The Tufts University Chaplaincy held its annual Russell Lecture on Spiritual Life on March 7, with a lecture by Ofelia Zepeda, a 2021 Tufts honorary degree recipient. Zepeda, a poet and scholar, lectured on the intersection of language and spirituality, and the role of poetry in reviving indigenous languages.
The event, co-hosted by the Indigenous Center, began with opening remarks from University President Anthony Monaco. He briefly spoke about the history of the Russell Lectureship and remarked on the relevance of Dr. Zepeda’s work in poetry in today’s age.
“[Zepeda] reveals how poetry can be powerful — a powerful tool in humanizing and deepening our understanding of the complex issues of our time — from climate change, to forced displacement, to the stigmatization and attempted erasure of various cultures and identities,” Monaco said. “I hope that this lecture will continue to inspire you to have a renewed appreciation for the diverse languages, cultures and communities that strengthen us and make us unique, both within our university and in the wider world.”
Zepeda is a co-founder and director of the American Indian Language Development Institute at the University of Arizona. She is a Regents Professor at the university, and teaches in the linguistics and American Indian studies departments. Her research and literary work — authored in both English and Tohono O’odham, her native language — crosscut various disciplines of language study, and are significantly geared toward revitalizing Indigenous languages.
As an activist, Zepeda played a key role in the enactment of the Native American Languages Act of 1990, a federal policy that, among other provisions, allows use of the Native American languages as medium of instruction in schools.
After giving the audience a brief history and geographical perspective of her tribal nation, the Tohono O’odham Nation, with its main reservation located six miles west of Tucson, Ariz., Zepeda talked about the sacredness of languages, as believed by people of different tribes. Zepeda noted that in many Indigenous traditions, including those of the Tohono O’odham tribe, language is a gift from the Creator, which comes with the responsibility to monitor how it is shared.
“You cannot share the language with outsiders,” Zepeda explained. “Sometimes you cannot share certain aspects of the language with certain populations, within your own tribe. There are certain things that children should not have access to … certain types of language that women cannot have access to, there’s certain types of knowledge that only medicine people and traditional leaders have access to. If you’re not one of those, you cannot use that.”
Reflecting on her work with language teachers and other professionals involved in safeguarding Indigenous languages, she highlighted different attitudes that she has noticed, sharing a poem she wrote about these experiences.
“Some have carried it, held it close, protected,” Zepeda read. “Others have pulled it along like a reluctant child. Still others have waved it like a flag, a signal to others, and some have filled it with rage and dare others to come close. And there are those who find their language a burdensome shackle. They continually pick at the lock.”
Zepeda’s poem highlights that while some teachers have taken their native language as a gift and dedicated themselves to passing the gift to the young generation, it is a burden to be responsible for teaching the language and some choose not to out of anger. She said many of those who do not are the survivors of terrible and traumatic experiences, including boarding schools, in the recent past when the government actively sought to eliminate Indigenous identities.
She also noted that some Indigenous people show unwavering commitment to learning their native languages for the sole reason that they pray in them.
Some of the most challenging obstacles to revitalization of Indigenous languages are rooted in the nature of the languages themselves.
“Indigenous language also has literature; for the most part … our traditional literature is passed down orally,” Zepeda explained.
As such, there is not a large amount of written documentation of this literature. Many tribes also have storytelling protocols that need to be observed, so appropriate opportunities to share this literature can be rare.
One example is having to wait for a certain season before using some stories in teaching.
“For my tribe you can tell stories of the wintertime only when the weather is cold,” Zepeda said. “But the weather changes, and it’s hot? You can’t tell those stories. … So that is an unusual restriction placed on traditional stories.”
Nevertheless, Zepeda finds joy in circumventing some of these challenges she faces in her work.
“We’ve been creating new literature, literature that was not restricted to seasonal challenges,” she said. “It’s been an interesting experience and … a sort of battle to be in, to maintain a language, to revive a language, and making decisions about what this language is going to look like.”
Poetry is a key tool to make a language more accessible, according to Zepeda. In her writing, she seeks to make her poems accessible to learners and flexible enough to allow people to use them however they choose, while still containing salient knowledge and wisdom.
“Poetry is a safe way, I think, for language learners to access the language,” Zepeda said. “They not only access words and vocabulary and so forth. They also access certain cultural knowledge, traditional knowledge, that is held in the language.”
The lecture was followed by a Q&A session moderated by Vernon Miller, director of the Tufts Indigenous Center.
A student asked if there are helpful strategies to help in the work of revitalizing Indigenous languages, given the colonial history of violence and opposing governmental policies. Zepeda provided a passionate response that touched on the real experiences of some tribes who have dealt with the agonizing feelings of helplessly watching their languages become extinct.
“People gather and they give testimony about their own language,” Dr. Zepeda recounted. “And inevitably, people just cry. There was nothing else they could do but cry, cry for the language, for themselves, for their past, because their past is what put them here. Not just their own people’s past but the past, in this case, of being part of American history.”
Zepeda understands language revitalization as an emotionally taxing task that needs effective planning and collaboration.
“It’s too big of a task,” Zepeda said. “The language moved over years, hundreds of years, to get to this point and now it’s almost gone. How in the world are we gonna ever fix it or do something about it? And it is overwhelming, just too overwhelming for a human being.”
Preeta Banerjee, Tufts’ Hindu Chaplain, offered closing remarks, encouraging the audience to form deeper relationships with their languages.
“May we all learn to use our language, whether English or Indigenous or otherwise, to communicate and connect to each other, to inspire our life journeys as Dr. Zepeda has done today,” Banerjee said.