Associate Professor of Native American Studies Wesley Leonard (by Rory N. Finney)
Wesley Leonard almost became a seismologist. But then he discovered linguistics while attending Miami University in Ohio. Growing up half-Japanese and half-Miami, Leonard has been navigating multiple languages and cultures since childhood, when his grandfather—a Miami tribe chief—taught him his first handful of words in a language linguistic databases once described as “extinct.” Resurrected from written documentation after a three-decade silence, Myaamia is a living language today, thanks in no small measure to Leonard’s contributions.
As a linguistic anthropologist, Leonard has devoted his career to the reclamation of Native American languages. He examines issues of language from an anthropological point of view, and his cross-disciplinary skills enable him to teach not only Native American studies but also international studies and anthropology courses.
His PhD dissertation, “Miami Language Reclamation in the Home: A Case Study,” serves as one of the research pillars of the Miami language reclamation movement. After completing his BA in linguistics and French (literature) at Miami University, Leonard earned both his PhD and MA in linguistics from UC Berkeley. His numerous awards include Ford Foundation and University of California Chancellor’s Opportunity predoctoral fellowships as well as a Crane Award from the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Education Committee. The Linguistic Society of America Committee for Endangered Languages and Their Preservation presented Leonard with a special award during the 2006 Georgetown University Roundtable on Linguistics Conference. As an undergraduate, he received the Outstanding Senior in Linguistics Award from the Miami University Department of English.
Leonard has chaired the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Language Committee since 2004. He served as a steering committee member and instructional faculty for the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages. Leonard was co-director of the Miami Language and Culture Youth Annual Eewansaapita Educational Program and co-organizer of the international Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Conference. He has been a team mentor for Yowlumni Team, a master-apprentice language immersion program that pairs native speakers of US indigenous languages with a younger person. Leonard also worked on the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma NAGPRA Documentation Project for the Miami Tribal Museum. He was an L. Thomas Frye scholar-in-residence at the Oakland Museum of California.
His most recent refereed article, “Challenging ‘Extinction’ through Modern Miami Language Practices,” was published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal earlier this year. Others include “Making ‘Collaboration’ Collaborative: An Examination of Perspectives That Frame Field Research” in Language Documentation and Conservation; “When Is an ‘Extinct Language’ Not Extinct?: Miami, a Formerly Sleeping Language” in Sustaining Linguistic Diversity: Endangered and Minority Languages and Language Varieties; and “‘What Does It Mean to Be ______?’ Framing Language Reclamation for Everybody’s Empowerment” in Gender and Language.
Traveling frequently to Japan as a child prepared Leonard for his cross-country jetting as an academic. Sporting intriguing titles such as “Grammar Without Tears” and “I heart this camp,” his dozens of conference presentations and invited lectures have whisked Leonard to cities such as Honolulu, Ann Arbor, Philadelphia, Davis, Chicago, Minneapolis, San Diego, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, and Gatineau, Québec.
From 1998 to 2000, Leonard served as coordinator for international relations in Yukuhashi, Japan, where he also lived. Leonard created a homestay program that brought a group of Japanese adults to Oklahoma, where they visited and enjoyed a cultural exchange with the Miami tribe.
In addition to Miami, English, and Japanese, Leonard also speaks French, Chinese (Mandarin), and Korean, making him sextalingual. His areas of expertise comprise endangered language theory and language reclamation, language acquisition, language and ethnicity/identity, sociolinguistics, language policy, indigenous community development/decolonization, museum studies, public education, and field research methods and ethics.
He has taught such courses as Politics of Endangered Languages; Japanese Society; Native America Meets the Europeans; and Thinking, Doing, and Living Linguistic Anthropology.
Leonard has been thinking, doing, and living linguistic anthropology his entire life. His grandfather would be proud to witness the blossoming of that handful of Myaamia seeds he planted in his curious grandchild. Today, Leonard honors generations of displaced, dispossessed, and downtrodden Miami ancestors as he proclaims, “myaamiaatawiaanki noonki kaahkiihkwe”—“We speak Miami today.”
