“They are certainly big shoes to fill,” Professor Justin Spence admitted referring to the work of J.P. Harrington, a prolific ethnographer and linguist working with Native Americans in California in the first half of the twentieth century. Compiling an estimated 500,000 pages of notes on California Indian languages with the J.P. Harrington Database Project is just one of the many projects that Spence has joined since his appointment last fall as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Native American Studies at UC Davis. Information on the J.P. Harrington Database Project can be found at the official website.
Spence, a linguist interested in Native American languages, is excited to work within a department that is interdisciplinary in nature, providing access to great conversations across disciplines. “I think as linguists we have a philosophical commitment to working within the community whenever possible,” said Spence of his work with Pacific Coast Athabascan languages and especially with the Hupa language. “There are really only a handful of first language Hupa speakers, and I have been fortunate to work in collaboration with one of them to collect data and organize workshops concerning Hupa language and grammar.”
Spence has returned to his hometown of Davis where he received an undergraduate degree in Linguistics and French before completing his Ph.D. in Linguistics at UC Berkeley. His current research focuses on Athabascan language convergence between California and Oregon and considers how these two groups are related across the larger region. “There is variation at any given moment. Dialect differences don’t just disappear, they change over time. It’s a bit like detective work,” Spence explained referring to the scattered archives as well as the distribution of language relevant to plants and animals he utilizes in order to track the migration of language.
“I want to really consider the role of academic research for language reclamation, the political act of asserting one’s right to express themselves in the language of their choice,” said Spence, who also works in language revitalization, which finds speakers for languages that no longer have speakers. Spence admits that this is a long and arduous process, which first requires funding for these programs, funding for teachers, and a committed core of people even before a linguist can provide input.
The processes of language revitalization and reclamation are still very undefined and often lead to more questions than solutions. Spence considers these questions when searching for the role of academic linguistic research within Native American communities. Raising pertinent questions is also one of his key pedagogical strategies as well. In his graduate seminar in Language Contact in Native North America, each student develops his or her own course of study based on the language of their choice. “I learn a lot of interesting information about many different languages in these courses,” Spence said. “I think the best courses are the ones where the instructor learns the most.”