LINGUIST List 3.753

Wed 07 Oct 1992

Disc: Oaxaca Project Update

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  1. John E. Koontz, Oaxaca Project Update

Message 1: Oaxaca Project Update

Date: Mon, 05 Oct 1992 09:41:59 Oaxaca Project Update
From: John E. Koontz <>
Subject: Oaxaca Project Update

 Date: Fri, 02 Oct 92 20:49:00 EDT
 Repost From:
 Subject: Oaxaca Project Update

 Original-Sender: (Russell Bernard)

 Oct. 2, 1992

Oaxaca Project Update

Recently, the Oaxaca Native Literacy Project and the idea that
computers can help native people preserve their languages has
gotten some welcome publicity. On Dec. 31, 1991, John Noble
Wilford, the science editor of the New York Times featured the
project in his column. In July, CNN's Future Watch did a 7-minute
story, and last month, Cultural Survival Quarterly published an
article on the project.

Many colleagues have asked me to keep them informed about the
Native Literacy Project. In the next couple of pages, I summarize
the history of the project. If you're already familiar with the
history, skip to "Recent Events."

Background - The Native Literacy Center

The cover story of TIME for September 23, 1991 was Lost Tribes,
Lost Knowledge. "Humanity is in danger of losing its past and
endangering its future as well" said Eugene Linden of TIME. "There
is no way that concerned scientists can move fast enough," he said
"to preserve the world's traditional knowledge." Native people
throughout the world are abandoning their cultures, and the wisdom
of those cultures is being lost to us all.

Jesus Salinas is a N^ahn^u (Otomi) school teacher from Mexico.
(I use the ^ as a tilde, so n^ is Spanish "enye".)
Since 1971, he and I have been working to preserve the native Indian
cultures of the Americas. We recognized that Salinas's own culture,
the N^ahn^u of central Mexico was dying. Together, we developed a
writing system for N^ahn^u and Salinas wrote a major book about his
own culture - in N^ahn^u. That work, which I translated, appeared in
1989 (Sage Pub., Inc.).

In 1987, building on our book collaboration, Salinas and I
conceived of the Native Literacy Center. This would be a center
where Indian people from around the Americas could learn to read
and write their own languages using microcomputers. More
importantly, at the Native Literacy Center, Indians would be able
to print and publish their own works, in their own languages, on
topics of their own choice. The idea for the center was to help
Indian people save their languages from extinction, to write their
own histories, and to record their knowledge for their children and
for all our children as well.

With start-up support from the Jessie Ball du Pont Foundation, the
Native Literacy Center became a reality in 1989. Indians from
around Latin America are coming to learn how to save their
languages. Salinas runs the center, along with Josefa Gonz lez, a
Mixtec Indian from Oaxaca. Together they train other Indians to use
computers to write and to print books in Indian languages.

Salinas and Gonz lez have trained 75 people so far, from 10
different language groups (like Mixtec, Zapotec, Toztzil, Quechua),
and from five countries (Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and
Chile). There is a waiting list for participants who want to come
to the NLC - testimony to the desire that Indian people have to put
their words to paper, to preserve their heritage, to offer their
children a written repository of their culture.

The NLC has had the support of two government agencies in Mexico -
the National Bureau of Indian Education and the Center for Advanced
Studies in Anthropology. It also has the support of the
Interamerican Indian Institute, an arm of the Organization of
American States. My students and I at the University of Florida's
Department of Anthropology are providing the technical know-how.

How the NLC Works

Indian people come to the Native Literacy Center in the city of
Oaxaca, Mexico, for up to three months. They learn to handle the
microcomputers and the word processors that have been developed for
their use. If their language requires special characters that have
not yet been designed for the word processor, then those characters
are designed and installed. By the end of three months, most
participants leave with a printed, bound book, that they have
written and edited themselves, in their native language.

