Webinar 12/7: Indigenous Rights, Territory, and Advocacy: Anthropology’s Colonial Legacy and Contemporary Vocation

On December 7th, 6:30 PM EST the New York Academy of Sciences lecture series continues when Drs. Patricia Ayala, Research Consultant, Museum of Ethnography in La Paz, Bolivia, and Janet M. Chernela, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Maryland, will be presenting, “Indigenous Rights, Territory, and Advocacy: Anthropology’s Colonial Legacy and Contemporary Vocation”. Dr. O. Hugo Benavides, Professor of Anthropology, Latin American and Latino studies, and, International Political Economy and Development, at Fordham University, will be moderating. To register for this even click here.

Prior to Covid-19 and the Coronavirus pandemic hitting our different communities, notions of nationalistic xenophobia, neoliberal policies of extraction, and social policies of exclusion had permeated continental landscape in the Americas. Tied to these policies and politics, Indigenous rights and territory have played a central role in anthropology since the very invention of the discipline; a foundational relationship made even more apparent as a result of the recent developments in Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and the United States, among many other countries. Recent conflicts and continuing struggles surrounding land rights point to the complex role of anthropological advocacy and Indigenous belonging in our current global context. Drawing from the past and present, anthropologists featured on this panel look to engage these topics in our ever-changing cultural political landscape – issues made even more urgent during the present pandemic crises and the ever-expanding authoritarian anti-scientific forms of governance.

SPEAKERS

Patricia Ayala has focused her research in Chile on the power relations between Indigenous people, archaeologists and the state, patrimonialization processes, collaborative methodologies and disciplinary ethics. In Chile, Dr Ayala was the coordinator of public relations between the Atacameño People and the Archaeological Research Institute and Museum of the Universidad Católica del Norte, where she also worked as an academic. She has taught at the College of the Atlantic in United States, the Universidad de Chile, the Universidad Católica del Norte and the Universidad Católica de Temuco in Chile as well as at the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina. She has worked as a research consultant for the Abbe Museum (USA) and the Australian Nacional University (Australia). Patricia has made important contributions in the theoretical field and disciplinary reflections of archaeology and anthropology, which have been published in various journals and books. At the moment her research is focused on different issues of cultural heritage, specially those related to repatriation and reburial of indigenous human remains. Currently, she is working as a free-lance research consultant and has an honorary position at the Museum of Ethnography in La Paz, Bolivia.

Janet M. Chernela is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Maryland. She received her PhD with Distinction from Columbia University in 1983 and has conducted field research in the Brazilian Amazon since 1978.  Dr. Chernela is author of  the book, A Sense of Space: The Wanano Indians of the Brazilian Amazon, and numerous articles including “Language Ideology and Women’s Speech: Talking Community in the Northwest Amazon (American Anthropologist) and “The Second World of Wanano Women: Truth, Lies and Back-Talk in the Brazilian Northwest Amazon” (Journal of Linguistic Anthropology).  She has served as President of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America; Chair of the Committee for Human Rights of the American Anthropological Association; and is founder of the Association for Women of the Upper Rio Negro, AMARN (Associação de Mulheres do Alto Rio Negro, 1982), the first Amerindian women’s association in Brazil and its oldest ongoing indigenous organization.

O. Hugo Benavides is Professor of Anthropology, Latin American and Latino studies, and, International Political Economy and Development, at Fordham University, as well as, Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department.  He also is the founding director of the Strategic Research Consortium on Global Studies and of the Liberal Arts Program at Fordham’s London Center at Kensington.  His research has been supported by grants from the Woodrow Wilson National Foundation, National Science Foundation, Wenner Gren Foundation, Social Science Research Council and the Andrew R. Mellon Foundation. His initial interest in the past provided him an extensive archaeological practice excavating both Inca sites in the Andes and the Roman site of Pompeii in Italy.  This initial interest in the politics of the past is present in his first book, Making Ecuadorian Histories: Four Centuries of Defining the Past, (University of Texas Press, 2004), which is a study of the role of history in legitimizing the transnational concerns of Latin American social movements, including the state. His second book, The Politics of Sentiment: Remembering and Imagining Guayaquil, is a case-study of Raymond William’s hypothesis of structures of feeling as a tool of internal domination (UT Press, 2006). His third book, Drugs, Thugs and Divas: Latin American Telenovelas and Narco-Dramas, (UT Press, 2008) investigates the cultural dynamics of melodrama as it is used to re-signify the changing legacy of Latin American identity in a transnational context. He has written over 50 articles that have appeared in edited volumes and scholarly journals such as Latin American Antiquity, Critique of Anthropology, ICONOS, and Social Text, among many others.  He lives in Brooklyn with his partner of 26 years and their three cats.

