Eighty percent of the world's languages are spoken by very small communities, leaving whole knowledge systems hidden from the global understanding. (Smithsonian Institution)

Daryl Baldwin learned about the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives when he was trying to find out more about his Native American heritage and the language of his tribe, the Miami of Oklahoma.

He was 28 and working construction in Ohio when he came across some Miami words his late grandfather had written in his personal papers. Baldwin knew nothing of the language except some ancestral names, but the words piqued his interest. There were no Miami speakers left, but a friend mentioned the archives, an immense hoard of recorded voices, documents and other materials describing more than 250 languages from all over the world.

The archives had been accumulating for more than 150 years, the findings of scholars, explorers, soldiers and travelers, and was now stored in a vast warehouse on a grassy campus in Suitland. It included copious material on about 200 Native American languages, many of them endangered, and a considerable number, like Miami, with no remaining native speakers.

Eventually Baldwin made the trip to see what the archives had on his ancestral language. There was plenty. With the archives’ help, he taught himself Miami and has been speaking and studying it for 24 years.

Preserving voices

The archives have the equivalent of two miles of shelves of dictionaries, word lists, field notes, journals, manuscripts, correspondence, reports, maps, catalogue cards and printed memorabilia. There are more than a million photographs, 20,000 works of indigenous art, 8 million feet of original film and videotape and more than 3,000 sound recordings of various languages: wax cylinders, aluminum discs, reel-to-reel tape, cassettes and CDs. The Cheyenne, from the Great Plains, are represented by 149 grammars, manuscripts and other items. There are two papers describing the speakers of Yapese, from the island of Yap, in Micronesia.

Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief listens to a song and interprets it in sign language to ethnologist Frances Densmore of the Bureau of American Ethnology. The session took place in 1916 at the Smithsonian Institution. (Harris & Ewing/National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

The Native American materials date to the 1850s, when the early Smithsonian mailed questionnaires to army forts and trading posts on the western frontier, asking settlers and travelers to compile word lists so the young United States could learn and preserve indigenous languages whose future, even then, was threatened. These fill-in-the-blanks circulars start with nouns (“God,” “devil” and “angel” are the first three queries) and move on to verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. One 1852 form offered more than 300 entries transcribed from the language spoken by the Ojibwa, or Chippewa, who lived in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario.

Native American visitors

When Baldwin began studying Miami in the early 1990s, few scholars knew about the extent of the archives, or even of its existence. Today, encouraged by Smithsonian staff and their own leaders, Native Americans from across the country are visiting it to learn about their language and heritage.

“Language is not just one thing. It has a cultural and community context,” Baldwin said. “We have to get the knowledge to the community, and the archives are the historical repository where you can find all the different resources.”

Today Baldwin directs a Miami language and cultural institute, the Myaamia Center, at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, and is closely allied with the Smithsonian in the National Museum of Natural History’s Recovering Voices program, which promotes the archives as a tool in restoring and revitalizing native languages.

Recovering Voices organizes a biennial workshop for around 60 Native American delegates to learn about the archives and attend seminars on how to use linguistics as a teaching aid. Last year, 19 tribes sent representatives, including the Miwok and Maidu, from central California; the Pawnee, from Kansas and Nebraska; the Powhatan, from Virginia; and the Nipmuck, from Massachusetts.

The archives constantly receive new material and each addition offers new insights, some of which have nothing to do with language.

When head archivist Gina Rappaport examined 700 photographic negatives from Edward S. Curtis’s iconic 20-volume “The North American Indian,” completed in 1930, she found that Curtis, primarily an art photographer, had doctored some raw negatives to remove troublesome but revealing incongruities. The raw negative of one famous image had a Hopi woman standing on top of an adobe building holding an open umbrella. The printed photo had no umbrella. Another raw negative showed two men in ceremonial dress with an alarm clock on the ground between them. In the published photo, the alarm clock had disappeared.

But the core of the archives are collections gathered by such tireless researchers as John Peabody Harrington, whose work takes up 683 feet of shelf space and has information on more than 130 indigenous languages he documented in the early and mid-1900s for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology. For Baldwin, the key materials were notes and reports by Swiss-born linguist Albert Samuel Gatchet, who, in the years straddling the beginning of the 20th century, documented Miami vocabulary and compiled a grammar.

Learning a ‘lost’ language

Baldwin left construction work, enrolled in the University of Montana and eventually earned a master’s degree in linguistics. “There was still a lot of rhetoric in graduate school about ‘lost’ or ‘extinct’ languages,” Baldwin recalled. “But I always felt that if there were materials and communities that were interested, there was no such thing.” So he and his wife home-schooled their four children in the Miami language and proved that it was not extinct. All use Miami in their family life, and the Miami tribe of Oklahoma hired Baldwin’s eldest son, Jarrid, 23, as a language instructor.

Baldwin and linguist David Costa, the friend who first directed him to the Smithsonian archives, have built on the work of Gatchet, but after more than 20 years have only looked at only 30 percent of the available material.

When Recovering Voices began in 2009, it sought not only to help bring Native Americans in contact with threatened languages but also to “learn why languages cease to be spoken,” said program manager Ruth Rouvier. “Why does it happen, and what can we do about it?”

Rouvier is a disciple of Leanne Hinton, a University of California at Berkeley linguist who in the early 1990s was one of the first to focus on vanishing Native American languages and ways to keep them alive. She created a project called Breath of Life, bringing indigenous Californians to Berkeley to use the university archives. This concept — letting the research serve the people from whom the material was collected — has spread widely and lies at the core of Recovering Voices.

“I’ve been a Breath of Life instructor, and it is very important that people have access to these heritage documents,” said Baldwin, whose Myaamia center leads planning for the next Recovering Voices workshop. “There’s not only the ‘wow!’ factor. There have been instances where people found material on specific ancestors and have even heard a great-grandmother’s voice. The work is not just about language, but about recovering pieces of your identity.”

What gives the archive an even greater impact, perhaps, is that the experts who collected the documents probably never thought they would be used again. “They recognized that languages and traditions were being lost, and they documented them for posterity,” Rouvier said. “I wonder what they would think now.”

Gugliotta, a former Washington Post science reporter, is a freelance writer based in New York.