Librarian in the field: Navajo verb generator project

By Nabil Kashyap

Building on the success of the 2015 SPEED project involving a web-based computer model of Navajo verbs, a team of faculty, staff, and students continued development in the field last summer, working from Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico, on the edge of the Navajo Reservation. As far as I know, this is quite likely the first summer a Swarthmore librarian has ever answered reference emails from a Navajo hogan. Previously, we focused on creating an architecture that took care of foundations so further work on the project could include undergraduate linguistics majors with varying levels of coding experience. Now we were in a position to see if that really was the case, whether such a technically complex project could actually be turned into a meaningful research experience for students.

   The Navajo Reservation is one of three sites around the world, including Micronesia and southern Mexico, set up as part of a three year, NSF-funded initiative to provide linguistics research opportunities for undergraduates. The broader project is being spearheaded by Brooke Lillihagen from Bryn Mawr and Ted Fernald at Swarthmore. Before embarking, Professor Fernald, Linguistics Lab Coordinator Jeremy Fahringer, and I trained six students from around the country during an intense orientation week at Haverford. Our students came from as far afield as Lehigh University to Dine College and had as diverse a set of backgrounds. On site, NTU hosted our group, providing dorm housing and a hogan in which to work; the hogan serves as the administrative offices of the growing Dine Culture and Leadership graduate program.

   Throughout the project, students had access to renowned Navajo linguists and emerging scholars as well as practicing medicine men, contributing to a lively, dynamic sense of the language rather than an inert thing able to be represented by algorithms alone. Weekends involved long (hot) hikes to some of the rich historical sites in the area, including Chaco Canyon and Blanco Canyon, where we had the chance to hear a medicine man narrate petroglyphs and introduce students to Navajo history and contemporary issues. At one point, students had the rare opportunity to participate in a Kinaalda, a coming of age ceremony for girls that involves a blessingway or ritual chanting that lasts through the night.

   I was particularly struck by the level of inter-institutional collaboration. Rather than simply bring together like institutions, this project coordinated organizations and institutions of higher learning that look and run very differently from each other. I was also struck by the possibilities of programming in situ, that place makes a difference even in a highly technical and potentially abstract project, especially important when working with groups with as fraught a history and as contentious a relationship with Western education as the Navajo. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to gather some of these ideas together and present them earlier this summer at Keystone Digital Humanities, hosted this year by University of Pittsburgh. If nothing else, the model is unique in terms of collaboration and in terms of code development. We are looking forward to at least one more summer of development. Beyond that, possible avenues for further work are already to opening up.