Conference Program Fellow

Conference Program Fellow
Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, Inc.
New York, NY

The Wenner-Gren Foundation is a private operating foundation dedicated to the advancement of anthropology throughout the world.  Located in New York City, it is one of the major international funding sources for anthropological research and is actively engaged with the anthropological community through its grant, fellowship, conference, publication, and capacity building programs. We are committed to playing a leadership role in anthropology.  We help anthropologists advance anthropological knowledge, build sustainable careers, and amplify the impact of anthropology within the wider world. We are dedicated to broadening the conversation in anthropology to reflect the full diversity of the field.

The Foundation is committed to creating an inclusive work environment and seeks to recruit from a broad pool of talented candidates. We encourage candidates from diverse backgrounds to apply for this position. Addressing the precarity of anthropology and anthropologists is a key element of our mission.  We have designed this position in this spirit. Our aim is to hire a recent doctorate in anthropology who wishes to make service to the discipline an integral part of their career.


Fellowship Opportunity

The Conference Program Fellowship is a two-year paid fellowship. The Fellow will play a pivotal role in Wenner-Gren’s broad slate of academic gatherings.  As an integral member of a small, hardworking team, the Fellow coordinates the Conference and Workshop Program, which provides funding to organizers of small working sessions and major international meetings, and works with the President to plan and host Wenner-Gren’s Symposia and Seminars, which are designed to foster new conversations in anthropology and lead the discipline into new terrain.  In these times of crisis and transformation, the Fellow also participates in organizing and supporting webinars for the public and the broader community of anthropologists, an arena in which the Foundation has a commitment to playing a leadership role.  This position involves intensive interaction with the Foundation’s Advisory Council, which includes leading anthropologists from different subfields, regions, and traditions of scholarship.  The ideal candidate will have an advanced degree in anthropology, be intellectually curious, discerning, and strongly committed to inclusion and racial justice, and have an expansive vision of the discipline.  This individual will also be exceedingly well-organized and collegial, and have experience executing administrative tasks.  The Conference Program Fellow must be an excellent writer, have extraordinary interpersonal skills, and enjoy serving and collaborating with a diverse community of scholars and professionals.

Key Responsibilities

Oversee Conference and Workshop Grant Program:

  • Field inquiries.
  • Participate in application review process, collate results, and rank proposals.
  • Cooperate with President in final selection.
  • Communicate results with applicants.
  • Administer grants and evaluate final reports.
  • Update web information and application materials.
  • Participate in program evaluation and long-term planning.

Oversee Wenner-Gren Symposia:

  • Publicize program and field inquiries
  • Receive and circulate letters of intent with President and Advisory Council.
  • Collect, collate, and circulate feedback from Advisory Council.
  • Participate in discussion of proposed themes at Advisory Council meeting.
  • Cooperate with President in theme selection and the recruitment of organizers.
  • Research possible sites, cooperate with President in venue selection, and manage all communications with hotels and vendors.
  • Organize virtual and in person meetings with organizers. Participate in discussion of format, venue, and process for refining the theme and selecting participants and paper topics.
  • Manage communications with participants and organizers.
  • Manage travel arrangements for participants and organizers.
  • Collaborate with President and organizers to plan supplemental activities.
  • Join President in representing the Foundation at event. Document proceedings.  Serve as liaison for hotel management and vendors.  Take responsibility for all logistical arrangements and address any issues that arise.
  • Oversee preparation of Symposium papers for publication in Current Anthropology. Recruit reviewers and oversee review process.  Manage deadlines.  Coordinate with organizers, journal editors and staff.
  • Update web information.
  • Participate in program evaluation and long-term planning.

