ilaatawaakani Project Background
The Indigenous Language Digital Archive (ILDA) has evolved over time through many iterations, including a few name changes and an expanded purpose. The development of a digital archive of Miami-Illinois language materials arose from linguists’ need to centralize their archival documents, so their content could be transcribed, searched, and analyzed. This need was most urgent for the extensive early Jesuit materials, which are often hard to read and interpret. The Illinois Project was created to respond to this need.
The Illinois Project was created during the summer of 1999 by tribal members who were interested in gaining access to the rich vocabulary held in Jesuit-era documents. The team members began systematically transcribing and translating the late-seventeenth to early-eighteenth century Jesuit manuscripts, for the purpose of adding new vocabulary to our ongoing language reclamation efforts. At the time, we were aware of only two manuscripts: the dictionaries of Le Boullenger and Largillier (formerly called Gravier); a third Jesuit manuscript, the Pinet dictionary, was discovered later in 1999 by Michael McCafferty. The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma received a digital copy of the new Pinet manuscript in 2003 after working through an agreement with the Archives De La Compagnie De Jésus in Quebec, Canada.
The Illinois Project was initially overseen jointly by the language committees of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Miami Nation of Indians of the State of Indiana, Inc., under the guidance of a ten-year compact agreement signed in 1997. The agreement reached its end in 2007, and from that point on the Myaamia Project (now the Myaamia Center) assumed the responsibility of moving the Illinois Project forward.
David Motz served as the initial Project Coordinator and was instrumental in setting up the transcription process and maintaining data as it was produced from the original manuscripts. Over the years, several individuals served as transcribers; one of the primary transcribers was Kathy Regan, who volunteered many hours to the Illinois Project up through the year 2000. In 2001, project staff trained Miami University tribal students to help with transcription, and over time various other individuals volunteered to work on the project. The task of reading the handwritten text and understanding both French and Miami-Illinois proved challenging for transcribers.
The first person to attempt to translate the French in the Le Boullenger dictionary was Dr. Leslie Roberts, Associate Professor of French at the University of Southern Indiana, who spent the summers of 2001-2 translating line-by-line from the original manuscript. These efforts were incredibly important in not only producing the first usable data from the manuscripts, but also in helping us understand the challenges of working with eighteenth-century materials and in estimating the labor required to complete the various tasks and manage large amounts of data.
Work on the Illinois Project slowed from 2005 until 2012, when the Myaamia Center received an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the Inokaatawaakani Project - Illinois Project (PD-50017-12). This support funding (the first for this work since its inception) gave new life to the Illinois Project. The award, along with new technological advances, allowed the Illinois Project to take a significant developmental leap forward.
Michael McCafferty, who is a Master Teacher in the Department of Second Language Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington, now serves as the French translator. Carole Katz is the project transcriptionist, while Dr. David Costa serves as the primary Miami-Illinois language consultant and, with Daryl Baldwin, as co-PI on the NEH grant. This new phase of the Illinois Project, supported by the NEH, called for a concerted three-year effort to digitally prepare the Le Boullenger manuscript for complete transcription, to translate the French, and begin translating the Miami-Illinois data.
The technology portion of this project has been as extensive as the transcription and translation work, and the first two years were devoted to the development of the database and website. The technology team for the NEH-funded portion of this project was coordinated by Andrew J. Strack, who then directed the Myaamia Center’s Office of Technology and Publications. The team during the 2012 - 2015 grant period included supervisory assistance from Dr. Douglas Troy, Myaamia Center Coordinator of Application Development and Professor Emeritus College of Engineering and Computing; and College of Engineering and Computing Graduate Students Xianli Sun and Zach Haitz.
As the NEH-funded portion of this project progressed, not only did the potential for this uniquely designed research tool become apparent, but we also realized that all the extant language materials on Miami-Illinois could reside in the database. This led us to believe that we could accomplish much more than merely archiving the Le Boullenger dictionary manuscript. This new development warranted a name change for the online database from inokaatawaakani ‘Illinois Dictionary’ to the Miami-Illinois Digital Archive (MIDA). For several years MIDA continued to develop and improve as a vital research tool for Miami-Illinois linguists and educators.
During 2016 more developments were made to MIDA, and the Myaamia Center began to discuss the possibility of sharing this software with other tribal communities engaged in archives-based research for revitalization. Experience with the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages in 2011, 2013 and 2015, and with the Community Research Program of the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices initiative, revealed the sophistication of archives-based research for revitalization and therefore a need for software to support it. It was decided that the best place to test the sharing of MIDA software was with a team of tribal language researchers from a completely different language family than Miami-Illinois.
In partnership with the Recovering Voices initiative at the Smithsonian Institution, a team of Nuu-wee-ya’ (Oregon Dene) Community Researchers who had participated in National Breath of Life was chosen to do rigorous testing and provide feedback to the development team while benefiting from the software. Nuu-wee-ya’ is a continuum of dialects belonging to the larger Dene language family, and presents significant structural differences compared to Miami-Illinois, which belongs to the Algonquian family. The Nuu-wee-ya’ team was already working on a archival database project supported by the National Science Foundation Documenting Endangered Languages (NSF-DEL) grant (Award Number: 1562859) and was struggling to find adequate software for their research and revitalization needs. After initial consultation with the Nuu-wee-ya’ team they agreed to test a version of Miami-Illinois Digital Archive, which would later be renamed Indigenous Languages Digital Archive (ILDA) in order to have a more neutral name for wider application.
During the summer of 2017, the Myaamia Center and Recovering Voices worked together to bring the Nuu-wee-ya’ team to Washington D.C. in tandem with the biennial National Breath of Life to test the first iteration of ILDA. This was done by uploading digital surrogates of archival materials, transcribing them, processing transcriptions, and presenting their work to the National Breath of Life participants. National Breath of Life staff were most interested in the direct experience of the Nuu-wee-ya’ team as well as the responses from the National Breath of Life participants upon learning of ILDA as a tool that could become available to a broad set of research teams in a modified format.
The outcome was tremendously positive. Since the initial pilot, the Nuu-wee-ya’ team has settled on ILDA as their tool of choice for the completion of their NSF-DEL-funded research and long-term home for their archival language data. The team has had few issues making use of the software for their language, which indicates there is a broad application regardless of language structure. The success of this early pilot effort is at the core of the rationale for making ILDA available in future National BoL workshops as a way to continue supporting archives-based research for language revitalization.
Introducing more National Breath of Life teams to ILDA gained further support from the NEH in 2018 through a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant (HAA-261218-18). ILDA version 2.0 was launched in early 2020 and is undergoing rigorous testing with several new tribal communities. The new version has increased security and a more stable operating platform. Further, ILDA has developed into a suite of tools that includes a dictionary app through which learners can easily access language data from ILDA to support their personal and community language learning needs. To assure reliable and secure operation, the ILDA suite is hosted by Miami University’s Information Technology (IT) Services secure data center. To assure adequately trained programming support, ILDA is implemented using the industry-standard programming languages and database technologies.
The evolution of what started as the Illinois Project (1999) emerging into the Miami-Illinois Digital Archive (2015) and eventually arriving today as the Indigenous Languages Digital Archive (2017) has been a path of trial and error. These steps were crucial in shaping the concept and functionality of this software suite in order to more effectively serve archive-based research for revitalization efforts. Only ILDA exists today, and continues testing and expansion among a growing number of tribal communities. ILDA is now well positioned to become a central tool for these growing efforts.
For further reading about the development and origins of MIDA within the context of the Myaamia language revitalization effort consult the following source: http://hdl.handle.net/10125/24713.