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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

At Brown, Indigenous students are keeping their native languages alive

From Narragansett to Yoruba, students strengthen their knowledge of international Indigenous languages.

Brown University

On a chilly November afternoon, a handful of undergraduate students at Brown University gathered in a cozy, casual lounge to dig into the particulars of the Hawaiian language.

Why, one student asked, does the Hawaiian equivalent of “get in the car” sound more like “get on the car”?

Because, Makana Kushi explained, the phrase was developed to refer to a very different kind of vehicle.

“In Hawaiian, it’s more like ‘getting onto a car’ because it came from the way Hawaiians would talk about launching a canoe on the water,” Kushi said.

Despite a wide range of language courses offered at Brown, Hawaiian isn’t an official class listed in the catalog. Neither is Navajo, Narragansett or Yoruba. Yet during the Fall 2021 semester, 20 students at the University have met weekly to learn one of 10 global Indigenous languages, including those four, for academic credit.

That experience has been made possible by Kushi, a Ph.D. student in American studies and a program coordinator for Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative. This semester, Kushi has served as the advisor for a Departmental Independent Study Project, a mechanism by which Brown undergraduates can initiate, design and execute a course of their own with the help of a faculty member or instructor. 

The project isn’t just allowing Brown’s Indigenous students to deepen connections with their respective ancestral heritages and introducing those from other backgrounds to these languages. It is also helping to keep Indigenous languages, and thus Indigenous cultures, alive at a time when many are under threat.

“Semester after semester, students would come up to me and ask if there was a way for them to study their native languages and get credit for it,” Kushi said. “It’s something a lot of students have tried to do in their spare time for years, only to have classes and social commitments undercut their efforts. They are all interested in preserving these languages for the sake of their communities, and they wanted a way to stay accountable.”

NAISI's expanded space has made it easy for Kushi to play interactive
games with her students — and for NAISI staff and students to
hold meetings, host events, relax and study.
With accountability in mind, all Native Languages Independent Study participants agreed to meet once a week throughout the semester. 

On Wednesdays, Kushi herself teaches Hawaiian to six students taking the independent study for credit and a handful of auditors, leading grammar lessons, conversation practice and interactive games. 

Throughout the rest of the week, other student-led groups gather to study languages such as Lakota, Yoruba, Maya and DinĂ© Bizaad using textbooks, audio resources, dictionaries and other materials. With Kushi’s assistance, the students developed their own syllabi, created weekly assignments and established midterm and end-of-semester goals.

“They created written goals that mirror many introductory and intermediate language classes,” Kushi said. “They would say, ‘Okay, by the end of the first week, I want to know how to introduce myself. By the middle of the semester, I want to be able to write a paragraph. And by the end of the semester, I want to know enough to have a conversation with my grandmother.’”

Kushi said these goals reveal how, for Indigenous students at Brown, the intellectual and the personal are inextricably intertwined. Many see their rigorous coursework and extracurricular activities not just as stepping stones toward a career but also as opportunities for self-discovery. One student taking the independent study, for example, is writing a senior thesis on Indigenous language loss in her community; learning the language not only helps her transcribe interviews with elderly community members but also bolsters the connection with her relatives.

That interconnectedness is reflected in NAISI’s growth on campus, Kushi said.

“You can’t really do Native American and Indigenous studies without cultural and community elements,” Kushi said. “People are sometimes confused to find out NAISI is an academic entity and not a student services organization, because we do so much to support Indigenous students and are starting to engage with the surrounding Indigenous communities. But I think that’s the ethos of Native studies, right? Our educational mission is to serve Native communities in every way — we serve them academically and personally, and we serve them whether they’re at Brown or part of the local Native community whose land Brown occupies.”