The American Philosophical Society has been collecting and working to preserve Native American languages since the time of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson collected a word list of the Unkechaug language on Long Island, a language that Jefferson believed to be on the brink of extinction. In 2010, the Unkechaug contacted the APS and requested a copy of the vocabulary list in order to begin the process of revitalizing their language. It is this long and proud heritage of preservation, partnership, and revitalization that this digital exhibit celebrates.
The APS is currently in the process of digitizing and extensively cataloging over 3000 hours of endangered Native American languages. These recordings include music, origin stories, historical accounts, linguistic material, and conversations with elders in both English and indigenous languages. Many of these recordings were originally made on obsolete technology such as wax cylinders, wire, or aluminum discs. The concept of revitalization thus applies not only to saving Native languages from extinction, but making the work of distinguished anthropologists available to modern day scholars and students.
This exhibit features 34 audio clips from 11 different Native American cultures that represent the diversity of the collection, the APS’s commitment to working with indigenous communities to preserve endangered languages, and the distinguished linguists and anthropologists who have generously donated their papers to the Society. Our hope is that these samples and the stories that accompany them will encourage library patrons to visit the APS, where the entire collection will be made available.