Erin Debenport works with indigenous tribes in the Rio Grande Valley to help preserve their languages. But she has to keep her work a secret.
Debenport, an assistant professor of linguistic and sociocultural anthropology who joined the UCLA faculty in fall 2016, said the tribes she works with are losing their languages because young people are not learning their native language. But the tribes also maintain a strict control over outsiders learning their languages.
Debenport became interested in indigenous languages after reading local articles about the topic when she visited her parents in New Mexico. She learned local indigenous tribes want to teach younger members their languages, but don’t want to publicize them to others because they consider the language sacred.
Members of the Tiwa tribe, which is part of the Pueblo tribes based mainly in the Southwest, reached out to her to ask if she would learn the language and then teach it to their younger generation. Debenport agreed to help develop a writing system for the tribe’s mainly oral language on the condition that she would not publish any research or documents on the language.
She now helps produce dictionaries, databases and curricula to help younger tribal members learn it, she said.
“That would be inappropriate (to publish about the language),” Debenport said. “I’ve made an agreement with all the people I’ve worked with that I will never disclose examples of their language.”
Instead of publishing her linguistic work on the Tiwa tribe, she publishes research on the tribe’s secrecy and indigenous identity. Recently, she released a book titled “Fixing the Books: Secrecy, Literacy, and Perfectibility in Indigenous New Mexico.”
Hannah Carlan, a graduate student in linguistic anthropology, said she thinks Debenport’s commitment to the people she works with makes her a moral academic professional.
“The exact act of not showing the data is in and of itself both an ethical and political move … that shows she puts (the community) before her own interests,” Carlan said.
Debenport said she values her time with the Tiwa tribe and is impressed by the tribe members’ thoughtful approach to the linguistic project, which includes creating the tribe’s own dictionary. She said they carefully edited it even when only a selected few would see it.
She added she was impressed by how the Tiwa celebrated their culture through small details in the dictionary. The tribe members took their time coming up with examples for each word that related to their culture.
“The sentence examples are almost perfect little poems or stories, and people spent so much time working on them to be just right,” Debenport added.
Debenport also works with the Ysleta del Sur tribe, another Pueblo tribe in Texas, whose language also has a decreasing number of speakers. She said after five years of working with them to develop a language curriculum, there are now three more advanced speakers in the tribe who initially barely spoke the language.
Debenport said she feels gratified through her work with indigenous tribes and their languages.
“I feel very honored to have the opportunity to work on this language even though I’m not a tribal member,” she said. “I’m motivated by gratitude and the feeling that if I have a practical skill to share then I should.”
Debenport is currently teaching her first undergraduate lecture at UCLA – Anthropology 33: Culture and Communication. Debenport said this is her first class with 300 students, and she appreciates the linguistic variety that comes with having so many students.
“So many of my students are multilingual,” said Debenport. “And people come from all different parts of the university. So what does it mean to be fluent in medicalese? (And) if I ask if there’s anyone who speaks a language not spoken anywhere near here, there will be someone that speaks it.”
Debenport added she is impressed by her students’ willingness to connect their personal experiences with the class material. She said students share their challenges in code-switching between their home and school language or experiences with language discrimination.
Amanda Jean Bailey, a graduate student in linguistic anthropology, said Debenport is a helpful professor because of how open she is with students about her own research process. Bailey also studies indigenous languages and said Debenport taught her the importance of respecting the community she works with.
“She balances out the academic, theoretical piece with applied benefits for communities and ethics within those communities,” Bailey added.
Carlan said she thinks Debenport goes out of her way to ensure students feel supported.
“She is not a member of my formal committee, but she has gone above and beyond to read my work,” Carlan said. “She was the first person to read my article and give me really detailed feedback. She makes herself available to every student.”
Debenport said she will continue to help preserve indigenous languages while introducing the field of linguistic anthropology to UCLA students.
“I’ve always been a word nerd,” Debenport said.