Spring 2012


Students, Faculty Create Digital Archive for Lost Language Notebooks

Proftessor Victor Golla and students Nikki Martensen and Brandy Hurtado, foreground, pore over notebooks containing remnants of the extinct Wailaki language.

NOTEBOOKS THAT COULD hold clues to understanding a nearly lost Native American language will be available to scholars in digital format thanks to the work of students and faculty at HSU’s Cultural Resources Facility.

The notebooks contain the work of Chinese linguist Li Fang-Kuei, who came to the North Coast from China by way of the University of Chicago where he earned a graduate degree in linguistics. Li was initially investigating a lead that suggested aboriginal Thai languages shared characteristics with Northern Californian Native American languages—in this case the language of the Wailaki People, who are descendants of the southernmost Athabaskan tribe of Southern Oregon and Northern California. The lead turned out to be a dead end, but it didn’t prevent Li from creating a valuable artifact for today’s scholars.

“If we only had one chance to document the language, we’re very lucky it was Li,” says Victor Golla, professor of Anthropology and an expert on American Indian languages. “He allows us to understand the grammar and not simply vocabulary. That alone puts it heads and shoulders above other sources.”

The delicate, yellowed pages are stored in pH neutral envelopes and handled with special gloves to protect the paper from skin oils.

According to Golla, the language is basically extinct except for re-learners studying the language from notes. The digital archive being created will make these notes available to a new generation of researchers.

The notebooks came to HSU through Golla’s professional connections and will eventually be transferred to a facility with extensive Native American collections. During the documents’ time in Arcata, students including Perry Lincoln and Brandy Hurtado are doing the careful work of transcribing and scanning Li’s documents. Hurtado’s ultimate goal is to preserve the documents, while Lincoln’s aim is to secure revival. “My dream is to have a class teaching whatever we can find,” Lincoln says.

“Documents aren’t the language; they just document it,” Golla says. “But for American Indian languages in general, this collection is very good. People could create a new use—a revitalization—of Wailaki from these notebooks. And that is significant to people, because part of reviving language is redefining who you really are.”