Most participants at the center are bilingual school teachers -
that is, teachers who are native bilingual speakers of Spanish and
one or more Indian languages. These teachers are dedicated to
helping their people throughout the Americas develop the literacy
skills necessary for participation in the modern economic and
political systems of the world. They know that literacy in their
national language, Spanish, is the key to development. But they
also know that native literacy - publishing books in their own
languages - is the key to preserving their heritage.

Why should we care?

Why should we support these Indians in their struggle to preserve
their languages and cultures? In the last 500 years, since the
landing of Columbus, at least 500 languages have disappeared in the
Americas. In another hundred years, most of the remaining thousand
or so languages of the Americas will be gone. The wholesale
extinction of plant and animal species reduces genetic diversity;
the wholesale extinction of languages reduces cultural diversity;
both kinds of extinction threaten us all.

Here are the facts: There are about 6000 languages spoken in the
world today. Only 276 languages, however, are spoken by a million
people or more. In fact, about 90% of all languages are spoken by
less than 10% of the world's population, and languages are
vanishing quickly.

In the U.S., there are only 1500 speakers of Arapaho, and fewer
than 400 speakers of Cayuga. There are about 4000 legally
documented Karok Indians, but fewer than 100 of them speak Karok.
Mohigan is gone. So is Miami and dozens of other Indian languages.
Yokuts, Penobscot, Tobatulabal, Wintu, Shasta, Oto, Mono, Osage,
Nooksack, Mandan, Hoopa, Delaware, Cupen^o, and Catawba are down to
fewer than 50 speakers.

The same story is being told across the world. In Argentina, Ona
and Chane and Tehuelche and most other native languages are
extinct. In Brazil, across the Amazon, languages are disappearing
every year.

As an anthropologist, I am alarmed. I see the wholesale
disappearance of languages, and the reduction of cultural
diversity, as threatening our very survival as a species. As
languages vanish, we lose the knowledge that speakers of those
languages possess. We lose knowledge about how to raise children,
how to cure diseases, how to prepare foods that prevent diseases,
how to use and preserve our environment, how to pass property from
one generation to the next. In short, we lose all the diversity of
knowledge that has given us the tools of survival across the world
for thousands upon thousands of years.

The Native Literacy Center in Oaxaca, then, is more than just a
place where Indians from Mexico and elsewhere can come to write
books in their own languages. It is the beginning of a movement
that we can hope will stem the erosion of cultural diversity in the
world. A project has been started in Cameroon, again with the
interest and effort of local people. There is interest in Bolivia
and in Tanzania to start native literacy centers.

As the story in TIME made clear, only by giving the young the
feeling that their culture is worthwhile will they keep it. Writing
books in their native language has that effect. There is great
power in the physical presence of a book. To see one's language
written and bound between covers, just like books in English and
Spanish and French, produces more support for the value of that
language than anything else can do. We hope that, in this year of
the quincentennial of Columbus' landing in the Americas, many
people will consider supporting the native peoples of the Americas
and elsewhere as they try to record, capture, and preserve their
cultural heritage.

Recent Events:

The NLC Becomes CELIAC, an Independent Native-Language Publishing

In August, five Indians at the Native Literacy Center, led by Jesus
Salinas and Josefa Gonzalez, established an independent,
not-for-profit corporation, called CELIAC. The acronym stands for
Centro Editorial en Lenguas Ind!genas, A.C. (The A.C. at the end of
the acronym means "asociacion civil," which is the Spanish
equivalent of "not-for-profit corporation.") CELIAC is dedicated to
publishing books in indigenous languages and to training native
peoples throughout Latin America in the use of computers to save
native languages. As a not-for-profit corporation, CELIAC can
compete for publishing contracts and for grants.

We've been fortunate in having the support of the Jessie Ball du
Pont Foundation of Jacksonville, Florida these past three years and
they are considering our latest proposal for further support of
CELIAC. Now, however, the project has entered a new phase and we
are trying to raise enough money for CELIAC build its own
headquarters. We are making proposals for support of operating
funds for the next three years, but our goal is to make CELIAC
self-sufficient. The indigenous-language publishing venture may
always require some subvention, but CELIAC will have some revenues
from books and from the training programs they offer on how to use
computers to write and print native-language books. I think that
CELIAC can approach self-sufficiency in a few years - and be a
force for economic development in indigenous communities, too.

