July 3, 2019
Originally from Alexandria, Will Cummins just graduated this year with an Anthropology degree concentrating in anthropological linguistics. Always fascinated by the “diversity of languages world wide,” he has focused his academic career on the preservation of indigenous languages, a timely specialization considering that the United Nations declared 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Cummins emphasized the importance of the language preservation movement given this country’s “history of disrupting the generational spread of languages.” Despite common misconceptions, the “U.S. still has thriving Native American communities…with more indigenous language speakers than many realize. Communities [are] pushing to keep their language in use.”
Cummins was first inspired to pursue the preservation and revitalization of indigenous languages after learning of his Choctaw ancestry in high school. He explored his “distant connection to the [Chocktaw] language” at the 2018 Colang conference with the Mississippi Choctaw Lexicon Project. Working with the Mississippi Choctaw reservation’s tribal language department and linguists, Cummins contributed to updating and expanding their current Choctaw-English dictionary. He furthered this work in April of this year on site at the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi.
Throughout the Choctaw-English dictionary project, Cummins has maintained the “collaborative” nature of the work. “Being respectful…, transparent and open” are vital to “following the community’s wishes.” He recognizes that the dictionary is “not [his] project” but that he is able to “assist Native American groups [while] strengthening language documentation… and language learning materials.” Positive feedback from tribal members and Choctaw speakers “heightened the importance of this project” to Cummins.
Cummins continues to work on language preservation through his current internship with American Philosophical Society’s Native American Scholars Initiative in Philadelphia. Alongside mentors and library staff, he is using archival collections to develop a research project. He hopes to gain more experience in the field before considering graduate school for visual anthropology.