For American Indian Professor, Linguistics and Activism Intersect

Grant will fund groundbreaking Native American language workshop

Wesley Leonard

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — As a citizen of the 5,000-member Miami Tribe of Oklahoma with a Ph.D. in linguistics, Wesley Leonard straddles two worlds.

Leonard, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, is one of just eight American Indian or Alaska Native academics to have earned a linguistics Ph.D. in the United States between 2004 and 2014. His pursuit of the degree was a decision inspired by witnessing the revival of his own tribal nation’s language, myaamia, which had fallen out of popular usage decades earlier.

Driven by the community rather than externally motivated, myaamia’s revitalization was the subject of Leonard’s dissertation. Since then he has been involved in several projects that have awakened “sleeping” languages once mistakenly believed to be obsolete because they lacked fluent speakers.

Across North America, such efforts are part of a larger movement to reclaim tribal languages that were actively suppressed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Leonard’s latest challenge: bridging the gap between community-based language reclamation efforts and the academic discipline of linguistics, an arena in which Native Americans are sorely underrepresented.

Funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Leonard will host a workshop, “Expanding Linguistic Science by Broadening Native American Participation,” in Salt Lake City in January.

The competitive, application-only workshop—open to participants who have demonstrated significant leadership or activity in community language programs—will precede the 92nd annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), also held in Salt Lake City the weekend of Jan. 4-7.

As part of the experience, participants will attend…