The National Anthropological Archives, steward to primary source documentation of over 250 Native languages, received a $323,000 grant this month to preserve its materials and improve access for researchers. The NAA was founded by an act of Congress in 1879 to serve as a repository for documents written regarding Native languages, culture, and geography during government surveys of the West, and remains the nation’s primary collection of materials on the subject.
While many languages documented in the collection are dormant, the collection itself has been increasingly at risk of disappearing due to the ravages of time and handling—many documents are almost in tatters due to age and storage conditions. The grant, given by the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities, would help safeguard the physical collections as well as providing greater access and awareness for researchers and Native language learners by publishing primary sources online.
Robert Leopold, the director of the NAA, points out that “each language document is so rare and unique, each bit of paper so culturally precious, that when the corner of a dog-eared page bearing text is lost, that vocabulary item may never be known or spoken again.”
The NAA’s collections are utilized by Native Americans searching for information on their historical languages and dialects, as well as by over 600 academic researchers per year.
The NAA has indicated that some of the grant will go towards digitizing their collections of historical manuscripts. However, many Native languages still in use have changed as their cultures have changed, and have received little or no academic attention or documentation.
Would it be useful for researchers if the NAA could utilize an interactive website on which Native language speakers could compile their own Native Wiktionaries, to spread knowledge to Native language learners about contemporary languages and compare them with the NAA’s historical examples? Please share your thoughts.