The Northwest Indigenous Language Institute (NILI) at the University of Oregon began in the 1990s as a way to help with Indigenous language revitalization in the Pacific Northwest by training tribal members in language instruction. What began as a two-week-long summer institute developed in collaboration with tribal members has expanded into a year-round program that has had a profound effect both on tribal communities and the university itself. Thanks to a 2020 pandemic relief grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, NILI created a series of online courses that attracted participants from around the world, helping to foster a global community of people devoted to language revitalization.
Despite its year-round course schedule, the heart of NILI remains its summer institute. When it became clear in 2020 that, for safety reasons, the institute would not be able to move forward in person, NILI decided to reconceptualize the program as a virtual event. Staff saw the move as an opportunity to do things a bit differently and worked with tribal members to develop a tuition-free pilot program that took advantage of the general public’s increased willingness to participate in synchronous online programming. The program was a resounding success: 450 people registered from all over the world, and its live component allowed participants to develop a real community around their shared goals of revitalizing endangered languages. “It’s such a benefit to know that other people are also doing this work,” said Dr. Joana Jansen, associate director of project development and coordination. “It really helps language revitalization practitioners to know we’re not working in isolation.” Though they hope to return to in-person courses as soon as possible, the pilot program’s success has prompted NILI to move towards developing a permanent slate of online courses directed at a global audience to complement their Pacific Northwest-focused summer institute.
Since its inception, NILI has helped bridge the longstanding divides between academia and Indigenous people. The NEH’s support has furthered this process. For example, NILI has been able to develop new online courses in conjunction with Indigenous language experts because NEH funding gave NILI the financial means to compensate them. In addition, the national recognition that comes with an NEH grant has given the program a level of prestige that helps collaborators show their tribal governments that the work of language revitalization is important and that it should be a priority.