Helping to Preserve the Endangered Language and Culture of the Kiowa Tribe
Submitting InstitutionQueen Mary, University of London
Unit of AssessmentModern Languages and Linguistics
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Psychology and Cognitive Sciences: Cognitive Sciences
Language, Communication and Culture: Linguistics
Summary of the impact
Researchers working on endangered languages have an obligation to produce
work of lasting value to the language community. International
collaborative research by QMUL on Kiowa (fewer than 30 fluent speakers)
has substantially contributed to preserving and revitalizing this native
language of Oklahoma. Tribal elders, grassroots language-class
participants, grassroots self- learners and Kiowa cultural institutions
have benefitted from new language-learning resources: specially designed
booklets and an online community via Facebook and YouTube. Over 200 people
are now learning Kiowa using real oral literature rather than made-up
sentences. A vast amount of linguistic and cultural knowledge, which would
otherwise have been lost with the last fluent generation, is now made
accessible to the tribe. Tribal members not fluent in Kiowa are now
accessing previously inaccessible cultural capital lodged with tribal
institutions whose mission is enhanced. Individual tribal elders also
report a sense of fulfillment in being able to pass on their culture.
The research was funded by (the then) AHRB, under grant APN17572,
`Information Structure and Word Order in a Polysynthetic Language',
awarded to David Adger (QMUL). The grant ran from September 2004 to
September 2007 and comprised an award of £192,000. Adger was Reader in
Linguistics at the time, and was PI on the grant. His co-PI was Laurel
Watkins (Colorado College), who is the world expert on Kiowa language.
QMUL employed Daniel Harbour full time on the grant as Research Fellow,
and subsequently in a 0.25 then 0.5 permanent position. Fieldwork was
carried out in Anadarko and Carnegie, Oklahoma. All research was carried
out under grant auspices.
The primary aim of the research was to investigate how a free word order
language like Kiowa uses information about speakers' expectations of each
others' knowledge to structure discourse and grammar. Answering this
underpinning question required the close collaboration of the last native
speakers of the language (about 30 elderly people). The researchers used
recordings collected between the 1950s and 1980s, working with fluent
tribal elders to understand how grammar and discourse intertwine. This led
to a level of detailed knowledge of Kiowa storytelling and language that
would otherwise have remained forever inaccessible. They found that not
only are concepts like topic and focus encoded by particular syntactic
devices, but that specific regions of the Kiowa clause are used to mark
important shifts in narrative expression. The research also led to new
insights into and knowledge of Kiowa lexis, dialectology, grammar and
Moreover, the research helped answer a hard, but fundamental, question
about transcribing Kiowa oral literature: people don't speak with
punctuation or in paragraphs, so where to insert such breaks is generally
a choice that outsiders must make without proper understanding of
narrative subtleties and conventions. Results can largely misrepresent
native understanding. The research provided original and distinctive
insight into how discourse structure is reflected in Kiowa syntax (Adger et
al, 2009; Harbour et al, 2011) and, therefore, how the texts
should be faithfully transcribed.
In addition, the researchers established a steering committee of Kiowas
(elders and younger tribal members) during the research itself to ensure
that the community could engage with our work and the team has sustained
its connections with Elders and Kiowa Cultural institutions since the
project finished, in order to be able to produce work of lasting value to
the tribe. With the aid of these connections, the team has developed an
ongoing collaboration, which has allowed them to make the stories that
emerged from the research available in a way that is accessible and useful
to the Kiowa tribe and beyond.
References to the research
Key research outputs:
i. Adger, Harbour, Watkins. 2009. Mirrors and Microparameters: Phrase
Structure beyond Free Word Order. Cambridge University Press:
ii. Harbour, Watkins, Adger. 2011. Information structure, discourse
structure and noun phrase position in Kiowa. International Journal of
American Linguistics 78: 97-126. DOI 10.1086/662639
iii. Harbour. 2011. Kiowa-Tanoan languages. Oxford Bibliographies
Online: Linguistics. 18 manuscript pages.
iv. Watkins, Harbour. 2010. The linguistic genius of Parker McKenzie's
Kiowa alphabet. International Journal of American Linguistics 76:
309-333. DOI 10.1086/652791
v. Adger, Harbour. 2007. Syntax and syncretisms of the person case
constraint. Syntax. 10: 2-37. DOI 10.1111/j.1467-9612.2007.00095.x
Evidence of quality of research:
1. Grant APN17572 was awarded a grade of OUTSTANDING by the AHRC
2. Mirrors and Microparameters was well-reviewed in Lingua
3. Mirrors and Microparameters and 'Syntax and syncretisms of the person
case constraint' are REF2014/RAE2008 submissions respectively
Details of the impact
There are 11,445 enrolled Kiowa tribal members but fewer than 30 fluent
Kiowa speakers, and they are in the last decades of their lives. The tribe
is committed to preserving its language; language loss has a huge impact
on cultural identity. Because of this, the research team established a
steering group during the research (from 2004) and engaged with the tribe
after the research (from 2009), leading to the creation of useful cultural
and linguistic materials, primarily booklets of stories (distributed from
June 2012; 1,395 so far) and sound files on YouTube, digitized and edited
by the research team. These are being used to help preserve and revitalise
Kiowa. The Director of the Kiowa Tribe Museum says: `There is a great need
for language tools such as booklets, guides, CDs, apps ... the booklets
... will assist us in our fight to preserve and reclaim our language.'
