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In September I convened a two-day conference at the University of Sheffield with the aim of exploring indigenous histories, cultures and languages. While there was particular focus on the Mexican indigenous language Nahuatl, we covered a surprisingly wide range of topics: from the colonial Mexican pharmacopeia to revalorising Maya language through hip hop.

Ten undergraduates won awards from the University’s Global Opportunities to help me organise and run the conference, in addition to participating in the event. Here are their reflections on a very stimulating two days’ discussion:

Emily Hayter, Joe Rigbey and Chandini Stensel
The first panel explored the theme of knowledge and manuscripts. Despite an apparent scarcity in the number of sources for the study of indigenous history, papers by Harriet Smart and Mickaël Orantin showed how our historical perspectives can still be enriched by re-examining indigenous records.

Moving on to rethink indigenous history, Tania Garcia-Pina’s paper emphasised the need to consider Nahuatl-language sources, Claudia Rogers’ discussion of Malintzin in the Lienzo de Tlaxcala recast this iconic figure as both a warrior and interpreter and Caroline Dodds Pennock explored the ‘indigenous Atlantic’, deconstructing Eurocentric views of indigenous Americans.

Megan Hadfield and Wing Tan Lai
The presentations on linguistic revitalisation and standardisation looked at the cultural challenges faced by researchers and communities engaged in language preservation. It was inspiring, and surprising to us, that there is such a strong interest in language revitalisation amongst scholars.

Charles Pigott’s discussion of the transition from orality to literacy in the languages of the Maya and Andean regions urged us to think beyond Eurocentric divisions between ideas of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’.

From Israel Escobar-Farfán’s presentation on the convergence of written and spoken Nahuatl, we learned about the complexity of standardising orthography. Catherine Whittaker discussed how the struggles of language preservation were brought on by the differing ways of speaking. It was interesting to see how reluctant many inhabitants were to learn their native language due to social and cultural pressures.

This led nicely to Olimpia Squillaci’s presentation on Greco, an ancient variant of Greek spoken in Southern Italy. Olimpia has created an app to teach the language, believing that one of the most important parts of revitalisation is vocabulary which can be lost, forgotten or changed.

This panel pushed us to think about how languages become extinct due to the priorities of dominating powers.

Keynote and native speakers
The first day of the conference was rounded off by an engaging keynote by Justyna Olko and John Sullivan: Bridging Western and Indigenous Research: New Strategies for the Revitalization of Nahuatl.

Dr Olko explained the historical status of Nahuatl within present-day Mexico, as the language of the Aztec empire. Dr Sullivan then explained their strategies for Nahuatl revitalisation, stressing the importance of monolingual materials, education and spaces to raise the profile of Nahuatl to ensure its survival. The lively discussion was continued at the very enjoyable conference dinner.

We began our second day with a panel by our guests from Mexico: Rubisel, Eduardo and Abelardo de la Cruz, native speakers of Nahuatl. They presented fascinating research on current ‘superstitions’, ritual practices and practitioners in their communities on the Mexican Huastecan coast near Veracruz.

Katherine Hewitt and Holly Jones
In the discussion of endangered and minority languages, it was clear throughout the conference that when a language ceases to be spoken, it is not just that language which is lost, but a unique way of understanding and engaging with the world.

Sandra Collins’s paper on kimún ‘ancestral ways of knowing’ in contemporary Mapuche society highlighted that indigenous perspectives are extremely valuable in rethinking how we interact with our environment. Revitalising kimún provides space for dialogue about how to approach contemporary issues in Chile, in particular with regards to rights, environmental protection and diversifying education.

Elizabeth Torrico-Ávila presented on the struggle to revive Kunza in the Atacama region of Chile and the importance it holds for the community’s identity despite there being no remaining speakers of the language.

Abelardo and Eduardo spoke of their work teaching and researching Nahuatl. Among many notable achievements, has resulted in a monolingual Nahuatl dictionary, the first dictionary of a North American indigenous language. We are honoured that they donated some copies to our library.

David MacLachlan, Deborah Green and Jessica Smith
The penultimate panel centered around activism and representation and highlighted the importance of indigenous identity in political settings.

Cian Warfield discussed the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Latin America, and examined the marginalisation of indigenous peoples. This examined indigenous architecture as a form of political activism for indigenous communities. Rosaleen Howard discussed the linguistic and cultural challenges involved in translating laws on indigenous language rights into Andean and Amazonian languages.

We then moved to discuss indigenous people’s use of technology to form and present their identities. Thea Pitman referred to ‘netweaving’, a neologism which encouraged the audience to reflect on the vocabulary we might to discuss indigenous agency, a recurring topic throughout the conference.

Josep Cru’s contribution on the reception of Youtube videos of rap artists performing in Yucatec Maya struck a chord with us. As students, we were particularly interested in the use of ‘everyday’ social networks to revalorise languages.

Eva Cabrejas presented a thought-provoking discussion of women of the Zapatista movement’s use of technology as a strategy to resist and denounce violence.

Our final discussion of the conference focussed on the role of youth, media and art in revalorising indigenous cultures for both future and present generations.

Harriet Smart is a third-year PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. The idea for the conference came from having attended the IDIEZ Nahuatl Summer Program at Yale University in the Summer of 2015, when she realised there was a space for an indigenous studies network in the UK. You can follow her on Twitter at @harrietlcsmart.

We are seeking further blog submissions on the theme of indigenous histories, languages and cultures. Please get in touch with James Chetwood if you’d like to write something!

Image: The Indigenous Languages and Cultures conference, courtesy of Harriet Smart.

Tags : Indigenous historyIndigenous studieslanguage preservationminority languagesNahuatl
Harriet Smart

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