Bill Cranmer, a gray-haired chief of the 'Namgis people, traveled this month from Canada to Philadelphia, where he found something unexpected:
His father’s handwriting.
In an archive of the American Philosophical Society, a block from Independence Hall, he located his father’s 1930s transcriptions of traditional tribal songs.
“Imagine,” said Cranmer, 78, “seeing his writing. Very special.”
It’s more than personally important, he said. Ancestral songs and writings are crucial to the tribe’s efforts to revive its Kwak’wala language, spoken by fewer than 200 people.
That’s why he came all the way from Vancouver Island.
Despite its Eastern, big-city setting and its distance from the plains and deserts of the West, the American Philosophical Society holds one of the nation’s largest collections for the study of indigenous languages, including examples of endangered and extinct tongues, thousands of pages of anthropological field notes and 130,000 images in formats that range from pencil to photography.
Now, the society is pushing to get digital copies into the hands of tribes that are working to restore traditions, ceremonies, and languages.
Propelled by a $949,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation, the American Philosophical Society wants to create a local intellectual community of visiting native scholars, students, and authors; to hold special conferences here; and to allow those chosen as fellows to travel the land to conduct fieldwork.
“There’s a moment of cultural revitalization that’s sweeping through Indian Country,” said American Philosophical Society librarian Patrick Spero, who oversees collections, programming, and staff. “It seems like this incredible opportunity.”
American Philosophical Society leaders like to say that vanished languages aren’t dead — they’re merely sleeping. And they can be awakened.
The society’s indigenous archive contains information on 270 cultures. Within that are voices captured on everything from wax cylinders to cassette tapes, about 3,200 hours of 162 languages from peoples in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
“It’s really important to provide funding to allow native scholars and others in native communities to explore the material,” said Anna Naruta-Moya, director of the Indigenous Digital Archive at the New Mexico Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, “and great if there can be a way for the institution to receive and incorporate information that tribal people may want to share.”
The American Philosophical Society bills itself as the nation’s first learned society, founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin to “improve the common stock of knowledge” at a time when “the first drudgery of settling new colonies is now pretty well over.”
Members included future founders of the nation, among them George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison. Thomas Jefferson would serve simultaneously as president of the society and president of the United States. As the society grew, its ranks encompassed the top scientists and thinkers of the day, from Charles Darwin to Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein to Robert Frost.
Today, the society's vaults hold treasures that could stock a National Treasure movie: a copy of the U.S. Constitution, marked by Franklin’s hand-written notes and explanations; the original journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition; a letter from pirate Jean Lafitte.
Famous anthropologists such as Franz Boas made the society a repository for papers and recordings. So now, for instance, if someone wants to hear the Karuk language, there are two ways to do it.
One is to travel to tribal lands in northwest California and seek out the 30 or so people who speak the tongue. The other is to visit the American Philosophical Society and pull a recording from its collection.
Some materials include accounts of rituals and ceremonies that have faded — and offer potential footholds for revival.
“If no one speaks your language, then you’re no longer a tribe,” said Andre Cramblit, chairman of the Karuk Tribal Language Restoration Committee, “you’re a historical descendant of a tribe.’”
That’s harsh, he said, but also why the Karuk search for grants to hire language instructors, focusing on teaching the young. They know that an enormous amount of culture is encoded and embedded in language, in the way it describes and explains the world.
“Language,” Cramblit said, “is what makes us who we are.”
According to a 2007 study conducted in Canada, language has a dramatic impact on well-being, particularly in regard to the suicide crisis among native youth. In places where traditional language was spoken — specifically, that more than half the tribe had at least conversational skills — the suicide rate among young people was close to zero.
“Many communities are working very hard and being very innovative in trying to restore the languages,” said Brian Carpenter, the American Philosophical Society curator of Native American materials.
At the heart of the revitalization effort dwells a hard truth: The disappearance of native languages didn’t happen by accident in this country. It was driven by government policies of colonization, assimilation, and extermination.
“The more we can kill this year, the less will have to be killed the next war,” Army Gen. William Sherman wrote in 1868.
As weakened tribes were forced onto reservations, where missionaries pressed them to speak English and accept Christianity, the government sought to annihilate their cultures — moving thousands of native children into boarding schools that stripped them of their religions, customs, and languages.
Only in 1990 did the federal Native American Languages Act declare that American Indians were entitled to speak their own languages. In 2006, the government offered grants for language-immersion programs.
Some tribes have embraced immersion, teaching young people in the expectation that they will one day teach their own children.
In Canada, a government ban on native ceremonies — known as the potlatch prohibition — forbid tribes from sharing ceremonial customs for nearly 70 years, ending only in 1951.
Now traditions are being restored, Cranmer said, with help from examples at the American Philosophical Society.
“It’s very, very valuable,” he said. “We used to say at our ceremonies, ‘What are we going to do when all our old men die?’ Now, through learning the songs through the recordings, we sometimes don’t have room for all the singers.”