Did you know? November is Native American Heritage Month. Established in 1990, it celebrates the history, cultures, and contributions of Native Americans throughout the United States. While this recognition is long overdue, it also highlights the fact that many indigenous languages—and cultures—are endangered. That’s why we’re shining a spotlight on five Native American linguists who have worked to preserve their language and culture.
Sequoyah (c. 1770 – 1843)
A Cherokee polymath, Sequoyah was born in Tuskegee, Cherokee Nation near present-day Knoxville, Tennessee. He is best known for his creation of the Cherokee syllabary, which made it possible to read and write in the language. His achievement allowed the Cherokee Nation to become one of the first North American indigenous groups to have a written language. It also inspired members of other pre-literate groups throughout the world to develop their own writing systems.
Parker McKenzie (1897 – 1999)
Born in Mountainview, Oklahoma, Parker McKenzie belonged to the Kiowa Tribe. He served as a Kiowa translator for anthropologist John Peabody Harrington, and the two worked to develop the Kiowa orthography that’s still used today. He also contributed to three books on the language including A Grammar of Kiowa by anthropologist Laurel J. Watkins.
Emory Sekaquaptewa (1928 – 2007)
Known as “The First Hopi”, Emory Sekaquaptewa was a Hopi leader, scholar, and linguist. Born on the Hopi Reservation of Northern Arizona, he is best known for his work on the first Hopi dictionary. The dictionary, which includes 30,000 words, helped revive the language. He also served as a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona from 1972 to 2007.
Linda Yamane (1949 –)
Born in San Jose, California, Linda Yamane is a Rumsien Ohlone artist, historian, and language preservationist. She is known for almost single-handedly reviving the Rumsien language, after the last speaker died in 1939. In the mid-1980s, she began researching the language and translated Rumsien documents into English. Using a cassette tape of wax cylinder recordings, she was able to better understand pronunciation and further develop a dictionary.
Jesse Little Doe Baird (1963 –)
Born in Wareham, Massachusetts, Jesse Little Doe Baird is Wampanoag linguist and indigenous language preservationist. She is best known for her work to revive the Wampanoag language. While studying with linguist Kenneth L. Hale, the two collaborated on the creation of a Wampanoag language database. She and her work are the subject of the PBS documentary We Still Live Here.
Are there any Native American linguists you’d like to celebrate this month? Let us know in the comments!