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Online Indian Language Manuscripts Guide


A section taken from pages of an Indian prayer book from the Henry and Elizabeth Baird papers

A new guide to historical manuscripts in American Indian languages went online this week at Turning Points in Wisconsin History. It is the fruit of a yearlong partnership between the University of Wisconsin and the Society's Library and Archives, which have worked successfully together for more than a century to collect, preserve and share Wisconsin history.

Language Preservation Efforts Underway

Many of the nearly 300 Native American languages in North America are in danger of disappearing. In Wisconsin, tribal education programs work hard to teach their languages to young people and keep them alive. On campuses across the nation, anthropologists and linguists are studying them to better understand how these languages are related and how they work. The Society hopes to assist everyone involved in this cultural preservation effort by sharing relevant historical documents from its collections.

To date, 20 manuscripts and rare books created by missionaries, traders, Indian agents, linguists and anthropologists have been digitized and mounted at Turning Points. Strictly linguistic works available there range from simple word lists to comprehensive dictionaries, and the original documents in Indian languages include everything from single letters to book-length religious texts. The latest addition to this collection is the only known copy of a 1777 Catholic primer in Mohawk.

Unearthing Buried Treasure

Last year Marissa Lipinski, winner of a University of Wisconsin Hilldale Fellowship to support undergraduate research, spent her summer sifting folder-by-folder and page-by-page through nearly 100 collections of manuscripts at the Society. Most of these collections were acquired and processed long before any language preservation efforts had been imagined and so had never been indexed in any catalog or database.

Under the guidance of Professor Monica Macaulay, Lipinski searched for manuscripts in or about Native American languages and described them in detail. Her final bibliography cites more than 250 documents or groups of documents created between 1689 and 1976. They preserve evidence about more than 20 different languages, mostly spoken in the Great Lakes region.

Researchers Invited to Explore the Bibliography

Lipinski's "Bibliography of Historical Manuscripts in American Indian Languages at the Wisconsin Historical Society" is now available online. Paper copies will be sent to tribal language programs and scholars later this fall. We invite interested researchers to examine it and then suggest specific items to be the next documents digitized and shared online. Contact the Society's head of digital collections, Michael Edmonds, for more information.

:: Posted October 14, 2010

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