Indigenous Students in Linguistics

PhD student Mskwaankwad presents at the Anishinaabemowin Teg conference

With numerous Indigenous students coming through the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Linguistics in the previous 10+ years, it became clear to us that these students faced common challenges in navigating both the field of linguistics and academia in general. The following information is intended to support Indigenous students in dealing with those challenges. It was written in large part by Indigenous students who have graduated from our program.

Will you fit in at the University of Minnesota?

As the University of Minnesota is a colonial institution, there is an underlying tension that affects our entire experience as Indigenous peoples here. That tension may manifest itself in any aspect of our academic lives. For instance, the University culture reveres its problematic founders and continues to downplay and gloss over the misappropriation of Dakhóta language for a sports slogan, not to mention the triggering passages one may come across in a textbook. As an Indigenous student, these things will make you feel at best uncomfortable and more likely downright unwelcome. 

It is important to remember that you deserve to be where you are and, while the monolithic institution may seem hostile, there are many here who are working to change that. The Department of American Indian Studies and the Office for Public Engagement have organized past workshops and roundtables with this goal. One, for example, chose a theme of "Decolonizing Practices within a Colonial Institution." Additionally, a task force known as the TRUTH project has compiled a report with recommendations for how the University can improve its relations with Minnesota’s 11 Tribal Nations.

That being said, the student and faculty linguists at the University are a friendly bunch. You will make friends and have a lot of fun nerding out over various aspects of linguistics that you find interesting. 

As is often the case in a university setting, you may find yourself to be one of very few (or even the only) Native American students in your classes or program. In recent years, nearly half of the graduate students in the Institute of Linguistics have been Native American and/or worked on Indigenous language reclamation initiatives, but this may not always be the case. You may come to find that your motivation for studying linguistics differs from that of your peers. It is very often the case that Indigenous students pursue linguistics in order to support their personal and community language reclamation goals, whereas non-Indigenous linguists do not often share the same motivation. Nevertheless, you can still expect to find support from your fellow students, who likely come from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of motivations themselves.

Even while in graduate school, my linguistics training has already proven to be very useful for my goals in Ojibwe language reclamation work. I have been provided the skills to analyze language in ways to better understand it, and to apply this understanding to learning and teaching complex parts of Ojibwe grammar. The skills I’ve gained in field methods courses have also been very useful as I do fieldwork with L1 speakers of Ojibwe. I will continue to do all such work when I’m done with grad school.

Mskwaankwad Rice, PhD student

Why should you study linguistics?

Since most Indigenous people who come to study linguistics are doing so to support Indigenous language reclamation, foundational linguistics theories may seem irrelevant to the work that you want to do. At some point in their studies, many Indigenous linguistics students find themselves questioning their decision to study linguistics. It’s a perfectly normal and common experience. 

Even if you don’t wish to become a professor or researcher, you will find having a knowledge of linguistic theory helps you identify and analyze patterns in your language, and knowing linguistic terms and concepts allows you to access materials written about Indigenous languages. This means that you can reclaim knowledge of your language that was encoded by linguists.

In our graduate program you will mostly learn about the theories behind linguistics. This means you will study, analyze, and evaluate different theories that aim to explain phenomena in various branches of linguistics: phonology, syntax, and semantics. 

One tool that linguists use in their work is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is a system that writes speech sounds in a standard way. It is helpful in examining phonology, the sounds of language. In syntax, you will learn how to break down language into its different parts using “tree” diagrams. In semantics, you will learn a formal way to describe meaning in any language by using symbols and notation techniques. 

What are our graduates doing?

  • View Yolanda’s presentation slides about her work with Meskwaki language revitalization (PDF), as delivered in a Linguistic Society of America workshop in 2017. Or, watch her discuss her work with creating the first Meskwaki-language highway sign in 2022.
  • Listen to Mskwaankwad’s podcast, The Language, dedicated to the revitalization of Anishinaabemowin. Episodes discuss such things as second-language learning, translation pitfalls, and personal reflections on language and culture. Mskwaankwad has also helped to run an Ojibwe immersion summer camp, and was interviewed as part of this 2022 CBC Radio article about language documentation and revitalization.
  • Read about Michael’s academic journey, including his latest position as the Native American Studies Faculty Director at LCO Ojibwe College.
  • Listen to Aandeg’s voice acting on the 2021 radio drama Aakoziiwigamig, a collaborative and community-building Ojibwe language outreach project. 
  • Read about how Dustin uses his language degree to reclaim and teach Ojibwe, working with the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary and acting as a board member of the Ojibwe Language immersion school, Waadookodaading.

