College of Liberal Arts

W.K. Kellogg Foundation Funds Mexican Indigenous Graduate Student Fellowship

Thu, Aug 30, 2012
Joel Sherzer, Director, AILLA
Joel Sherzer, Director, AILLA

How indigenous students are changing our understanding of language in Latin America

In the spring of 2012, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded $72,000 to the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), a grant that will sponsor a Mexican indigenous student who pursues graduate studies at UT. The grant recognizes a shift that has taken place over the past several decades in the way we study indigenous languages and cultures. Formerly, scholars traveled to remote communities across the globe to study their languages and cultural traditions. Now, more and more speakers of these languages are receiving advanced training as they prepare to study their own communities. Such students have an immediate access to the language and culture of the community and inherent understandings of its people that can give them deeper insight as they conduct formal research. Seeking to give back to the communities in which they work, such “insider” scholars often have a better understanding of what linguistic support people in these communities actually might want or need.

In large part, Kellogg’s investment in the training of an indigenous graduate student at UT Austin is based on the success of past graduates. Two former students, B’alam Mateo Toledo, from Guatemala, and Emiliana Cruz, from Mexico, have demonstrated exactly what indigenous students stand to contribute to the University and the multi-disciplinary field of indigenous studies. Like the new fellow, both students worked with the Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) either as depositors or in administrative roles and have facilitated unprecedented contact between scholars and the indigenous communities they study.

UT Linguistics Ph.D. (2008) B’alam Mateo Toledo was a school teacher in Guatemala when he became interested in teaching the local indigenous language Q’anjob’al to his classes. He discovered that there were no teaching materials for the language, and that little research or academic knowledge of the language existed at all. A professor at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS) in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México, Dr. Mateo Toledo now helps other indigenous conducting research that contributes to the field of linguistics, and, specifically, what indigenous languages teach us about language as a human capacity. His students, the majority of whom are native speakers of indigenous languages of Mexico, Guatemala, and Brazil, earn Master’s degrees in Linguistics that give them the tools to face the challenges of preserving, documenting, and teaching their languages. 

UT Antrhopology Ph.D. (2011) Emiliana Cruz started a café in Oaxaca, Mexico, after finishing her B.A. in Anthropology at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The growing Fair Trade movement resonated with her experiences growing up in a village in Oaxaca state, and she wanted to start a coffee shop where growers were paid fair prices for their beans, and workers were paid fair prices for their labor. A week after she had opened her shop, Professor Joel Sherzer, Director of the Archive of Indigenous Languages (AILLA) at UT Austin, happened in and struck up a conversation with Cruz. They When Prof. Sherzer realized Emiliana’s interest in documenting her native language of Chatino, he promptly invited her to visit UT Austin and consider graduate studies at the University. Since then, Cruz has worked closely with AILLA Co-Director Tony Woodbury to launch a multi-site project documenting varieties of Chatino. After graduating in 2011, she took a position as Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts and continues her work in Mexico.

The Kellogg Foundation prioritizes direct service to populations in need, and looks at this grant as an opportunity to create innovative new leaders in indigenous communities.  It is especially interested in ways in which indigenous scholars can give back to these communities. The candidate selected for the fellowship will not be chosen on academic merit alone, but will also be evaluated on the strength of the plan for deploying his or her academic training in a community setting. Many indigenous students who have pursued advanced degrees at UT Austin arrive at this decision through a desire to serve their communities. They see misconceptions in the ways such communities are perceived, or, more often, a complete lack of knowledge and absence of information about indigenous languages and traditions. While these students have typically relied on their own resources and ingenuity in the effort to give back to their communities, this grant from the Kellogg Foundation will provide a student with funding to travel back to his or her home community and launch a linguistic preservation project.

AILLA, UT Austin’s Archive of Indigenous Languages, is a digital archive of field recordings, videos, photos and other materials collected by linguists, anthropologists, and other scholars during their research in Latin America, and the only comprehensive archive of its kind for the region. Beginning in the summer of 2012, faculty affiliated with AILLA will recruit candidates for the fellowship through the Archive’s network of depositors. The student selected for the fellowship will work as a Graduate Research Assistant with AILLA for his or her first two years at UT Austin.  The fellow will receive training in the processes of preserving and cataloguing research materials on indigenous languages, and will build an archiving skill set that can be put to use in community projects.  

While the graduate student stands to benefit significantly from the work experience with AILLA, the student will also play a role in one of the archive’s new directions: outreach. Up to this point, AILLA has focused its efforts on building a repository for research materials dealing with Latin American indigenous languages. However, while applying for the grant with the Kellogg Foundation, AILLA’s leaders realized its materials are already being employed in a variety of linguistic preservation efforts throughout Latin America. An informal survey of AILLA’s contributors revealed that AILLA materials are being used for bilingual education programs in seven different languages in Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Brazil. In an additional four communities, AILLA resources are being used for language maintenance and revitalization projects among adults. As both a contributor to AILLA and a beneficiary of its resources in a community development setting, the recipient of the new fellowship will be uniquely poised to bridge the outreach and archiving missions. 

After two years of working with AILLA, the student will spend three years as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Linguistics. Every summer, the fellow will receive summer research funding from the Department of Linguistics or the Kellogg Foundation, enabling him or her to devote five consecutive summers to starting a community outreach project. In the sixth year of the program, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts will support the fellow with a full year of funding for finalizing his or her research project, writing a dissertation, and further developing the community project.

At this point, we can only imagine what the future fellow will contribute to the University, to the community studies, and to the discipline in which the study is anchored. The Kellogg Foundation grant recognizes both the past successes of indigenous students at UT Austin and the significant possibilities that lie ahead.





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