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Grant of $206,500 awarded to study Native American traditions

Sonya Atalay, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, recently received a $206,500 New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to study Native American language and traditions. Her research, which will extend over the next year and a half, focuses on the learning and revitalization of the Ojibwe language, her native language as a member of the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe community.

Atalay teaches indigenous archaeology courses and classes surrounding indigenous issues within anthropology at the University. One class she offers, Bizarre Foods, aims to teach food as a cultural concept and its “bizarreness” as a social construction.

“But mostly my real passion in a lot of the courses I teach is about community-based research,” Atalay said. She described this concept as, “trying to think about how we change the way we do research.”

“Instead of studying tribal people, we develop research projects with them and we do research together with communities and think of them as partners, not sources of knowledge that we go and extract things from and publish,” she said.

Atalay sees her work in the anthropology department as working with other colleagues in the department and nationally to improve the way archaeology and anthropology is practiced to our research efforts, to improve our ethical guidelines and make the work more useful to communities.

Atalay is looking for ways to incorporate new methods to her research and teaching in order to teach students how to work effectively in partnership with indigenous and local communities as well.

Ultimately, her research involves “creating universities that are places that are friendly not just to native people, but to all people and their concerns.”

In the past, Atalay has heard people voice concern with research as an exploitative process and realized, instead, it can be used as a “tool.”

“We can figure out ways to do it differently, that’s really helping people, that we see community members as valued partners with valuable knowledge and experiences – we learn a great deal together and from each other,” she said.

Atalay’s experience in the past led her to follow this path of community-based research, finding herself at UMass.

“I felt like coming here, I literally had a community of people both within the anthropology department and the wider campus who were involved in doing research this way and exploring the challenges and benefits of community-based research,” she said.

She said she has seen these efforts to do research in partnership with communities at work within the administration, graduate students and even undergraduate students. According to Atalay, the University is a “home for exactly this kind of research and I see UMass as being a real leader in pushing forward engaged and activist scholarship.”

In order to learn the Ojibwe language, Atalay has brought Howard Kimewon to the University as a lecturer, through part of her Mellon grant. As a first-language speaker of Anishinaabemowin, Kimewon has been teaching this fall at the university and will be teaching at both UMass and Amherst College in the spring.

“I needed to learn my language and I need to learn it really well,” Atalay said. Instead of going to a language camp or an intensive three-week language program, Atalay felt she should learn the language from someone whose first language is Ojibwe. For its first time offered at the University, the Ojibwe language class has 10 students enrolled, something that is “really inspiring and exciting,” according to Atalay.

Another part of the grant allows Kimewon to work on a birch bark canoe, a tradition in northern New England Native American culture. This canoe, which will go into the Connecticut River, serves as another opportunity for students to participate in Native American traditions.

“The tribes in this region speak a related language; they speak an Algonquian-based language which is similar to our Ojibwe language so we’re hoping that we’d be able to continue offering Ojibwe language classes, and in fact grow the offerings so this can become a center for Algonquian language revitalization,” Atalay said.

Ultimately, Atalay said she looks forward to finding opportunities to bring local tribal members together to share experiences and work together to assist each other in successful ways for revitalizing and saving their languages.

During her time off from teaching to learn the Ojibwe language, Atalay has been spending her time reading about Midwestern archaeology and learning Geological Information Systems, a computer mapping technique.

Through this GIS process, according to Atalay, she is able to “look at mounds, earthworks and rock art sites in the Midwest where the tribal communities are from and line them up with birch bark scrolls and even star knowledge related to these sacred sites all of which carry traditional teachings that are not written in language or words, but written in images.”

It was originally at a past ceremony many years ago Atalay attended that gave her the idea to pursue this side of archaeology. A respected Anishinaabe elder, Sydney Martin, began discussing earth works with her, recognizing that they looked so much like the workings on the birch bark scrolls from their culture.

“What if those scrolls are just written large on the landscape?” Martin asked Atalay, “You need to look into that.”

This community-based project, which began as a “seed” in her mind planted by her elder, has been something that Atalay has known she would pursue over time.

“I’m just so thankful to the granting agency, to the Mellon Foundation,” she said. “There’s these important areas of research that I want to investigate in partnership with tribal communities, but I need new training to be able to carry them out, and this is precisely what the Mellon New Directions grant provides funding for. None of this would be possible without the foresight of their grant program.”

Julia McLaughlin can be reached at

One Response to “Grant of $206,500 awarded to study Native American traditions”
  1. stan wilson says:

    She should read Shawn Wilson’s “Research is Ceremony, Indigenous Research Methods” Fernwood.

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