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in October 2011
Chart of the International Phonetic Alphabet (by Melroch)
MM: What first drew you to linguistics? Did you find yourself falling in love with languages as a child?
WL: It would make for a great story if I could talk about my childhood love of languages and how I taught myself the International Phonetic Alphabet as a child because I thought it was so cool, but nothing like that really happened. My life in linguistics came later, and I’ve never been entirely sure exactly how it all came to be. I didn’t even know such a field existed until I was in college, and until that time, I always thought I’d become a seismologist.
Now that I think about it, however, there was a series of circumstances that informed the professional life I have today, so let me say a bit about my past. My father, who is a Miami tribal member, was in the US Navy, and in the early 1970s, he was stationed in Japan, where he met and later married my mother, who is Japanese. This is why I have Miami-Japanese heritage, and this has fostered a lot of interesting things in terms of language.
Before I go into that, I’m guessing many people will not be familiar with Miami people, so let me first provide an overview. The Miamis are a North American indigenous group with ancestral homelands in present-day Ohio and Indiana (with no connection to Miami, Florida), and both our people and our language are called “Miami.” As with many other tribes, a portion of the Miami community was forced to leave our homelands as the United States expanded westward, and my ancestors were among the group who ended up in northeast Oklahoma after two removals. This is why I am a citizen of the nation officially called the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, even though I’m not personally from Oklahoma. I was born close to there in southwestern Missouri, but I grew up in the ancestral Miami homelands because my family moved to Ohio when I was young.
Moving back to my story … I was a Japanese-Miami child with strong influence from both parts of my heritage. I spoke Japanese at home with my mother, and most of my Japanese relatives are—for lack of a better term—very Japanese in their lifestyles and values. Meanwhile, my father’s side of the family has always been heavily involved in our tribe, and my paternal grandfather served as chief from before I was born up until the day he died in 2008. Because of this heritage and the frequent international travel that resulted from it, I had experiences in which I’d be with my Japanese maternal grandparents one day, and then back in the United States at a tribal event later in the same week. I understood my parents were from different groups, and it made sense to me that the Japanese parts of my life would be Japanese and that the Miami parts would be Miami.
However, unlike my time in Japan, during which I spoke Japanese, something was different about the Miami gatherings I attended as a child. They always took place in English, not in Miami. I don’t recall consciously feeling like I was lacking something because we weren’t speaking in Miami, but it was something I wondered about. My grandfather was among a handful of elders who knew some Miami, and he taught me a few words, so I understood we had a language of our own. However, that was the extent of my knowledge. I was comparatively lucky because I was able to learn at least a few words; I think most Miami children at the time knew none of our language whatsoever.
Things really changed in the early to mid-1990s across Indian Country. Indian languages, which had been in a period of heavy decline, started moving into increased use. There has been a growing international movement toward indigenous language revitalization since that time.
My own tribe got formally involved in language revitalization efforts in 1995, and the year is important because this was when I was in college and around the time I took my first linguistics class. Maybe you can guess how things went from there. I got interested in linguistics, eventually declared it as my major, and then naturally fell into involvement with tribal language programs. I later decided to do graduate work in linguistics with a focus on Miami language revitalization. That’s the short version of how I became a professional linguist.
(left to right) Alta (Judith Delgado) offers Resten (Richard Elmore) some food in a gesture of love; Emma (Susannah Flood) and George (Rex Young) read about the Ellowan curse (by David Cooper, courtesy of Oregon Shakespeare Festival)
MM: Wow! What a fascinating journey. I’m curious—did you get a chance to catch Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s recent production of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive? The protagonist, George, is a linguist who has spent his life attempting to preserve vanishing languages. George documents the fictional Ellowan language, which would otherwise disappear with the passing of its last two living speakers, a couple named Alta and Resten. If you did see it, I’m wondering what the play evoked for you since you, too, have devoted your life to preserving vanishing languages. There’s something particularly tragic about the idea of a language dying—and that it is inextricably tied to the mortality of human beings makes the thought of a language’s fragility all the more poignant.
