In the “tri-culture” of Santa Fe, it’s well known that neither English nor Spanish is the indigenous language, but in other areas of the United States, where American Indians suffered far more displacement, many contemporary residents are unaware that indigenous languages are spoken every day in private homes as well as through local place names that have been incorporated into the dominant culture. For instance, Wissahickon is a Lenape Indian word for the “catfish stream” that runs through Philadelphia, and the Mississippi River’s name is the Anglicized pronunciation of the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi, which means “Great River.”
“Whenever I give a public lecture in the United States,” Harrison said, “I ask if they know what the local indigenous language is of the place we’re sitting in. Most of the time, people don’t know what the indigenous language prior to colonization was.”
In Tuva, a tiny state in Mongolia, local rivers are so integral to the language that in order to say “go,” you must specify whether you mean upstream, downstream, or across from the closest river. Tuvans are yak herders and, like the reindeer-herding Tofa, have terminology specific to yaks, including genetic information used for breeding, such as color, body pattern, head marking, and personality. Tuvans, best known globally for their throat-singing, also sing to their yaks — not as entertainment but as a timeproven method of domestication.
“Living with Tuvans,” Harrison writes, “I learned that languages thus come to reflect local geography, not only in their vocabulary but also in more deeply structural ways, in their grammar. This knowledge is often accumulated over many centuries, and so geographic terms can represent an ancient layer of cultural knowledge encoded in a language.”
Harrison recently came to Santa Fe with the Endangered Voices Project to partner with the Indigenous Languages Institute on a workshop for activists from language hotspots around the globe; participants received advanced training on how to revitalize languages. Though he’s not an expert on