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Portrait of Revitalizing Languages

Lori Laiwa discovers her own past while reviving Native American languages.

Laiwa, a graduate student, is breathing new life into languages and cultures that were once feared dead. In the process, she discovered a connection to her own past.

Laiwa is a researcher for the J.P. Harrington Database Project at UC Davis, where she helps translate a library of more than 250,000 pages of notes from early 20th century interviews with the last speakers of native languages. The project’s goal is to reconnect tribes with their heritage, thereby preserving the cultures’ histories and lengthening their lifespans.

“I believe using indigenous research methodologies, especially reclaiming and revitalizing language, is critical for reviving indigenous cultures and ensuring their longterm sustainability,” said Laiwa, who is the first person from her Pomo tribe — a branch of Native American people of Northern California — to pursue a Ph.D. “The John Peabody Harrington Project is an invaluable source for both the indigenous and academic communities.”

While transcribing notes, Laiwa discovered a unique connection to her own heritage. She found transcripts of her grandmother from 1940 — at the age of 32, two years before she died — describing the best mussel grounds in the Fort Bragg area.

“This discovery has significant personal value for me as I’ve decided to commit the rest of my life to improving the lives of Indian people from any community,” Laiwa said. “My research has not only empowered me, it has inspired other members of my family and other native people to document and conduct research about their families.”

The Harrington Project is supported by a variety of public and private sources, including the National Science Foundation and the Cultural Resources Center of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians.

Laiwa's work on native languages takes place under the guidance of Native American Studies Professor Martha Macri, who holds the Yocha Dehe Chair in California Indian Studies.