Achumawi, a language of the Pit River people in northeastern California, is highly endangered. Its last fluent speakers died in the 1990s, and language revitalization efforts have been hampered by a lack of language resources. A fellowship and two grants from the NEH-NSF Documenting Endangered Languages program have provided funding to compile a linguistic database for Achumawi, an invaluable resource for language revitalization projects now and in the future.
“The reconstitution of Achumawi in present-day circumstances acts as restorative justice and healing of generational trauma in a profound way.”
Linguist Bruce Nevin has worked with Achumawi and the Pit River tribe for more than fifty years. The foundation of the database is fieldwork he did during the 1970s as dissertation research. Another large part is drawn from archival resources, which are currently inaccessible to most Pit River tribal members. In addition to their inaccessibility, the data in these sources is inaccurate: the non-tribal researchers who collected it in the 1880s, 1920s and 1930s often could not differentiate correctly between the language’s different sounds. Making use of this data has required Nevin to reconcile it with his own research, a lengthy process which NEH funding has greatly accelerated. Grant funding gave Nevin the financial resources to hire and train tribal language activists in linguistic methods so that the project will be sustainable in the long-term. The grant has also provided support for tribal members to attend programs such as the University of Oregon’s Northwest Indian Language Institute and to purchase equipment—such as a laminating machine—to create teaching materials. Creating the Achumawi database has yielded important new research that has been presented at the Society for the Study of Indigenous American Languages conference. This research also has the potential to increase scholars’ understanding of ancient Indigenous peoples’ movements: linguists believe that Achumawi’s language family was one of the first to appear in the Americas.
In addition to acting as a linguistic repository, the Achumawi database project has become a source for linguistic revitalization. As knowledge of Achumawi’s morphology grows, Nevin and his tribal partners can create new words—for example, for “hair dye” or “floss.” Gaining command of Achumawi’s creative capacity ensures the language remains alive. For Nevin, the project’s social impacts are difficult to overstate: “The reconstitution of Achumawi in present-day circumstances acts as restorative justice and healing of generational trauma in a profound way.”