WL: Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to see The Language Archive, but I certainly heard a lot about it, and it has obvious parallels to my personal and professional life. Since I haven’t seen the play, I won’t comment on specific issues, but I’ll instead share a few comments I have about language endangerment and documentation.
Most importantly, my tribal heritage language, Miami—or as we say in the language, myaamia—is one that exists today in the lives of Miami people because of language documentation. I mentioned earlier that my grandfather was among a handful of elders who knew a few words of Miami, the keywords being “handful” and “a few.” Anti-Indian policies of the United States, the circumstances surrounding our two forced removals from our ancestral homelands, and the general dominance of English all led to the Miami language entering what we Miamis call a “sleeping” state in the 1960s. While there has been some language knowledge learned directly from elders, most of the Miami spoken today comes from analysis of approximately 300 years of written documentation of our language, which exists in various archives. Some individuals took it upon themselves to teach themselves the language from this documentation, and now some children are being raised with the language by these initial second-language learners. I know firsthand that this is working as it was the focus of my dissertation. I followed the language development of two Miami children for four and a half years and in the process, they taught me a lot of the language.
Working with one of children whose Miami language acquisition Leonard reported on in his dissertation (courtesy of Wesley Leonard)
Coming back to linguistics as a field, language documentation and analysis used to be among the field’s primary goals, and this usually involved a model in which a professionally trained linguist would work with speakers of another language and would then write up a grammatical analysis or a dictionary based on this work. In other words, the default practices of the field yielded language documentation. Linguistics then moved away from this practice and instead started to focus more on questions about language and cognition and language as a grammatical system. However, there has been a recent return to the ways of the past, and endangered language documentation could arguably be called a hot topic in linguistics today. It’s probably self-evident that I’m glad that this is happening because I know how important the work can be.
MM: The loss of a language becomes even more disturbing when you consider how the languages that thrive and ultimately survive are those of the dominant culture; it is the languages of the indigenous whose cultures have been subjugated, oppressed, murdered, and enslaved by a colonizing power that are at greatest risk. So the story of an endangered language parallels that of its people. Can you talk a bit about the politics of endangered languages?
WL: One of the basic principles that guides my work is that language endangerment and revitalization never occur in a sociopolitical vacuum, but rather always stem from—and also affect—the larger sociopolitical context in which they occur. One of the big points linguists and others frequently miss is that language “death” (a problematic term for languages with revitalization potential because of documentation) is not an endpoint, but rather just happens to be the last overt symptom of everything that’s happened to Native peoples.
All of the things you mention and some related ones are what started the decline of indigenous languages in the first place, but the “end” of the language doesn’t mark any shift in the legacy of colonization and subjugation. Rather, those issues are still there until something is done to reverse them. Through my work, I have come to strongly believe that language revitalization allows communities to heal because it responds to issues of cultural shame and allows people to reconnect to the culture embedded in their language. We can’t change the bad things that happened in the past, but we can move beyond them today by speaking our languages and practicing our traditions.
(left to right) Early nineteenth century lithograph of Miami Chief Little Turtle, Leonard’s great-great-great-great-great uncle (possibly based on a lost portrait by Gilbert Stuart); detail of a 1778 representation of Miami Chief Pacanne (courtesy of Wikipedia)
MM: You have served as the chair of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Language committee since 2004. What unique concerns do Miami people face when it comes to preserving the Miami language?
WL: Many of the challenges surrounding indigenous language reclamation are shared by all, or at least a large majority, of indigenous groups. The single biggest one may be that it can be hard for a small, minority language to establish a stable coexistence with a more socially dominant language such as English.