Oversee Wenner-Gren Seminars:

  • Publicize program and field inquiries.
  • Receive and circulate letters of intent with President and Advisory Council.
  • Collect, collate, and circulate feedback from Advisory Council.
  • Participate in discussion of proposed topics at Advisory Council meeting.
  • Cooperate with President in theme selection and recruitment of organizers.
  • Research possible sites, cooperate with President in venue selection, and manage all communications with hotels and vendors.
  • Research and brainstorm with President on possible formats.
  • Organize virtual and in person meetings with organizers. Participate in discussion of format, venue, and theme and help the group arrive at a process for developing a list of senior participants, a process for recruiting junior participants, and a description of the roles each participant will play.
  • Manage recruitment of junior participants.
  • Manage communications with participants and organizers.
  • Manage travel arrangements for participants and organizers.
  • Collaborate with President and organizers to plan supplemental activities.
  • Join President in representing the Foundation at event. Document proceedings.  Serve as liaison for hotel management and vendors.  Take responsibility for all logistical arrangements and address any issues that arise.
  • Coordinate follow-up.
  • Update web information.
  • Collaborate with President in program evaluation and long-term planning.


Qualifications and Experience

  • PhD or ABD in anthropology or closely aligned discipline.
  • Track record of service to anthropology.
  • Track record of success in fostering conversation in diverse groups.
  • Proven commitment to an inclusive vision of anthropology.
  • Experience in event planning and management.
  • Self-starter with a high degree of energy and careful attention to detail.
  • Highly flexible, creative problem solver, with a strong ability to multi-task.
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills.
  • Excellent social media skills.
  • Exceptional interpersonal skills.
  • High level of professionalism and demonstrated good judgement.
  • Superb organizational and time management skills.
  • Proficient or advanced skill in Microsoft Suite (Word, Excel, and Outlook).
  • Proficient skill or willingness to learn Salesforce and other event management tools.

 

Compensation

Salary is competitive.  The Foundation provides a generous benefits package, which includes 401(k) plan, health insurance, group term life and disability insurance, paid time off and flexible work arrangements.

 

How to Apply

Applications for the fellowship are being accepted online via Ziprecruiter.com, https://www.ziprecruiter.com/job/ad83eaaf.  You will be asked to upload your curriculum vitae or resume and a letter of interest. In the letter of interest, please comment on how your experience and professional aspirations are a good match for this fellowship.

Applications will be accepted until August 15, 2020.  Due to the expected high volume of applications for the fellowship, only those selected for an interview will be contacted.  The anticipated start date of the fellowship is on or before October 1, 2020.

Acknowledging the precarity faced by many early career anthropologists, the Foundation has designed the fellowship to meet the needs of scholars for whom relocation can be a hardship.  Fellows choose between telecommuting or working at the Foundation’s headquarters in New York City.   Please note that candidates must be authorized to work lawfully in the United States. Wenner-Gren does not provide visa sponsorship for employment.

In Memoriam: Dr. Sydel Silverman

It is with great sorrow that we wish to announce the passing of one of the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s greatest leaders and closest friends.  Sydel Silverman was the president of Wenner-Gren from 1987 to 1999.  She guided the Foundation through a critical phase in its history.  She preserved the small grants program, which provides a crucial source of support for doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers.  She held symposia that set new directions for the field.  She was instrumental in expanding the international community of anthropologists, fostering the creation new professional associations and new conversations that cut across countries and traditions of work.  We still strive to live by the values she cherished and to pursue the priorities she set.   She will be sorely missed.

Read Sydel Silverman’s obituary.

The European Association of Social Anthropologists also published a lovely tribute to Dr. Silverman.

Wenner-Gren at AAA 2018: Schedule of Events

It’s that time of the year again! The 117th annual AAA meeting is about kick off in San Jose, California. If you are planning to attend we’d love to see you at the following events:

Thursday, November 15, 2018

(3-0605) How to Write a Grant Proposal for the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the NSF, 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM, San Jose Convention Center,  MR 114

(3-1038) Out of the Ashes: International Solidarity and the Challenges for Rebuilding Anthropology at Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, 4:15 PM – 6 PM, San Jose Convention Center, Executive Ballroom 210 B

Friday, November 16, 2018

(4-0135) Journalism and Anthropology: An Encounter, 8 – 9:45 AM, San Jose Convention Center, LL 21 C

(4-1185) The Art Of Reviewing, 4:15 PM – 6 PM, San Jose Convention Center, Executive Ballroom 210F

Exhibit Hall Fun!