The research findings led to an understanding of the recorded stories
that allowed the researchers to present them in a way that makes the Kiowa
language and Kiowa cultural memory accessible to the younger tribal
members whose own control of the language is dysfluent or highly
restricted, as well as to Kiowas with a stronger grasp on their language.
The booklets are presented in a layout allowing multipurpose usage,
combining Kiowa text for fluent speakers, word-by-word glosses for
learners, and idiomatic English translations for non-speakers. They are
structured in a `flippable' fashion, allowing use of the two most common
Kiowa writing systems.
The booklets are distributed by key tribal contacts and by agencies of
tribal government, culture, media and education, including the Kiowa Tribe
Museum, the Kiowa Elders' Center, the Anadarko Daily News (connected to
the National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians) and Jacobson House,
a non-profit Native American centre. They are also downloadable from a
Facebook group, established in 2012 by the researchers to engage the
community in a sustainable fashion
(www.facebook.com/groups/290180151091518). Harbour gave a talk on how the
texts were to be made accessible to Museum and Elders' Center employees
and was interviewed about this on Kiowa Voices Radio (4/13).
This work has impacted on four beneficiaries:
(1) Elders. The elders (aged over 70) are central to tribal
identity as custodians of cultural memory and linguistic knowledge.
Individual elders, as well as those responsible for their welfare, report
personal and community benefits. The Director of the Kiowa Elders' Center
says: `All this work is appreciated by the leadership of the Kiowa tribe
as well as by those of us who are working to learn our language', (letter
29/4/13). An elder says: `You gave me the inspiration to learn my Kiowa
language and to teach my half-Kiowa children our language.' (Facebook
(2) Language classes. Life-long-learning, grass-roots language
classes running weekly at Jacobson House, at Chickasha (taught by Dorothy
Delaune, over 270 booklets distributed), and at Oklahoma University (Dane
Poolaw) now have Listen-Read-Repeat resources, featuring whole stretches
of discourse on culturally significant topics. Ms Neely, assisting Mrs
Delaune in Chickasha, says: `I love the booklets — you all did a great
job! I'm so glad you're distributing them and getting them out into the
community.' (Facebook 17/3/13). Mr Poolaw says: `This is great! ... keep
it up, this will be very useful ... help[ing] students and learners get to
read and hear Kiowa and get used to pronunciation.' (Facebook 15/02/13).
(3) Self-learners. Grass-roots self-learners benefitted via a
online community set up via the Kiowa Stories Facebook group (over 200
members including adult learners, organizations and students from local
high schools), which distributes electronic materials and YouTube
recordings (A Kind Man — 84 downloads; Captive Woman — 57,
Olden Times — 30).
One member of the group, who lives away from the main Kiowa area, says:
`It is very helpful ... being able to hear the audio of the speaker and
also reading along with them. I have downloaded the stories booklets to my
phone and have also made recordings of the audio ... It is very important
to me as a Kiowa to keep this language alive, I have also been helping my
family on learning the Kiowa language. The Kiowa Stories Facebook page is
also a great room, I know if I have a question on a word or phrase that
would be the first place I would check ...' (email 22/06/13).
(4) Kiowa Tribal Museum. The Museum is a cultural resource and
tourist attraction, featuring art, artefacts, and, audio(visual)
recordings. Its mission includes preserving and providing access to
cultural/linguistic heritage. The materials produced aid in this, making
previously inaccessible cultural heritage available to speakers,
non-speakers and learners. The Museum's Director says: `One of the most
frequent requests here at the Museum is for language materials. ...
Currently, we do not have any language texts (apart from the booklets
...).' The researchers' sustained engagement with the museum, before,
during and after the project, has led the museum to act as a hub, hosting
sound files and distributing booklets. She continues: `One of our long
term goals [is] to create a language center ... the books that you sent
will fit in well with that goal.' (email 18/4/13).
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Director, Kiowa Tribal Museum (www.kiowatribe.org/kiowa-museum).
To corroborate need for language learning materials and usefulness of
booklets at cultural and institutional levels.
- Fluent elder and language teacher, Jacobson House Language (www.jacobsonhouse.com).
To corroborate usefulness of materials in language classes and
individual benefits as an elder.
- Learner and teacher of life-long learning language classes,
University of Oklahoma. To corroborate usefulness of materials in
life-long learning language classes for community.
- Director, The Jacobson House (www.jacobsonhouse.com). To corroborate
usefulness and cultural importance to the tribe of materials produced.
- Director, the Kiowa Elders' Centre (www.kiowatribe.org/administration-on-aging).
To corroborate individual benefits to Elders of research process and
To corroborate photographs of booklets and acknowledgment of their
distribution by various centres, number of members of Facebook group,
sustainability of engagement, usefulness of materials to grass-roots
self-learners, downloadability of resources.
- YouTube availability of sound files and download numbers:
Captive Woman: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITjUj1kgi-w,
Olden Times: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ep6vsHgqzPk&feature=youtu.be,
A kind man: www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_W72X0A0WM
- Letters of appreciation from the Directors of the Kiowa Elders'
Centre and the Kiowa Tribe Museum. Emails and facebook messages from
Kiowa learners and teachers. Available on request.