A unique problem for the Miami people is that people have told us, in some cases overtly and in other cases through their actions, that the Miami language cannot successfully be incorporated into contemporary Miami life. As much as I’ve challenged this idea in my professional work—including in two major publications—there is still the idea that the Miami language is “extinct” and that it therefore will never be used again. Conversely, there is a comparatively high recognition of revitalization potential for languages that are in decline but still have fluent native speakers. People understand and accept the notion of learning a language from somebody who speaks it. They often don’t, however, recognize the possibility or the legitimacy of learning a language from documentation.
This has changed significantly over the years as the story of the Miami language has become better known, but there’s still a sense of skepticism and disbelief that hovers over us and our language efforts. First, people think we can’t really do it. Then when we do speak Miami, the same people will then challenge the authenticity of what we’re speaking because there is a widespread idea that Indian languages and cultures are real only if they exist in the way that they are perceived to have been prior to significant European contact. The Miami language has changed; the contemporary language has some obvious influence from English and has undergone additional changes beyond that, but it is probably close enough to the Miami of 200 years ago that a speaker from then would be able to understand a speaker from now. Interestingly, people rarely question the legitimacy of English, which of course changes all the time, but Indian languages get treated differently. Much of my work within my own community involves pointing out these sorts of fallacies so we Miamis are in a better place to determine for ourselves what counts as our culture and our language.
(left to right) A-Bomb Dome at the Hiroshima Memorial, which Leonard visited while in Japan (by Daneish); a shrine in Yukuhashi he sometimes visited (by Lega-maru); and the Ima River (called “Imagawa” because “gawa” part means “river”) Leonard crossed every day on his way to work (by miyasei)
MM: You were also coordinator for international relations in Yukuhashi, Japan, and you have an understanding of Japanese linguistics. What was your experience of Japan like?
WL: Sometimes I momentarily forget that I used to live and work in Japan because it seems so removed from my daily life now, but I did, and it was a valuable experience. As I alluded to earlier, I spent many summers in Japan as a child with my Japanese relatives, and I also attended a Japanese Saturday school for several years. I thus had a lot of Japanese influence, but I wanted to try actually living in Japan as an adult. That was what motivated my work there.
My study of Japanese linguistics came later and was more directly a result of being a linguistics graduate student, though my proficiency in Japanese from having worked in Japan certainly added something. Living in Japan was generally a very good experience, and I got to design a lot of neat programs. One of the most exciting involved my taking a group of Japanese adults to do a homestay visit and cultural exchange with my tribe in Oklahoma. We all observed that there are a lot of parallels between Japanese and Miami culture.
The Linguistics Department bulletin board at UC Berkeley (courtesy of Wesley Leonard)
MM: Linguistic anthropology is one of your other areas of expertise. What does studying a language tell you about its people?
WL: This is actually probably my primary area of expertise, though the irony is I’ve taken only two anthropology courses in my life! This is because my graduate training fell largely into linguistics proper, which tends to look at language more as a grammatical system. What happened was I came to realize the extent to which language and culture are intertwined and when my teaching and research also gravitated in that direction, I realized I’m actually a linguistic anthropologist; linguistic anthropology is the field that encompasses the areas I work in. As for what a language reveals about its speakers, this is far too large a topic for me to cover here, but let me give a couple of examples that illustrate how language and culture can be related.
First, as systems of grammar and vocabulary, languages often reveal how their speakers have come to understand and categorize the world around them. In Miami, for example, nouns are either animate or inanimate (similar to how nouns in many European languages fall into gender-based categories), and this grammatical animacy usually corresponds to real animacy. For instance, the Miami words for monkey, horse, and our word for ourselves—myaamia—are animate nouns, while the words for pencil, chair, and abstract concepts are inanimate. This dichotomy is generally straightforward, but there are some interesting cultural difference between Miami culture and wider American culture that get exemplified when one considers how certain nouns are classified. Of course, English doesn’t mark animacy in its grammar, but I’m guessing most English speakers would say drums are inanimate. However, from a Miami worldview, drums have a spirit, and ahkihkwa, our word for drum, is grammatically animate.
