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Last modified: Tuesday, September 15, 2009

With only 50 speakers left, tribe's language to be preserved by team of IU anthropologists

Sept. 15, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The National Endowment for the Humanities' "We the People" project has awarded a group of Indiana University anthropologists $250,000 to transcribe, translate and publish the oral literature of the Assiniboine, a northern Plains Indian tribe with only about 50 living members still fluent in the tribal language of Nakota.

Linda Cumberland and Bertha O'Watch

Linda Cumberland, a former Ph.D. student in IU Anthropology who is now a research associate and linquistic anthropologist with IU's American Indian Studies Research Institute, is shown at right with 95-year-old Bertha O'Watch of Carry The Kettle Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada. O'Watch is one of about 50 remaining fluent speakers of the Assiniboine tribe's Nakota language.

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Raymond DeMallie and Douglas Parks, anthropology professors in the IU College of Arts and Sciences and co-directors of the American Indian Studies Research Institute (AISRI), along with former IU anthropology doctoral student and AISRI research associate Linda Cumberland, will publish two volumes of oral histories collected from Assiniboine tribal members, some of which DeMallie recorded during interviews conducted nearly 25 years ago. Also assisting will be native Assiniboine scholar Tom Shawl of Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. The team also will publish a dictionary of the language.

Preserving the linguistic history of the Assiniboine is important because anthropologists have long neglected the tribe since they were believed -- incorrectly -- to be closely related to another Plains Indian tribe, the well documented Sioux. Moreover, the Assiniboines have long been misidentified with the Stoneys of Alberta, Canada, a First Nation tribe whose language actually differs from Assiniboine more than Assiniboine does from Sioux, DeMallie explained.

"There is a double mistaken identity that has affected the Assiniboines," he said. "In the U.S. they have been conflated with the Sioux, and in Canada they have been conflated with the Stoneys."

The project will be carried out at AISRI in Bloomington and in Assiniboine communities at Fort Belknap Reservation and Carry The Kettle Reserve in Saskatchewan using DeMallie's transcriptions of the texts made in the field in the 1980s and from newer recordings made by Cumberland in Canada.

The team will analyze the sound-recorded texts using Sound Forge, a digital audio editing program that allows for the selection of any size chunk of sound to be visually represented in wave form. This provides flexibility in the field to play and replay difficult passages for consultants, and results in more precise and accurate transcriptions and translations than is possible with audiotape alone.

For much of the 20th Century, scholars assumed that the Assiniboines were so similar to the Sioux that there was no need to record their language and culture in more than a cursory way. But anthropologists have since learned the tribal language of Nakota and its oral traditions varied because of influences not related to the Sioux.

More northern in location than the Sioux, the Assiniboine were influenced through intermarriages with the Cree tribe, and French and Canadian fur traders, all of which influenced oral tradition.

"Through intermarriage with Crees many elements of Cree oral tradition were introduced into Assiniboine oral literature," DeMallie said. "And at the same time the Assiniboines intermarried with French and Canadian fur traders and their mixed-blood descendants, and the result is that elements of European folktales found their way into Assiniboine stories as well."

Among Plains tribes the Assiniboine were one of the poorest in numbers of horses, and instead, maintained pre-horse hunting techniques like communal buffalo drives longer than most tribes. This lack of adaptation to horses is one reason anthropologists think they can learn a great deal about very old survival strategies on the Plains through collecting and preserving the oral histories.

"Although linguistically related to the better-known Sioux, the Assiniboines separated from the Sioux over 400 years ago, subsequently developing distinct linguistic and cultural forms," DeMallie said. "And while the Assiniboines were one of the most populous tribes on the northern Plains, their oral traditions by accidents of history are under-represented in the anthropological, historical and literary record. The few Nakota texts available in published sources and archives are of variable linguistic quality and there are no book-length collections."

The researchers expect the volumes to be completed in two years.

To speak with DeMallie, Park or Cumberland, please contact Steve Chaplin, University Communications, at 812-856-1896 or