Wiki for the Indigenous Languages

About this Yaqui/Yoeme WIL by Dr. David Delgado Shorter, Principal Investigator

The idea for this project was born slowly over my years working with Yoeme community members. In the southern communities, I was in conversation with adults and kids who were almost entirely fluent in the Yoem Noki (Yaqui language). In the northern communities, it seemed to me that only a few elders here and there were speaking the language, though some ceremonial participants were trying to use the language whenever possible. I have spent years thinking, "How could I bring these southern and northern people into more conversation?" Traveling across the border is expensive. And crossing the border has become so much more difficult in this post-9/11 world.


In my work with men and women, I learned just how much knowledge they gained about their rituals, their worldviews, and their history by learning just a few words. And as a person committed to helping these indigenous peoples, I also wanted to learn the language. And in just three classes at a community college, I learned first hand how difficult it was to learn Yaqui. We do not have many workbooks and textbooks in the language. The ones I have seen were in Mexico, published by INI (the Mexican equivalent of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs). The spellings of words were heavily Hispanicized. The examples were for cultural events familiar to a Mexican household, not a Yoeme household. And much of the time, people who wanted to learn the language could not find access to learning tools. Teachers could not rely on an accessible archive of worksheets and training materials.


For all of these reasons, I wanted a site that could be an archive of language learning materials, that would entice language learners to come back and work with the language, no matter how much or how little, and that would provide a means for interaction between people of various communities. Perhaps some bonds could form that would lead to meeting face-to-face someday. Perhaps a high school student could devote a little time to learn five Yoeme words a week. Perhaps the language teachers in the communities could come to this site and use it to download worksheets, or direct their students here to complete homework assignments.


With these goals in mind, I started working on a Yoeme/Yaqui proof of concept.  


The Transition from the Original Dictionary (1999) to this Yoeme/Yaqui Language Wiki

Having worked with Yoeme language speaker and deer singer, Felipe Molina, for years, I had known about his work with the linguist Dr. David Shaul. So in 2008, after completing my first book, I sought their opinion about using the materials from their Hippocrene Books, Inc. dictionary "Yoeme-English/English-Yoeme Standard Dictionary (1999). Molina and the Yoeme poet and author, Herminia Valenzuela, had worked hard researching and connecting Dr. Shaul to language speakers. Whenever I was in the pueblos and I used the language as I had learned it from their dictionary, I was mostly met with appreciation for using the correct word and the traditional spellings. I asked Hippocrene Books if I could use the content of their Dictionary for the database of a web-based dictionary. They said that since the book had fallen out of print, the copyright falls to the listed author of the book, which was Dr. Shaul. Dr. Shaul soon after agreed to allow me to use the word list for our original database. Molina and I then added to the database over the next six years. And we hope the users of this site will continue to add to the database, hence why we liked the idea of building this site in a "wiki" approach.


WIL's First Days

In 2009, I received a grant from USC's Institute for Multimedia Literacy, the electronic journal Vectors, and the University of California Humanities Research Institute in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship Program. As a fellow in their 2009 summer institute, I was gifted the opportunity to work with an amazing group of scholars and artists attempting to push the boundaries of the digital humanities. The programmers and developers loved the idea of using an existing user-driven platform, such as WikiMedia, to sustain a dictionary and language revitalization site. Craig Dietrich took the project under his wing and created the initial adaptation of MediaWiki for use in this site. He also developed a tool for processing one set of the Yoeme dictionary from MS-Word format to MediaWiki's MySQL database. With the help of Michael Lynch (Program Manager and Lead Web Developer), we tested the Yaqui/Yoeme site for two years before determining that a Drupal site would offer the same functionality in a user-friendlier format.  Thus bore the current incarnation of the Wiki for Indigenous Languages.