropologist Benedict Colombi is helping to preserve the language and heritage of the Kamchatka Peninsula. (Photo Credit: Ken Sterns)

UA Anthropologist Earns Fulbright to Continue Language Preservation in Russia

In a partnership with Google Earth Outreach, Benedict Colombi has been helping indigenous communities from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to preserve their language and heritage.
Sept. 22, 2014

Benedict Colombi, a University of Arizona anthropologist, has received a U.S Fulbright Scholar award to continue and expand his work helping indigenous communities from Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to preserve the Itelmen language.

In a community of 4,000 individuals, the language is spoken by roughly one dozen elders. To maintain the language as well as the culture and heritage of Kamchatka, Colombi and his collaborators began a partnership with members of the Kamchatka community and Google Earth Outreach.

"I hope we can make some small impact in these communities to strengthen their culture, language and history," said Colombi an associate professor with the UA Department of American Indian Studies. "We are interested in comparative work between indigenous people and the similarities and differences in how they live in completely different political scenarios."

Colombi and his collaborators are now creating maps that will be interactive and customized via Google Maps. The maps will contain hunting and fishing information as well as details about the community's culture and historic significance, and could then be implemented into teachings at area schools in Russia.

The team is planning an Indigenous Mapping Workshop in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka. During the workshop, UA-led team members will teach the community about technology, mapping techniques and how to use the Google Earth framework to produce indigenous cultural mapping. Local leaders and professors from surrounding areas of Kamchatka also will attend, and Colombi said an early phase of the maps completed by the spring of 2015.

The team held the first workshop during the fall of 2013 to discuss mapping tools, project deadlines and strategies for developing the maps. The second workshop will focus more on supporting the community members, who will be deciding what to include in the maps.

"The idea is to give them not only maps that we have created but maps that they have created as well," said Colombi, who also has appointments in the School of Anthropology, School of Geography and Development and the School of Natural Resources and Environment. "It gives them a sense of ownership and autonomy."

The maps will also be used in negotiating with government and nongovernment actors, along with strengthening cultural identities, Colombi said.

The mapping project in Kamchatka originated both from Colombi's work with indigenous people and scholars in Russia and his work on the book, "Keystone Nations: Indigenous Peoples and Salmon Across the North Pacific," which discusses the biological and social sciences connection between indigenous peoples and salmon. 

Colombi said another goal of the partnership is to involve youth in creating the interactive maps. "It'll be interesting to see what they map and what they are interested in; to see how youth are thinking," Colombi said.

These maps will benefit the community in other ways, said Brian Thom, an anthropologist at the University of Victoria who participated in the first workshop.

"It's in the moment of sharing stories between the elder and younger generation that they'll be connecting by passing on land based knowledge that will allow for intergenerational knowledge to be transferred," Thom said. "That is really important to maintain."

Thom also said it will be beneficial for the community members to see, at the completion of the maps' production, how they will be used in developing learning outcomes.

"I see the value in the tools that Google has made which is very easy to use and is accessible and powerful to show the importance of indigenous communities and to celebrate the culture," said Thom, who is working on a comparable project with the Stz'uminus First Nation in Canada in partnership with Google Earth Outreach. 

Regarding his work in Russia, Colombi said the maps will be accessible to the world, with some information held privately only for the community to see, such as hunting areas, community industrial impacts in gas drilling and mining platinum and gold. 

"We are trying to limit that emphasis and focus on celebrating, revitalizing, salvaging and storing parts of their culture and heritage," Colombi said. "We are trying to maintain a sense of identity without having the project be political."