Date December 8, 2021
Media Contact

At Brown, Indigenous students are keeping their native languages alive

An independent study project organized through the Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative is enabling students to strengthen their knowledge of international Indigenous languages, from Narragansett to Yoruba.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On a chilly November afternoon, a handful of undergraduate students at Brown University gathered in a cozy, casual lounge to dig into the particulars of the Hawaiian language.

Why, one student asked, does the Hawaiian equivalent of “get in the car” sound more like “get on the car”?

Because, Makana Kushi explained, the phrase was developed to refer to a very different kind of vehicle.

“In Hawaiian, it’s more like ‘getting onto a car’ because it came from the way Hawaiians would talk about launching a canoe on the water,” Kushi said.

Despite a wide range of language courses offered at Brown, Hawaiian isn’t an official class listed in the catalog. Neither is Navajo, Narragansett or Yoruba. Yet during the Fall 2021 semester, 20 students at the University have met weekly to learn one of 10 global Indigenous languages, including those four, for academic credit.

That experience has been made possible by Kushi, a Ph.D. student in American studies and a program coordinator for Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative. This semester, Kushi has served as the advisor for a Departmental Independent Study Project, a mechanism by which Brown undergraduates can initiate, design and execute a course of their own with the help of a faculty member or instructor. 

The project isn’t just allowing Brown’s Indigenous students to deepen connections with their respective ancestral heritages and introducing those from other backgrounds to these languages. It is also helping to keep Indigenous languages, and thus Indigenous cultures, alive at a time when many are under threat.

“Semester after semester, students would come up to me and ask if there was a way for them to study their native languages and get credit for it,” Kushi said. “It’s something a lot of students have tried to do in their spare time for years, only to have classes and social commitments undercut their efforts. They are all interested in preserving these languages for the sake of their communities, and they wanted a way to stay accountable.”

With accountability in mind, all Native Languages Independent Study participants agreed to meet once a week throughout the semester. On Wednesdays, Kushi herself teaches Hawaiian to six students taking the independent study for credit and a handful of auditors, leading grammar lessons, conversation practice and interactive games. Throughout the rest of the week, other student-led groups gather to study languages such as Lakota, Yoruba, Maya and Diné Bizaad using textbooks, audio resources, dictionaries and other materials. With Kushi’s assistance, the students developed their own syllabi, created weekly assignments and established midterm and end-of-semester goals.

“They created written goals that mirror many introductory and intermediate language classes,” Kushi said. “They would say, ‘Okay, by the end of the first week, I want to know how to introduce myself. By the middle of the semester, I want to be able to write a paragraph. And by the end of the semester, I want to know enough to have a conversation with my grandmother.’”

Kushi said these goals reveal how, for Indigenous students at Brown, the intellectual and the personal are inextricably intertwined. Many see their rigorous coursework and extracurricular activities not just as stepping stones toward a career but also as opportunities for self-discovery. One student taking the independent study, for example, is writing a senior thesis on Indigenous language loss in her community; learning the language not only helps her transcribe interviews with elderly community members but also bolsters the connection with her relatives.

That interconnectedness is reflected in NAISI’s growth on campus, Kushi said.

“You can’t really do Native American and Indigenous studies without cultural and community elements,” Kushi said. “People are sometimes confused to find out NAISI is an academic entity and not a student services organization, because we do so much to support Indigenous students and are starting to engage with the surrounding Indigenous communities. But I think that’s the ethos of Native studies, right? Our educational mission is to serve Native communities in every way — we serve them academically and personally, and we serve them whether they’re at Brown or part of the local Native community whose land Brown occupies.”

Having a fixed space that people can rely on and visit anytime reinforces the idea that Indigenous students — and all local Indigenous residents — are valued members of the Brown community.

Rae Gould Executive Director, Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative
headshot of Rae Gould

More space, more support, more community

It’s thanks in large part to NAISI’s recently expanded home at 67 George St. in Providence, Kushi said, that she was able to get the Native Languages Independent Study off the ground.

