Penn’s Timothy Powell: Forging Partnerships to Promote Native Languages, Culture

Timothy Powell’s ethnographic research has taken him to far reaches of the world to uncover what happens when the cultural stories that Native Americans told anthropologists hundreds of years ago are returned to indigenous communities today.

Powell is a senior lecturer in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Religious Studies, a consulting scholar at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and director of a new initiative at Penn called Educational Partnerships with Indigenous Communities housed at the Penn Language Center.

For EPIC, Powell will build on his current research, working in partnership with community-based language teachers and elders in indigenous communities.

“Native Americans believe that partnerships should be reciprocal,” Powell says. “Reciprocity is a guiding principle in how they govern and do business.”

He says that giving back will be a central philosophy for EPIC.

“Tribes are sending their language teachers to Penn to teach our students,” says Powell. “In return, we are actively engaged in digital repatriation.”

In anthropology, digital repatriation is the process of taking digital scans of artifacts and materials and making these electronic sources available to indigenous communities, which assists them in preserving their language and revitalizing their culture.

Powell oversaw the digital repatriation of Native American material when he worked as the director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society, digitizing manuscripts to return to more than 150 indigenous communities across the Americas.

The Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation on the Pacific coast in the northwestern United States and  southwestern Canada is one of the indigenous communities that Powell has worked with for many years. Its language and government were nearly crushed by colonization in the 1800s.

At the First Nations’ invitation, Powell has attended several Kwakwaka'wakw gift-giving potlaches in Alert Bay, British Columbia. The centuries-old cultural ceremony is marked by feasts, speeches, songs, dances and exchanges of gifts between host clans of elders and chiefs and visiting clans.

He says it is especially gratifying for him to return to the community each year. The journey is arduous: a day-long flight to Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, a full-day car drive from there and then a ferry to the tiny island.

Powell says that the area has a special place in the history of American anthropology. Franz Boas, known as the “father of anthropology” conducted research in the Kwakwaka'wakw community in collaboration with George Hunt, one of the first major indigenous anthropologists. Boas began his research on the Kwakwaka’waka in 1886, a year after the Canadian government banned the potlatch. Since the ceremony serves as the Kwakwaka’wakw’s traditional form of governance, the ban resulted in the fragmentation of the Kwakwaka’wakw into at least 14 separate First Nations. Despite these challenging circumstances, clans continued holding potlach ceremonies until their decriminalization in 1951 and up to the present day.

Boas worked with Hunt, who collected most of the information Boas used in his research. Hunt wrote more than 10,000 pages of manuscript, much of which never got published. Boaz gave his collection of research papers, which includes the Hunt manuscripts, to the APS.

On a visit to Philadelphia, Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Ryan Nicolson met with Powell to look at manuscripts written by Boaz and Hunt that were held in APS archives. Nicolson worked with CNAIR senior archivist Brian Carpenter to select materials from the different Kwakwaka’wakw communities, which were then printed in book form to be distributed at the potlatch.

Four books, each 300-400 pages long, were created. Powell and his team made 250 copies of each book to take to a 2015 Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch. Because the communities had not previously had access to much of this unpublished material, their return has galvanized cultural and language revitalization projects already underway.

Distribution of the books to hereditary chiefs, elders and libraries was overseen by Ryan Nicolson and his wife, Deanna, a direct descendant of George Hunt. At the ceremony, Ryan Nicolson was elevated to the position of hereditary chief.

The potlach was held in a large structure known as the Big House, with the face of a bear emblazoned on it.  A double-headed serpent is inscribed above the bear with a magnificent totem pole standing just to the left of the doorway.

Powell says that Penn is one of the leading programs to put digitization and revitalization together at the intersection of technology and culture.

“We’re at this incredible moment in history where because of digitization it’s very inexpensive to copy these materials, enabling the return of an enormous amount of material to the community. At the same time, communities are going through an unprecedented moment of cultural revitalization,” he says.

What happens when stories anthropologists collected from Native Americans hundreds of years ago come back to the communities? Powell found out recently talking to an elder clan member’s son. He had read a book Powell’s team brought to the potlach.

“I asked him what he enjoyed about the book,” Powell recalls. “He said, ‘I was reading this part about salmon and what I learned was that a hundred years ago we allowed the salmon to breed before we harvested them to eat. Now we kill them as they’re coming upstream, and what you learn is these communities were really good at managing the ecosystem.’”

At Penn, Powell serves on the board of Native American and Indigenous Studies initiative, coordinated by Margaret Bruchac, assistant professor of anthropology.

Penn Museum has a long tradition of working with Native American tribes, and Kwakwaka'wakw materials that are housed in the Museum’s American Section and Archives are available for study by scholars and Native Americans.

Powell says that one of the Native American elders he met in Alert Bay told him, “When the material is in the Museum, it’s sleeping.”                                                                    

By sharing digitized documents with indigenous communities, Powell and scholars at Penn are waking them up so they can return to the communities to enliven traditional knowledge and once again be passed down to future generations.

Chief and Elders