Secondly, in some Native American groups, people express that their language is the defining element of their people, and this differs from wider American society in which language is considered to be a part of culture but not the defining factor. My work looks not just at languages themselves, but also at how people fight for, challenge, reclaim, or strive to learn languages.
Language is a powerful tool, and how people conceptualize its role provides insight into their cultures and belief systems. For example, some individuals have pointed out to me that language learning is difficult and have then asked me why so many American Indians are putting so much effort into learning their heritage languages—even when their daily communication needs are already met through English. I like to turn that question around and ask, “Keeping in mind that language learning takes time and resources and that most American Indians speak English, what can you take from the fact that people are nonetheless so committed to learning their heritage languages?”
Discussing language and politics (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Southern Oregon University puts connected learning at the heart of its educational philosophy. What kind of field research methods and ethics do students need to be aware of when they are conducting research and interacting with community agencies and individuals?
WL: This is where I’m going to put out a call to SOU students. I can’t fully answer this huge question, but it’s a major topic in my work, so I encourage students to take my classes! After the directly linguistic issues surrounding Native American language endangerment and revitalization, questions about ethics, field research, and applied research represent major areas of current discussion and are certainly among the most important.
In my courses, I teach about various common topics that come up in this area, and these include the notion of informed consent, legal restrictions, institutional review boards, privacy, and so on, but I also focus on why these principles have come to exist in the first place, especially in terms of who created them and what cultural frame they were coming from. In these discussions, I find myself repeatedly challenging a recurring question that takes many forms but ultimately comes out to be something like, “How should trained academics work with Native Americans?” In my line of work, the query is usually specifically about the role of linguists, and while I don’t think any harm is intended, the framing of this question reinforces a line of thinking in which university researchers and Native Americans are separate entities, even though I’m just one of many examples of individuals who fall into both groups.
MM: How do you get your students to grapple with intellectually challenging topics?
WL: The short answer to this question is that I am an adult, I assume my students are adults, I believe we should strive to explore topics in their full complexity, and I organize my classes accordingly with detailed syllabi that usually include a disclaimer that the class is rated “R.” My students over the years have always been amazing, and when I set my standards high and we explore difficult concepts, they rise to the challenge.
Speaking in more concrete terms, what tends to happen in my courses is that intellectually challenging topics are generally also socially charged topics, and what I strive to do is to incorporate real examples from daily life and to have students grapple with those ideas both on a scholarly level and also on a personal one. I thus tend to give assignments that explicitly require both the application of course concepts and also a high level of informed personal reflection.
Hanging with colleagues Devora Shapiro, John Taylor, Ariel Tumbaga, and Margaret Perrow outside Hannon Library (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What excites you most about teaching at SOU?
WL: There are several things that I look forward to—many of which I have already been experiencing. These include the flexibility I’ve been granted by my department to develop my own courses, the intellectual stimulation associated with the diverse topics I’ll have the opportunity to teach, and the joy of being around colleagues who value teaching as much as I do. The biggest thing, however, is that I really feel needed and wanted, and this means a lot to me.
October 28, 2011 | Filed under Anthropology, English, Foreign Languages, Humanities, Language, Miami Tribal Language, Native American Studies, Social Sciences and tagged with American Indian languages, documenting indigenous languages, Ellowan language, extinct languages, indigenous language reclamation, International Phonetic Alphabet, Japanese language, Julia Cho, language and politics, language hegemony, language preservation, language revitalization, linguistics, living in Japan, Miami language, Miami tribe, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Native American languages, Native American Studies, preserving tribal languages, SOU, Southern Oregon University, The Language Archive, tribal languages, Wesley Leonard.
Tags: American Indian languages, documenting indigenous languages, Ellowan language, extinct languages, indigenous language reclamation, International Phonetic Alphabet, Japanese language, Julia Cho, language and politics, language hegemony, language preservation, language revitalization, linguistics, living in Japan, Miami language, Miami tribe, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, Native American languages, Native American Studies, preserving tribal languages, SOU, Southern Oregon University, The Language Archive, tribal languages, Wesley Leonard