Americanist Linguistics: on Ethics and Intent

October 17, 2023

Americanist Linguistics: on Ethics and Intent

“Americanist linguistics” refers to the study of the indigenous languages of the Americas. These languages range from the Eskaleut languages of Alaska and northern Canada, to the Siouan languages of the Great Plains, to the Chonan languages of Tierra del Fuego in the extreme south of Argentina and Chile. Almost 300 distinct languages were spoken north of the Rio Grande in Texas before European colonization (Mithun 1998); nearly a third of North American languages were spoken in the region now known as California (Golla 2011). These languages were and continue to be spoken by people just as diverse as their speech.

After four hundred years of colonialism, including cultural and physical genocide, indigenous people are still here and continue to be resilient. Yet speakers for many US indigenous languages are increasingly elderly or passed on – no accident, after the American “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” boarding school policies of the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, designed to eradicate native language and culture in Native children. In many cases, native groups who wish to revitalize the languages lost to these policies have only recordings made by non-Native linguists to turn to – the same linguists who often made and continue to make their careers from studying indigenous American languages, myself included. Americanist linguistics have been intertwined with the settler-colonial establishment since its own beginning. As linguists grapple with this foundational fact of the field, how should Americanist linguistics – in this case, Californianist linguistics – move into the future? To understand this, we must grapple with the origin of the linguistic study of indigenous American languages, as well as its inextricable ties to settler-colonialism.

Early Days

The first written attestations of a native California language come from a report from Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, commissioned in 1542 by the viceroy of New Spain to sail an expedition up the California coast. This report contained place names in Chumash, spoken from current-day San Luis Obispo to Malibu. First attempts to describe native Californian languages in detail followed in the wake of Spanish Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries, including Franciscan father Juan Crespí’s 1769 documentation of Juaneño, in present-day Orange and San Diego Counties (Kelsey 1986). The Spanish mission system was a lynchpin of Spanish imperialism, with missions built at the edge of empire in order to convert indigenous populations to Catholicism and bind their labor to Spanish control. The first detailed indigenous documentation came from this contact. Franciscans such as Crespí were interested in documenting these languages primarily to convert their speakers to Catholicism, including through Bible translation. Many of the best (or only) preserved corpora of indigenous American languages are found in Biblical translations done in this manner. This can represent a unique loss for indigenous groups wishing to bring back these languages into native use. While these sources can be an important part of revitalization, religious corpora usually do not reflect native values, ways of thinking, or ways of speaking. Is it useful for language revitalization practitioners to know how to say sin and salvation, but not how to greet one another?

The 20th Century 

In the more recent past, we have the troubled early 20th century legacy of Berkeley professor and anthropologist A. L. Kroeber. In many ways, Kroeber was progressive; for instance, he argued against the then-accepted belief that cultures linearly “evolve”, as from the “primitive” cultures of native America to the “pinnacle of civilization” represented by the West. He and his students documented many native Californian languages, culminating in the classic Handbook of the Indians of California (Kroeber 1925), which is still a definitive reference on the subject. At the same time, Kroeber’s testimony that the Muwekma Ohlone were “extinct for all practical purposes” resulted in the US government rescinding their land and tribal status, leaving the Muwekma Ohlone landless to this day.

Nor is modern linguistics free from missionary influence – for instance, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, now called SIL International, is an evangelical Christian organization responsible for many tools that are part of the standard toolkit for academic linguists, such as the linguistic database Ethnologue (Eberhard 2023) and the research tool FLeX (Fieldworks Language eXplorer). SIL’s stated goal is to promote “Bible translation, literacy, education, development, linguistic research and language tools”, and their involvement in the documentation of endangered and under-resourced languages hinges on this central mission of evangelism. Much like the legacy of Spanish missions in California, the SIL’s religious goals are often intertwined with state imperialism. For instance, from 1935-1985, Mexico permitted the SIL to go into indigenous communities to develop writing systems and curricula, with the goal of bringing these native communities in line with mainstream colonialist Mexican culture (Hartch 2009). While there, the SIL also took part in Biblical translation and conversion, causing political and religious fractures in many communities.

On the Future

The legacy of Kroeber and SIL is the legacy of linguistics. Until very recently (and by no means fully eradicated), linguistic research was conducted as an entirely extractive practice – particularly with regards to indigenous languages. After recording notes and audio, linguists would simply return to their institution, share and distribute the language material they collected as they wished, and reap the professional benefits. Work was rarely given back to the community from which it was collected, or collected with community desires in mind. Community members would have no ownership or control over the recordings, and often faced immense struggles trying to access them.
I am a linguist who works in native Californian language revitalization with languages that no longer have native speakers. All documentation is archival, and not extensively documented; each resource is precious. However, these resources are not just filled with inconsistencies, as expected when documenting a language over the course of almost two centuries. They are also filled with colonialist assumptions – from ethnographies that describe native lands as “habitat”, to the assumption that native Californian languages must have words such as please and thank you, in the manner of Western languages. It is hard to avoid working with SIL software, and impossible to avoid working with problematic language documentation. Despite the harm it can cause for language revitalization practitioners to read some of these texts, they cannot be ignored – they contain the only documentation that survives of the language; if we wish to bring them back, we still have to use the information they contain. How can we do so while upholding the dignity and sovereignty of the tribes wishing to revitalize these languages?

In my own work – as a linguist and a linguistic consultant for two Californian tribes – I have tried to follow these guidelines. I first met the first of the two tribes I work with through Breath of Life, a biannual gathering that pairs Californian indigenous groups wishing to revitalize their languages with linguists who help them navigate archival materials kept at the California Language Archives at Berkeley, an archive managed by my own linguistics department. After collaborating with the group, I offered my help if they wished for it in the future, and after which they reached out to me. I’ve worked as a linguistic consultant for this tribe for three years now, as well as with another Californian tribe that reached out to me through our connections at Breath of Life. I have signed contracts with both tribes stating what I am and am not allowed to work on, and always run research by the appropriate people before beginning to conduct it. Through letting these indigenous groups come to me rather than going to them, and letting them state the terms of my involvement, I’ve hoped to cultivate a working relationship where I am an invited guest rather than an interloper. I do not claim to know any answers. However, I do know that after four centuries of extractionist, settler-colonial linguistic practice, linguists and other outsiders must work with indigenous languages on the terms of the communities they belong to. This includes allowing those communities to set the parameters, limits, and terms of your work – and making sure your work can benefit these communities. It includes being a listener and a supporter, even in “your” research, to how indigenous communities wish to uphold and celebrate their languages, culture, and survival.


  1. Golla, Victor. (2011). Californian Indian Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  2. Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2023. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-sixth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:

  3. Hartch, Todd. (2006). Missionaries of the State: The Summer Institute of Linguistics, State Formation, and Indigenous Mexico, 1935-1985. University of Alabama Press.

  4. Kelsey, Harry. (1986). Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library.

  5. Kroeber, A.L. (1925). Handbook of The Indians of California. BAE-B 76.

  6. Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.