Penn partnership preserves and expands endangered Indigenous languages

A new initiative at the Penn Language Center (PLC) has an acronym that is apropos for the size of its mission. Educational Partnerships with Indigenous Communities, or EPIC, seeks to increase the diversity of language education at Penn by expanding the number of Indigenous languages offered at the University. EPIC also aims to preserve endangered languages in Native American communities and the valuable cultural knowledge they encode.

“EPIC and the PLC will be a place to gather teachers from Native American communities, curriculum developers, and scholars from across the humanities,” says PLC Academic Director Christina Frei, a leader in bringing Indigenous language instruction to Penn, most notably the Quechua language classes taught by Américo Mendoza-Mori.

Timothy Powell, a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS), will direct EPIC. He plans to build on his current research, working in close partnership with community-based language teachers and elders in Indigenous communities.

“According to Native-American protocol, partnerships are meant to be reciprocal,” says Powell. “So in this case, the reciprocity is that tribes are sending their language teachers here to Penn to teach our students. In return, we are actively engaged in digital repatriation.”

In anthropology, digital repatriation refers to the process of taking digital scans of artifacts and materials, and making these electronic sources available to Indigenous communities that previously did not have access to them.

For many years, Powell has been involved in digital repatriation projects in partnership with the Tuscarora Nation in New York, the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina, and Ojibwe bands in the United States and Canada.  

EPIC will bring together leading scholars in the field of Indigenous language and cultural revitalization with Indigenous community leaders willing to share stories, songs, ethnographies, and linguistic materials, and scholars at institutions with large holdings of Indigenous archival materials.

On Friday, Feb. 10, Powell, Frei, and Mendoza-Mori will join scholars from Penn and other institutions at EPIC’s panel discussion, “Language Affecting Globalization: How Words Can Change the World,” which will address how the solutions for global challenges benefit from the revitalization of endangered languages. The program will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. at Perry World House, located at 3803 Locust Walk, and will be followed by a reception. The event is free and open to the public.