A Split Day: My Animal Activism Hat and my Linguist Hat

Another visit to the nursing home.  This time, I brought the dogs, and asked the staff to help the person I was visiting into a wheelchair so we could go out to the courtyard.  Petey somehow immediately sensed the hurt arm, and licked her hand there once initially.  This is highly unusual for him.  We walked around the courtyard with the wheelchair and the dogs, and she reached out with her good arm to hold the leash.  It was a very quietly connecting event for both dogs and humans.  We also had a visit from a swallow who patiently posed (admittedly with some vanity) and sang for us, and a cardinal, too.

A little later in the day I would head out for a talk on the Dine origins of Alaskan geographic names.  A family crisis would leave me at the last minute with my 2 dogs in the car right before the talk started, and a heat level that was too high to leave them in a covered garage with the windows all the way down.  My hat for the day had been animal activism.  Desperate to hear the talk, and Spin being after all my “Navajo dog”, I bit the bullet and boldly walked onto the campus and into the talk with my 2 dogs.  The dogs did great.  They were quiet, and simply lay down during the talk, and we left without comment from anyone about the incident.

Why was I so interested in this talk?  Well, I’ve visited all 48 states in the continental US with my travels.  I’ve dreamed of visiting Alaska, too, but I have not been able to negotiate Canada for some time now, having had 2 nice trips there in the distant past.  As people who have followed this blog may know, I went up to the Oregon/Washington area this past winter, and part of my efforts up there were with Native American communities, particularly trying to understand language relationships among these communities.  It was really a short superficial exploration over the winter, but I visited about 25-30 different communities whose sovereignty is recognized by the US government.

Although I am moderately adept with languages, it is pretty clear to me that I would be way behind someone who is a native speaker of an Athabascan language, even with years of study.  There are languages up in that area that are only spoken by one yet living person, and yet others are completely extinct.  It was a pretty unique opportunity to meet someone from the Alaskan Native American Center, and a nice imaginative folly to envision hiking from one site to another like the Dene apparently did during their discussed point of entries from Siberia to end up in Arizona and New Mexico.

So, I’m a little late, but reconstructing from the talk, the original Siberian point of entry and migration occurred along one route that has very ancient names for places that have been kept over the years.  A second route was found dating to a more recent time with duplicate names for the places on the other side of an area that may have contained a lake or glacier separating the two routes at some point.  Was the motivation for the duplication geological following a glacial expansion?  Did someone with a map get lost in that area, renaming the original sites?  Did people go back to their point of origin and remake a trip slightly differently with more people?  Did people split their territorial routes after a disagreement?

I’m really not much of a linguist, but I do like to try to speak other languages, so when I put on that hat it is an opportunity to do some language work.  There is a lot of vocabulary that I would have to learn to do any fieldwork.  It also requires pretty extensive analytical skills.  As much as I love the outdoors, I wonder if these languages are so exotic to me that my brain would have to be organically different to “see the language”.  Mostly, though, I have sometimes seen Native American communities as safe places to explore questions of sovereignty, and possibly develop outside of “a system”, but with a social context (human contact) that places a high value on nature and the environment.

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