Dr. Ofelia Zepeda speaks on revitalizing indigenous languages



Dr. Ofelia Zepeda’s visit to the college on Thursday, Oct. 3 provided an opportunity for students to learn about the vital work of indigenous language educators during a talk entitled “Indigenous Language Teaching, Revitalization and Maintenance in the International Year of Indigenous Languages.” To begin her talk, Zepeda thanked listeners for their presence in her first language of Tohono O’odham, a Native American language from southwestern United States, before speaking in English for the rest of the presentation. 

Zepeda is the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award and a Regents’ Professor of Linguistics and Native American studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson, not far from the Tohono O’odham lands where she grew up. Associate Professor of Anthropology Marybeth Nevins, who organized the event, introduced Zepeda as “a linguist, a poet, a literary editor, a teacher, a language policy expert and a builder of indigenous language infrastructure.” 

This infrastructure, as Nevins elaborated, includes her authorship of “the only pedagogical grammar of Tohono O’odham, a text that she still teaches regularly.” As an integral scholar in the field of linguistics and Indigenous Language education, Nevins said the Linguistics Program was “deeply honored to have her.” 

This year in particular is important for Zepeda’s field. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) dedicated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL). Zepeda outlined UNESCO’s goals for the year, which, as she stated, are “to raise awareness of indigenous languages, to mobilize stakeholders, to mobilize resources, and to preserve and promote indigenous languages.” 

Zepeda delved specifically into the work being done at the University of Arizona, specifically at the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI), an organization she co-founded in 1978 and continues to direct today. At AILDI, indigenous language educators, linguists, poets and writers develop curricula and skills they then bring back to their communities in order to promote language learning. Zepeda structured her talk around her organization’s work in Arizona, illustrating AILDI’s impact on maintaining the legacy of indigenous languages and meeting the objectives that IYIL set out. 

Language revitalization is a lifetime commitment.”

— Dr. Ofelia Zepeda

To support and promote indigenous languages, for example, her organization provides its students with “culturally relevant” curricula and tools that they themselves design for their own communities, such as a digital mapping program that provides context for certain cultural sites. 

AILDI also recognizes the need for “teachers who carry cultural knowledge with them,” and thus includes indigenous elders as an integral part of instruction. To mobilize resources and stakeholders, Zepeda added that AILDI seeks to understand the needs of each student, recognizing that they come from diverse backgrounds with different language circumstances. 

This diversity in language endangerment was an important nuance that Zepeda discussed, stating that not all language communities are the same or are experiencing the same level of language attrition. She announced that “language revitalization is a lifetime commitment,” often without praise, and that all people, even non-speakers, are an important part of the effort. She ended her speech with a note on the English language, urging listeners to rethink the “role and value” we all place on this language, and to understand that there are other languages in our state, country and world. 

“They’re all here,” Zepeda said, “and they all need to be valued.”