One important thing that is generally not studied in linguistics is the discipline itself. This includes the history of linguistics and its current status and—most importantly for us—the discipline and its relation to Indigenous peoples. While linguists’ misdeeds do not receive the same attention as those of anthropologists, there are issues to be addressed. 

Linguistics has always viewed Indigenous peoples as objects of study and used their linguistic and cultural knowledge for its own purposes and gains with little to no consideration of the people themselves. While there has been some progress, we still see evidence of this attitude in how our endangered languages are coveted not for their importance to us as people but for what linguistics can gain from these languages. You might come across this sentiment in papers, textbooks, or even conversation with non-Indigenous linguists. See the sections below on adjusting to grad school and adjusting to linguistics academic culture for further discussion on how to navigate this.

Thankfully, some of the issues you may identify in your experience as an Indigenous person in linguistics or in academia in general have been identified and discussed by others previously. 

In 2018, Charity Hudley et al. wrote a paper called Linguistics and race: An interdisciplinary approach towards an LSA statement on race, highlighting the need for the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) to formally make a statement on race. Issues motivating this were the fact that People of Color (POC) are drastically underrepresented in linguistics, that the organization hadn’t yet made such a statement (while those representing anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines had), and that linguistics could contribute to a scholarly understanding of race; the overall goal was to encourage inclusion (and not foster exclusion).

Some other papers that discuss these and related issues are:


Why should you choose the University of Minnesota?

We all come from many different places and backgrounds, and you may experience culture shock coming into grad school. Some of us may be living outside of our home communities for the first time and others may be well adapted to life in the dominant society. Others may even have lived outside of their communities their whole lives. Regardless, starting grad school can feel like a big change for everyone. 

What’s most important to remember is that you are not alone. People have experienced and are experiencing the same things you might be going through right now. 

The University of Minnesota strives to connect new Indigenous students with Indigenous people and groups in the Institute of Linguistics, on campus, in the city, and beyond. Also, your advisor(s), professors, and faculty members have been through grad school themselves and know the struggle. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them if you have anything at all you would like to discuss. There are lots of people and resources, both in Linguistics and in the wider university, that we list throughout this guide who can help you, starting with the director of graduate studies and faculty in Linguistics, but also including resources like the Graduate School Diversity Office and the Community of Scholars Program (COSP).

After you’ve decided to apply to a linguistics graduate program, read about the professors, courses, and general resources for Indigenous students at the institutions you may want to apply to. Our program website has a ton of information about faculty, courses, and other aspects of the program. Pay particular attention to the faculty page, where you can find information about different professors and their research and teaching interests. Ask yourself, are there faculty members who you might be interested to learn from and work with?

Karen Diver, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama on Native American Affairs, was appointed as the University’s inaugural senior advisor to the president for Native American affairs in 2021.

The Race, Indigeneity, Disability, Gender & Sexuality Initiative (RIDGS) supports scholarship and community-building on behalf of these groups.

The Graduate School Diversity Office leads and coordinates the University’s initiatives in the recruitment, funding, retention, and graduation of a diverse graduate student body and works closely with other organizations connected to diversity, underrepresented populations, and multiculturalism. Director of Retention & Success Dr. Cori Bazemore-James talks about the Graduate School Diversity Office

The Community of Scholars Program (COSP) works to create an institutional environment that supports the academic and professional success of Native American graduate students and domestic graduate students of color who are underrepresented in academia.

The University of Minnesota has language immersion houses for Dakota and Ojibwe, which you can live in as a graduate student. Read about Linguistics graduate student Dustin Morrow’s experience.

There are lots of linguists and language activists working on language revitalization and reclamation beyond the University of Minnesota. Here are a few groups and regular events that might help you connect with some of these people.


Other Information for Indigenous Students

Eligibility for Reduced Application Fee

Be aware that some First Nations applicants may be able to apply as domestic students under the Jay Treaty, meaning they can pay the reduced application fee instead of the international student fee, so check whether that applies to you.

Teaching and Research Assistantships

We help students seek teaching and research assistantship opportunities outside of Linguistics. Some of our students have been able to work on language documentation projects in other departments this way, like the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary

Accommodations for Absences, Including Ceremony

Your professors must accommodate you if you need to miss class or turn in work late due to sickness, bereavement, or religious observance, including going to ceremony. The most important thing is to communicate with your professors to tell them what’s going on and to make a plan. The director of graduate studies can also help you figure out how to juggle priorities when life events come up, and can coordinate with your professors.