Meet the Editors of Current Anthropology, Thursday and Friday, November 15th and 16th, 10 AM – 12 PM,  University of Chicago Press Booth #408, San Jose Convention Center Exhibition Hall  Laurence Ralph and Lisa McKamy will be available, and possibly Mark Aldenderfer as well.

Also feel free to drop by to see us at the Wenner-Gren Booth (#211) in the Exhibition Hall. 

In Memoriam: Dr. Ira Berlin

It is with heavy heart that we share the news of the passing of Dr. Ira Berlin on June 5, 2018.  Ira was a beloved member of the Wenner-Gren Foundation Board of Trustees (2008-2018) and Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland.  He was a renowned historian revered for his groundbreaking scholarship on slavery and life during its aftermath.

His compassion and commitment to the Wenner-Gren Foundation was steadfast as was his belief in the potential of anthropology to make a difference in the world.  The Foundation is forever grateful for his many contributions and extraordinary friendship over the years, and extends condolences to his family on their loss.

Ira Berlin, transformative historian of slavery in America, dies at 77 – The Washington Post

Upcoming September-October Conferences

A look ahead to what Wenner-Gren is sponsoring in the coming months.

 

Eleventh Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 11)

September 7-11, 2015

Vienna, Austria

With the landmark conference “Man the Hunter” in 1966, the study of hunter-gatherer societies became a major topic within the social and human sciences. Since then, some of the topics and concerns – egalitarianism, sharing, and mobility – remain central, while others – such as social and technological evolution – have seen better times. Thus, while scholarly trends change over time, the goal of the initial conference, to establish a unified field of hunter-gatherer studies, is still valid. The general question of CHAGS 11 therefore is how the results of the last 50 years and new research agendas can be utilized for the present and future. While many hunter-gatherers are forced to give up their ways of life and subsistence practices, they figure prominently in public discourses on ecological and ideological alternatives to industrial society. Thus, CHAGS 11 will attempt to attract a variety of stakeholders in these debates – indigenous representatives, NGOs, scholars, etc. Based on fieldwork and research from the full spectrum of hunter-gatherer ways of life and from all perspectives our disciplines have to offer, the goal of CHAGS 11 is to bring hunter-gatherer studies back to the center of the human and social sciences.

 

Modern Man in Northern Africa; Chronology, Behavior and Cultural Heritage

Late October, 2015

Rabat, Morocco

This conference will bring together researchers from Canada, France, Italy, Senegal and Morocco to discuss research concerning the history of modern humans in the Maghreb. Two main subjects will be discussed: chronology and behavior of modern humans since their appearance in the region around 130,000 years ago; and characterization of pigments and colorants using different non-invasive and portable methods in the frame of cultural heritage. The goals of the conference are to establish the state of research in Morocco and reinforce the dialogue between teams working in the country and in the wider world.

 

#NationalAnthropologyDay: The Best of Anthrotainment

For too long, anthropology-flavored entertainment has existed in the compound shadow of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford. The blunt truth of the matter is that when most people, professionals and lay alike, think of the discipline, their thoughts first turn to the pulpy relic-hunting rollicks of that iconic hero. With nothing against the terrifically entertaining Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, Indiana Jones is, frankly, a terrible ambassador for anthropology, his degree more a passport to exotic locales than integral to his exploits.

In honor of #NationalAnthropologyDay, here are some entertainments that strike at the discipline from different angles, and might even have something interesting to say.

 

The Last Wave (1977)

Australian director Peter Weir is probably best known for his surreal takes on quotidian existence like The Truman Show and midnight-movie mainstay Picnic at Hanging Rock. He followed up the latter classic with psychological thriller The Last Wave (1977), one of the best films that actually brushes up against ethical and philosophical concerns in the practice of cultural anthropology. Centering on a public defender tasked with representing a group of Aboriginal men accused of murdering a compatriot, David Burton (Richard Chamberlain) finds himself increasingly fascinated with the mythology of the tribe to which his clients belong. He devises a strategy to cite the victim’s purported powerful belief in magic, and thereby fear of a recent curse, as the clandestine true cause of death, thus exonerating his kinsmen. As he delves deeper into the case, strange events begin to infest his life, and a greater apocalyptic secret is revealed.

