Native Knowledge

Working with 22 federally recognized tribes in Arizona

Lori Harwood, Jacob Chinn photo

Photo above: Photo: Visiting educator Shelly Gibson (left) and linguistic graduate student A. Joyce Hughes (right), works with Ofelia Zepeda at this summer’s American Indian Language Development Institute. 

American Indian languages are in peril. When Europeans arrived in North America, approximately 300 American Indian languages were spoken. Today, about 100 are still spoken and only a few, such as Navajo and Tohono O’odham, are being learned by children in the home, often in more remote regions of the reservations. But even in such communities, the number of children who can speak these languages is dropping rapidly. 

The Department of Linguistics in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, which developed the first master’s program in Native American language and linguistics in the country, is on the forefront of language revitalization. 

Ofelia Zepeda, a Regents’ professor of linguistics and interim head of American Indian Studies, is widely recognized for her efforts in preserving her native language, Tohono O’odham. One of Zepeda’s books, “A Tohono O’odham Grammar,” is the standard textbook used to teach the language. Zepeda, who received a MacArthur “genius” award for her work on indigenous languages, is also an award-winning poet, blending O’odham and English in her literary work. 

Zepeda is co-founder and director of the UA American Indian Language Development Institute, an annual summer institute for educators working with American Indian students. Educators learn about language teaching methods and developing instructional materials. 

The UA is also the first university in Arizona to offer a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in American Indian Studies — also housed in the College of SBS. As part of the UA’s 100 percent engagement initiative, the undergraduate program provides students with internship opportunities at tribal colleges, at schools serving reservation communities, or at social and health agencies, either tribal or private, throughout Arizona and the Southwest. 

”I think an AIS major is a great step forward,” says Dwayne Pierce, a junior who is completing an anthropology major with a minor in history and American Indian Studies. “I plan on earning my master’s degree and teaching on the Tohono O’odham Reservation or at a local high school the subject of history, in particular, southern Arizona’s Indigenous history, to bring awareness of the rich history of the peoples of this land.”