Is there are market for books in native languages and in bilingual
editions? At the local, village level, there won't be much of a
market. If there were, then publishing companies would long ago
have exploited it. But there is, I'm convinced, a market for
bilingual editions of native-language books - handsomely produced
books, in English and native languages, with plenty of indigenous

I think that such books will sell to scholars, to university
libraries, and to individuals who want to help support native
efforts at cultural preservation. The books have to be marketed,
but with the help of colleagues from several countries, I believe
that CELIAC, and replications of CELIAC elsewhere, will be
successful. Profits from those books can pay authors for their
efforts, and can support the administrative expenses of a
publishing house and can subsidize the production and distribution
of very-low-cost editions of books at the local level so that
native people can afford to buy the books.

There is movement now, in Mexico and in other countries, to help
indigenous peoples preserve their own languages. This creates a
demand for both popular and educational materials in native
languages. What better organ than an indigenous-language publishing
company to compete for the contracts to produce bilingual education

Training in Native Literacy

During the summer of 1991, and again this year, groups of 12 Aymara
and Quechua speakers from Peru, Bolivia and Chile trained at the
center in Oaxaca. They learned to use computers to write in their
own languages and to produce books in their own language. Both
groups of Andean Indians have been supported by the Instituto
Indigenista Interamericano.

This international use of the Oaxaca center got its first test in
1990 when Dr. Norman Whitten, an anthropologist at the University
of Illinois, sent his long-time friend and colleague, Alfonso
Chango S., a Shwara Indian from Ecuador, to Oaxaca for training.
Chango spent three months in Oaxaca. He produced a major manuscript
in Highland Quichua (Chango is trilingual, Shwara-Quichua-Spanish),
plus the translation in Spanish, all illustrated by his own hand.
Whitten got Chango a computer to use in Ecuador, and the last I
heard, Chango was teaching others to become authors, as well.

So, CELIAC will continue to offer training as one of its services,
along with publication of indigenous-language books. Whitten got
the funds from a small, private foundation to support Alfonso
Chango at the literacy center. I hope that many anthropologists and
linguists and others who work in Latin America will contact CELIAC
about the possibility of sending their native colleagues to train
at the center.

Through CELIAC, and replications of it around the world, we can all
support those native people who want to preserve their language.

 We can donate new and used computers, so that people who are
 trained at CELIAC can take machines back to village schools
 and to village cultural centers.

 We can help support translations of native-language books into
 English so that CELIAC can market the books through
 international channels.

 We can help underwrite the costs of book production,
 particularly the production of small runs of books for village
 schools and for adult literacy training.

 We can help native people from around the Americas get the
 support they need to spend time at CELIAC and to write books
 in native languages.

 We can ask our university libraries to purchase the books that
 CELIAC produces.

The production and sale of books in native languages gives those
languages public legitimacy and reinforces cultural identity.
Cultural identity is a source of economic and political power.
Jes#s Salinas says that a strong language, with a literary
tradition, helps native people develop consensus about what they
need for community development. On the recent broadcast on CNN's
Future Watch about the Oaxaca project, Ronald Gallo, director of
the Jessie Ball du Pont Foundation said that a strong language, and
especially a literary tradition, helps native peoples "come to the
negotiating table as equals."

I'd appreciate any thoughts you have on these matters. And, of
course, I'd welcome suggestions regarding how I might raise further
support for CELIAC and for the world-wide effort we can mount

For more information, write to: Russ Bernard, Dept. of
Anthropology, 1350 Turlington Hall, University of Florida,
Gainesville, FL 32611. Telephone: 904-376-3139 or 2031. Fax: 904-
376-8617. E-mail: UFRUSSNERVM.BITNET
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