 

David Burton is not an anthropologist; indeed, there is only a brief, one-scene appearance of an anthropologist in this film. Nevertheless, as he plots his defense and is drawn ever deeper into the supernatural mystery underlying the case, Chamberlain’s Burton comes to exemplify many of the perennial issues that fascinate the discipline. For all his reflexive advocacy on behalf of his clients, his attempts to really understand what went through their minds the night of the murder, how much does David Burton believe the argument underpinning his “ritual” defense? Is he, in the paraphrased words of an interlocutor, just another wealthy, guilty liberal, flailing for a symbolic act of cross-cultural understanding while secretly pitying the primitives? Furthermore, as the story’s supernatural elements begin to unfold, David’s White Savior complex becomes even more literal. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say you’ll find plenty of interesting to chew on while watching this one.

 

Altered States (1980)

In so many ways, Ken Russell’s 1980 body-horror thriller represents the quintessential anthropological fantasy. Adopted from a novel by legendary television writer Paddy Chayefsky, Altered States scoops out every corner of the disciplinary pop-memory by way of mid-20th century counterculture, weaving together new-age psychedelia, human evolution, and hair-brained academic inquiry with a mad-scientist panache that honors science fiction’s speculative roots.

 

While researching abnormal psychology, brilliant-but-troubled physiologist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) commandeers a disused isolation tank in his institution’s basement to conduct experiments with an obscure hallucinogen sourced from rural Mexico. An increasingly untethered program of self-experimentation alerts Jessup to the secret correspondence unlocked by the drug’s combination with sensory deprivation – he begins to “devolve” – display the phenotype of an ancient human species. It appears as though racial memory is at the root of this bizarre mash-up of indigenous Mexican ritual and high-tech experimentation – and it could change the world, if it doesn’t destroy him first.

Altered States is made in the spirit of much of the greatest science fiction – the ecstasy of scientific pursuit, and its costs, exist at the center of the conflict. However, in the film’s selection of anthropologists and related experts as the occupiers of the intrepid-scientist archetype, it manages to subvert genre expectations in interesting ways. Despite its scientific protagonists, including Jessup’s physical anthropologist wife and frequent foil Emily (Blair Brown), Altered States’ vision of Cambridge, Massachusetts feels less like a deep-space craft or secret underground laboratory and more like an actual scholarly community. These career academics act like real career academics, sparring with colleagues over margaritas at happy hours and lit joints at house parties, name-dropping potential collaborators and relevant papers in rapid-fire banter, and tinkering around outside the watchful eyes of the IRB. Regardless of what you think of the film’s science-fiction elements, the sympathetic, slice-of-life depiction of anthropologists and allied academics is truly a rare find.

 

“Darmok” (Star Trek: The Next Generation) (1991)

Star Trek, as a media franchise, has enough examples of anthropology throughout its multi-series history to easily count as a single entry (and more) for the purposes of this list. From its origins as the Wagon Train to the Stars through its later incarnation as occupying imperial power, the colonial, anthropological eye has always been active in these sci-fi allegories of humans encountering the alien unknown. The Original Series’ Enterprise fielded a designated “A&A (archaeology & anthropology) officer” and the learned Jean-Luc Picard was well-known for his love of archaeology and decoding alien mythic systems.

 

But perhaps no single episode better encapsulates Trek’s abilities to creatively riff on the discipline than Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fifth-season episode “Darmok”, in which the crew is tasked with parsing an alien language previously thought unintelligible. Though handy 24th century translation technology allows vocabulary and syntax to pass unassailed, communication between the Enterprise and the Tamarians remains at loggerheads until the key revelation is made: the extraterrestrials lack a human-like sense of self, and make meaning exclusively through the metaphorical manipulation of their own mythology.

The mystery at the center of “Darmok” acts as both a trumped-up sci-fi illustration of how living languages can be pregnant with cultural meanings that escape mere syntax and grammar, but also evokes a sort of Levi-Straussian structuralism that outlines the thinking of the other as completely bounded (one might say hindered) by mythic frames. Regardless of the school of anthropological thought that the plot could be said to mimic, it’s delightful to watch the old sci-fi tradition of scientists solving a problem applied to aspects of culture and language.

 

Happy National Anthropology Day!

