Cayuga: Our Oral Legacy (COOL)


Carrie Dyck; Amos Key, Jr.


This project is about the process of turning an oral language into a written one. Cayuga (Iroquoian) is primarily an oral language. There are fewer than 100 fluent speakers, and the language has been described as endangered: as an oral language, it would die with the last speaker.

Cayuga speakers place tremendous importance on traditional (Longhouse) speeches and ceremonies. Some of these speeches and ceremonies take weeks to recite, and they are numerous. The speeches and ceremonies are distillations of thousands of years of knowledge: it would not be an exaggeration to say that they are priceless.Yet, since these speeches and ceremonies are passed down orally, they are in danger of being lost to future generations. It is crucial, then, to preserve such cultural heritage in writing.

It is also important, however, to document more ordinary forms of the Cayuga language, including conversation. Conversational speech, more so than ceremonial speech, is the basis for learning to speak Cayuga fluently.

Within this context, the COOL project has concentrated on first transcribing Cayuga conversations and then ceremonial speeches. (Other projects at Six Nations, Ontario, where Cayuga is spoken, focus more on the transmission of the ceremonial speeches.)

Transcribing is not the only goal of the COOL project, however: the process of turning an oral language into a written one is controversial, and not all speakers agree that it should be done. Examining the process itself, then, is part of the research project: the COOL project attempts to find a middle way that is beneficial to both Cayuga speakers and academic partners (such as linguists).

Finally, a more abstract goal of the project is to rethink the foundations of ‘First Nations linguistics’, or linguistics involving First Nations languages. In the 20th century, research on First Nations languages fundamentally changed the field of North American linguistics, and continues to do so. The COOL project acknowledges the importance that First Nations knowledge of language has played in the development of the field of linguistics. It also attempts to define what the field of linguistics might look like if the First Nations’ ways of viewing language were incorporated into linguistic theory.

More generally, this research falls under SSHRC’s ‘Aboriginal Research Pilot Project’ program. The overall goal of the program is to create a new research paradigm that equally values concepts drawn from traditional indigenous knowledge (in this case, knowledge of language) and academic knowledge (in this case, linguistics). Dr. Willie Ermine’s concept of interacting within an ‘Ethical Space’ is the core mechanism for understanding this new research paradigm.



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