‘I wanted to learn first-hand'

12 Jan, 2023
Photo (from left) Tania Smith-Henderson, Dr Richard Henne-Ochoa and Professor Tania Ka’ai of Te Ipukarea Research Institute.

Dr Richard Henne-Ochoa is director of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University, Bloomington. There, he has developed a programme of research that focuses on Indigenous ways of communicating and language reclamation/revitalisation. Dr Henne-Ochoa recently spent time in Aotearoa with the team at AUT’s Te Ipukarea Research Institute, which is home to Te Whare o Rongomaurikura, the Centre for Language Revitalisation. We spoke to him about his own work, and what he hoped to take home with him from his visit to AUT.

Where did your interest in language revitalisation begin?

I came to my work on language revitalisation decades ago when I was spending time on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which is home to the Oglala Lakota people.

When I was there, I heard elders speaking Lakota to each other - they would converse totally in Lakota. But when I heard them speak Lakota to kids, the kids would always reply in English. This was the first time I'd ever thought about the idea of a language becoming dormant. The folks at Pine Ridge told me they were losing their language, that they were worried that it might no longer be spoken by any generation. They were trying to revitalise it, relying mostly on their schools to teach Lakota as a second language.

I lived on the reservation for a couple of years, learning what the sociolinguistic situation was, how people were responding to it, and the kinds of school-based programmes they had. I was trying to understand why, despite widespread interest among people of just about every generation in revitalising the language, there was little in the way of corresponding behaviour that would lead to revitalisation.

At many of the schools I visited, there was little time spent on the language. At one school, for example, it was twice a week for 10 minutes each time, so a total of 20 minutes per week, with one Lakota teacher and classes of 20 to 30. Also, the curriculum was not necessarily sequenced to allow language proficiency to develop from year to year.

During that time at Pine Ridge, I didn’t learn anything about the language that the Lakota people didn’t already know. But I hoped one day I would be able to give something back.

Which brings us to the present day and your role as Director of the American Indian Studies Research Institute at Indiana University, Bloomington…

That’s right. So now, after many years of research on language use and language revitalisation among Native American groups, I have come to the point where, through the Institute, I have access to resources that are useful to these communities.

One of the things we're doing is digitising a massive collection of linguistic, cultural, and historical data that we're going to, of course, provide to Lakota communities. We also have material that's related to the Pawnee people, the Arikara people and some other tribes.

I'm also involved with an organisation on Pine Ridge reservation, called the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, which is working to reimagine education so that it fits within a Lakota framework and Lakota philosophy.

I’m also working with Thunder Valley on a grant proposal to document Lakota ways of communicating. Lakota language is well documented as far as the grammar and lexicon, and there are many dictionaries of Lakota. But video recordings of the language being used in everyday practice are lacking, so they're interested in partnering with the Institute to document Lakota language use in everyday practice.

How is video useful, as opposed to a dictionary?

Think about how your own language takes on different forms and functions and how words can have different meanings. For example, there may be different ways of approaching and greeting an elder, delivering a formal speech, or consoling the bereaved.

By recording all these different functions and forms of language on video, a community can develop a taxonomy of their own ways of communicating. This video can then be to help language revitalisation efforts so that they are staying within their ancestral ways of communicating as much as possible.

The communities with whom we're working, and I assume this is true with many indigenous groups around the world, are not just interested in having the words themselves spoken. They want to sustain and revitalise the culture. Because language and culture are inseparable - cultural meaning is attached to the ways a language gets used - therein lies the need for the retention, revitalisation, and reclamation of these ways of communicating.

For example, in the Lakota way, one listens to an elder giving you words of wisdom by looking down towards the ground, bowing your head a little bit to indicate you're being a good listener to those words of wisdom. That is a way of listening that may not be unique completely to the Lakota, but it is one of those ways of listening that it's meaning in Lakota society still is ... you're showing respect and respect is very much a strong cultural value.

What brought you to AUT earlier this year?

I know that Māori are among the world's leaders in language revitalisation, and I wanted to learn first-hand what Māori people were doing to revitalise the language.

I'm also involved with a reimagining of what Native and Indigenous studies looks like at Indiana University. Everything from the kind of research it does, to the kinds of courses it offers... A major part of that is strengthening our partnerships with tribal groups we've worked with in the past and building new relationships with other Native communities - particularly those who were removed from the land on which Indiana University sits.

Another reason for going to AUT was to learn what is being done to bring Māori into the university, to learn about the kind of ‘indigenisation’ of the university, and to take some of what's been done and try to adapt it for use at Indiana University.

What specifics do you hope to adapt and use back in Indiana?

One is the development of a pipeline of scholars from students to faculty - from community members involved in language revitalisation becoming students, to getting terminal degrees like a PhD and being engaged in Māori studies at AUT, either as faculty members or as allies and partners.

The other thing that overlaps is that those partnerships and research projects at AUT are of value to the communities themselves. Often in the United States, and perhaps other parts of the world, research has been done on native and indigenous people rather than with them.

I am extremely grateful to have experienced the manaaki of the Te Ipukarea whānau. The folks at AUT took me in, welcomed me and displayed such wonderful hospitality. I know that Tania might say, ‘That's just what we do.’ But it was an honour for me to see what they do and to get to know them. An honour and a privilege.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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