NYAS @ WGF 11/17: Immigration and Activism Panel

November’s New York Academy of Sciences meeting will be underway next Monday, November 17th, 7:00 – 9:00 PM, as we and NYAS welcome a panel discussion featuring Daniel Goldstein of Rutgers University and Alyshia Gálvez of Lehman College, CUNY. Dr. Goldstein will present a paper entitled “E-Terrify: Electronic Surveillance of the Immigrant Worker in Obama’s America”while Dr. Gálvez will give a talk on “Vampire Capitalism: New guises of colonialism in a post-labor and post-migration age”.

A dinner reception (suggested donation $20 but free to graduate students) will precede the panel discussion at 6:00pm.

The meeting is free to attend. Please do not contact the Wenner-Gren Foundation with inquiries regarding registration.

 

Interview: Christine Schreyer and the Linguistics of Kryptonian

Christine Schreyer is assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, where she teaches courses in linguistic anthropology. Recently, Schreyer was given the unusual opportunity to contribute to the creation of the Kryptonian language for Warner Bros.’ highly anticipated Superman film, Man of Steel (2013). With such a fascinating story to tell, we interviewed Schreyer to learn more about how she approached creating an alien tongue for the iconic character and her experience working as an anthropologist in the world of big-budget entertainment.

Could we begin by learning a little about your scholarly background and interests, in particular your interest in constructed languages?

My doctoral research examined the relationship between land, language and identity amongst two Canadian indigenous communities, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, located in northern British Columbia, and the Loon River Cree First Nation, located in northern Alberta (Schreyer 2011a). I continue to work with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and we are currently working developing an interactive and participatory mapping tool that can also assist community members in re-learning their Tlingit language, particularly place names and names of resources from the land. I have also worked with Kala speakers in Papua New Guinea, where I assisted the Kala Language Committee to develop an alphabet for their language in order that it could be taught in schools, and generally strengthened within their communities.

My interest in constructed languages, however, developed out of my teaching experiences rather than my past research experiences. The textbook I use in my Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology class, The Anthropology of Language (Ottenheimer 2013), has as one of its assignment suggestions a language creation assignment. I have used a modified version of this assignment with my first year students since the fall of 2008 to great success (see Schreyer et al 2013 for a discussion of my students’ and my own reflections on this assignment). It was during the end of the fall of 2009 semester that I noticed news stories about the numerous individuals learning Na’vi, from the movie Avatar. As I like to incorporate news items that relate to my courses into class discussions, I showed this to my students and wondered at that time how so many people were learning Na’vi and why.

The following summer, I went to Papua New Guinea to conduct my research with Kala speakers for the first time and learned Tok Pisin, the national lingua franca. Learning a pidgin language was fascinating and in the fall of 2010, I taught a course that focused on “new” languages for the first time – Pidgins, Creoles and Created Languages. It was during this class that my students and I further explored who Na’vi speakers were, which led to my article “Media, Information, Technology, and Language Planning: What can endangered language communities learn from created language communities?” (2011b). In this article, I examined how created language communities, such as Klingon and Na’vi, had used media and IT to help develop their communities and raise the prestige of their languages. I discuss how minority language communities could also use some of the same techniques to raise their number of speakers, but also discuss why media and IT are not always relevant or useful to minority communities.

After this article, I developed a survey of Na’vi speakers, which I ran online during the summer of 2011. The survey was designed to determine who the Na’vi speakers were (age, gender, nationality, education levels etc.), but also how they were learning Na’vi, why they were learning Na’vi, and how they thought Na’vi would develop over time. The Na’vi community was truly wonderful and welcoming and I was overwhelmed with the number of responses I received (297 in total), as well as the support I had from Na’vi speakers who helped translate my survey into 7 other languages (Russian, Ukrainian, German, Italian, French, Hungarian, Na’vi) in order to reach the maximum number of people. The results of this survey have further confirmed for me that it might be possible for speakers of endangered languages to model some of the learning strategies of speakers of created languages in order to develop more speakers (see my website for details on the results of this survey).

There have been many famous constructed languages in the history of fantasy and science fiction, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elven to Star Trek’s Klingon and, more recently, Na’vi. As far as you know, how has language theory, anthropology, work by anthropologists, etc., influenced the creation of these past languages?