Before Fall 2021, initiative staff had little office space and a shared meeting room — making it challenging to host talks and events, have staff meetings or hold impromptu community gatherings. These days, Kushi not only has an office but can also choose between two larger spaces for the weekly Hawaiian, Navajo and mixed language classes: a meeting room and a lounge area, both dedicated spaces available to NAISI’s staff and community members.

“I can’t imagine doing this without a guaranteed space — it has made all the difference,” Kushi said. “It’s not just about the fact that I can pop into my office, print out a page of information and hand it to my students instantly. It’s also about having a space that’s warm and welcome, where students feel comfortable to talk openly and be vulnerable.”

NAISI Executive Director Rae Gould said she and her colleagues worked hard to create a welcoming space for students at Brown who are Indigenous or simply interested in Indigenous studies. Along with comfortable furniture and large projector screens that allow for presentations and film screenings, staff stocked the lounge with students’ favorite snacks and teas, an assortment of Indigenous books and art and a few white sage smudge sticks, traditionally used by many Native American and First Nations tribes to purify spaces. The lounge’s bookshelves are filled with study materials for independent study participants, collected from libraries and bookstores across the globe by Kushi and fellow NAISI staff member Sara Wintz: there are rare books, practice CDs, dictionaries and novels written in Indigenous languages.

“We are very excited about the expansion of our space, especially the new community rooms that allow for so much more sharing and conversation,” Gould said. “In addition to the studying and language revitalization classes, the added space has given us the opportunity to host dinners every Wednesday night. Having a fixed space that people can rely on and visit anytime reinforces the idea that Indigenous students — and all local Indigenous residents — are valued members of the Brown community.”

‘Our land has been stolen, but we’ve still got our language’

At a recent Wednesday night dinner, a small group of students and staff had the opportunity to hear how the Native Languages Independent Study has allowed Sherenté and Nkéke Harris, both undergraduates at Brown and members of the Narragansett tribe, to learn more about their heritage, become closer with older relatives and keep their native tongue alive for future generations.

The siblings grew up using basic words and phrases such as “kuwamunush” (“I love you”) and kutapatush (“I thank you”), Sherenté Harris explained. Now, they’re working with their grandmother, Dawn Dove, to expand their basic knowledge of the language by conjugating verbs, making digital vocabulary flashcards and learning how to build words using recurring prefixes and suffixes. 

Studying the roots of the Narragansett language, Sherenté Harris said, yields rich cultural insights about Rhode Island’s Indigenous peoples. Learning the meanings behind local place names — Scituate translates to “at the cold springs”; Misquamicut means “place of red fish” — has helped the Harris siblings conjure images of what Rhode Island might have looked like before European colonization.

“These aren’t just words,” Harris explained. “They’re who we are, deep inside. Our land has been stolen, but we’ve still got our language.”

They’re learning a language, but they’re also learning how to teach a language. ...It’s a very rigorous exercise.”

Makana Kushi Ph.D. student, American studies
Makana Kushi sitting at a desk

Studying Indigenous languages in a formal setting isn’t without its challenges. Most Indigenous languages, Kushi explained, were never traditionally written down — so in some cases, students have had to develop their own spelling systems. Some are so rarely spoken today that no textbooks exist to help students structure their lessons — which means they must create vocabulary quizzes, record speaking exercises and develop original games on their own.

“Students spend a lot of time commiserating and celebrating with each other when they struggle with, or succeed in, facing the unique challenges of learning a Native language,” Kushi said. “They’re learning a language, but they’re also learning how to teach a language. Some of them are reading books like ‘Making Dictionaries’ and ‘How to Keep Your Language Alive: A Commonsense Approach to One-on-One Language Learning.’ It’s a very rigorous exercise.”

Learning Indigenous languages by European means — via textbooks and workbooks — is a somewhat controversial practice, a student at a Wednesday night dinner noted to Dove and the Harris siblings. What did they think, the student asked, about using the Western alphabet to write words in Narragansett, a language that was never meant to be written? 

“There have been times when I thought, ‘Let’s not do that; let’s keep it for us,’” Dove said. “But no longer. The more people it’s available to, the better for us. I so passionately want our language to grow that I think it’s a loss if we don’t use all the tools available to us.”