I should add a comment here on terminology; I switch between using constructed languages and created languages, as a stylistic choice. However, conlang, a new addition to the Oxford English dictionary, is generally the most popular term, especially amongst those who develop languages (the conlangers, themselves).

To my knowledge, I am one of the only conlangers, who is also a professional anthropologist, and I am unsure the extent to which anthropology as a discipline has impacted the work of other conlangers. For instance, Marc Okrand, the inventor of Klingon, and Paul Frommer, the inventor of Na’vi, are both retired linguistics professors. While David Peterson, who has invented numerous popular languages for television and movies, including Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones, has a Master’s degree in Linguistics. While these individuals have worked on more recent media-driven languages, Tolkien was also trained in linguistics rather than anthropology.

However, Peterson, in a recent blog post to celebrate the inclusion of the word conlang into the Oxford dictionary, has written about the “historical method” of language creation that, he states, “Tolkien pioneered” (2014), and which he uses himself. Peterson continues that, “With the historical method, an ancestor language called a proto-language is created, and the desired language is evolved from it, via simulated linguistic evolution”. Discussions of proto-languages, as well as linguistic evolution, are concepts found within the domain of linguistic anthropology. For instance, these are both topics in my Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology class, and the language creation assignment I give my students, includes a section on language change. After first beginning their languages, including the Phonology, Morphology, and Syntax, as well as Non-Verbal communication, the students are then asked to create slang and also borrow a word from another newly created language (i.e. language evolution). In sum, it’s my belief that anthropology does have theories and ideas to offer language construction, such as the way that cultural concepts (such as gender, race, age, kinship etc.) are socially constructed and aided by language choices. I would also love to know if there are other anthropologists out there who have developed languages and what their experiences have been as opposed to those who have backgrounds in linguistics.

 

What was your familiarity with the Superman character before MAN OF STEEL reached out to you?

I would say that my knowledge of the Superman character prior to my work on Man of Steel was on par with many others who grew up with the Christopher Reeves movies. I knew the basics of the stories, but was by no means a super-fan of Superman.

 

What were the “aesthetic considerations” you wanted to bring to bear on constructing the Kryptonian language?

To be clear, I worked in association with a graphic designer named Kristen Franson while developing the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel, so the written aesthetics were developed for the most part by her to match the other aspects of design (see Wallace 2013 for more details on Kryptonian design).

My contribution to the writing was to suggest that a syllabic writing system could be used, similar to Cree syllabics, where one symbol represents a consonant/vowel pairing and the rotation of the symbol indicates what the vowel is. As well, since the reboot of the story already had the iconic “S” on Superman’s costume meaning “hope”, a second version of a writing system was also already in place when I was asked to participate. My suggestion was that these symbols for houses could be an older logographic form of writing, where one symbol represents an entire idea or word, while the syllabic system could be a newly evolved form of Kryptonian writing.

In terms of phonological “aesthetics”, I was somewhat limited to the material that was already available in the Superman canon. My initial task was to look at the names of people and places from Krypton that were found in the comics and movies and determine what all of the previously sounds used were since these sounds would need to be found within this new Kryptonian language as well. I also knew that some of the actors might potentially end up speaking the language and, as a result, I added only one sound (the voiced glottal fricative) that does not exist in the English language in order to slightly increase the “alien-like” feel of the language.

 

What was the input and feedback like from the non-anthropologists in the production?

I was given much leeway to decide how I wanted the language to be developed and the person who gave me the most feedback was Kristen, the graphic designer, as we were the ones who ended up knowing the most about how the language worked since we were using it frequently. However, Alex McDowell, Production Designer, and Helen Jarvis, Art Director, were also extremely supportive of the work that Kristen and I were doing, which was nice since it led to more opportunities for the language to be used throughout the film’s production.

 

As an anthropologist, what struck you about working in “the field” of a big-budget and highly anticipated film such as this?

I think my experience traveling to new places and meeting new people as a part of my anthropological fieldwork helped immensely in acclimatizing to the set and the “world” of Krypton, which was being designed around me. In particular, when I was on set, as a newbie to the film industry, I had to be guided through the studios. To some extent, this reminded me of my beginning trips to new field sites where individuals take it upon themselves to show you the ropes and how life proceeds. People don’t tell you the explicit rules, but you follow along, participate and observe, and learn for yourself.

As well, my work on Man of Steel, was embedded in secrecy. Early on I signed nondisclosure agreements, which stated that I could not reveal what I saw and heard during my work. I learned about the plot of the movie on my first day on set, but could not tell anyone about it. I also heard a lot of information about how production was unfolding while walking through the sets and around the studios with my guides. But again, it was a case of listening to learn but not to use. I have often had similar experiences in the field, where people talk about things in front of you, which help situate you in the field, but which are so deeply personal that they are not ever written down or shared. The secrets we as anthropologists keep are an interesting part of our discipline, although not something we are explicitly taught in fieldwork courses.

 

How was your work, and your profession as a linguistic anthropologist, understood by those you worked with? Were there any misconceptions?

Interestingly, I was very rarely labeled as an “anthropologist” when I was on the set or when I was being introduced to someone, but was instead “the linguist” who was developing Kryptonian. However, as many anthropologists who work on issues of language and culture will tell you, I’m often labeled as a “linguist” rather than as an anthropologist. Duranti’s (2009) introduction to his reader on Linguistic Anthropology does an excellent job describing the challenges with labeling the field of linguistic anthropology. Labeling the people who work in this field is equally as challenging! Again, one person, who fully understood my background as an anthropologist, was Alex McDowell. As a uniquely talented world-builder, Alex has explored anthropology himself through his work and I appreciated the conversations we had on anthropological topics.

 

What did you take from the experience? Did this project influence the way you think about your scholarly work, or your work with “real” languages?

Since my work on this project, I’ve been fascinated with the ideas of world building and the on-line worlds that people build and participate in. This has led me to re-look at my research with Na’vi speakers through the lens of digital ethnography. I’ve also had fans of Superman contact me requesting more information about how to learn the language I developed. As of now, Warner Bros., the official owners of this work, have not yet developed a learning guide for Kryptonian. Despite this, people are interested in learning the language, making me wonder, what can we do to make those interested in learning minority languages “fans” of their languages again? What can “fandoms” teach us about the enthusiasm required to help reverse language shift?

Last, through developing a language myself, I came to re-appreciate the lessons I try to teach my students in their language creation assignment. In that assignment, I want them to realize without my explicitly saying it that they need to think about who the speakers of their languages are, where they live, what they do (or in other words, to think about their culture) before they can get very far in the language creation process. In my work, I wasn’t developing a new world but attempting to make sure a world that exists so vividly in the minds of its fans, as well as in the minds of the movie production team, was fairly and accurately represented. I took their ideas of what Krypton was like, such as the history and values of Kryptonian people, and incorporated these into the language in various ways. As the Man of Steel universe expands, with new movies, I wonder how the world of Krypton might be further developed as well.

 

References:

Duranti, Alessandro (2009). Linguistic Anthropology: History, Ideas, and Issues. In Linguistic

Anthropology: A Reader, 2nd edition. A. Duranti, ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ottenheimer, Harriet J. (2013). The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Toronto: Thomson-Wadsworth. 3rd Edition.

Peterson, David. (2014). How I created the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones. Oxford University Press Blog. http://blog.oup.com/2014/07/dothraki-valyrianlanguage-game-of-thrones/

Schreyer, Christine (2011a). Re-Building Language Habitats: Connecting Language Planning and Land Planning for Sustainable Futures. Language Documentation and Description, Volume 9: 35-57

Schreyer, Christine (2011b).  Media, Information Technology and Language Planning: What can endangered language communities learn from created language communities? Current Issues in Language Planning 12(3): 403-425.

Schreyer, Christine, Clarke Ballantine, Vanessa Bella, Joanne Gabias, Brittany Ganzini, Robyn Giffen, Pamela Higgins, Justin Kroeker, David Lacho, Stacy Madill, Louisa McGlinchey, Sasha McLachlan, Shelley Nguy, Tara Wolkolsky, and Vanessa Zubot (2013). The Culture of Con-langing: What Can We Learn About Culture from Created Languages? Fiat Lingua. FL-000017-00, Fiat Lingua, <http://fiatlingua.org>. Web. 01 August 2013.

Wallace, Daniel (2013). Man of Steel: Inside the Legendary World of Superman. Insight Editions: San Rafael, California.