Linguistics: Community-based Language Revitalization
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This chapter explores ethical aspects of research in a field within linguistics that has developed in just the last several decades: “Language Maintenance and Revitalization.” According to Austin and Sallabank (Cambridge handbook of endangered languages. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011), currently, about 7000 languages are spoken worldwide, and 50–70% of them will be extinct by 2020. The latest version of the online UNESCO Atlas (2010) captured about 2500 endangered languages out of an estimated total of 3000. The field of endangered languages has attracted wide attention from linguists as well as general public for the last several decades. This chapter focuses on aspects of ethical research surrounding the Indigenous language maintenance and revitalization area, in particular regarding the aspect of participants’ language ownership, highlighting some of the core ethical aspects by examining the history of community practices and community-based research.
KeywordsIndigenous languages Language maintenance and revitalization Linguistics Community-based learning Empowerment
This chapter explores ethical aspects of research in a field within linguistics that has developed in the last several decades as “language maintenance and revitalization.” Throughout this chapter, I will use the term “Indigenous languages” to include (but not limited to) Native American languages, First Nations languages, and Aboriginal languages. According to Austin and Sallabank (2011), there are currently approximately 7000 languages spoken worldwide, and 50–70% of them will become extinct by 2020. The latest version of the online UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (2010) captured about 2500 endangered languages out of an estimated total of 3000. The field of endangered languages has caught wide attention from linguists, as well as the general public, for the last several decades. Early prevailing views considered the decreasing number of languages as a natural process, akin to how environmental pressure can endanger animal and plant species, whereas many linguists presently see this decrease in a more ethical light (which sees human intervention as a cause). Further, academics themselves have had a history of interacting with community language speakers (and Indigenous communities especially) without careful consideration of ethical matters. The United Nations also recognized the responsibility of human intervention and proposed to make the year of 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.
Historically linguists assumed that all languages of the world belonged to everyone and therefore were free to be studied and documented by anyone. Eckert (2015) described this time period as “the history of research abuse: Linguists have been known to report such things as surreptitious recording and publication of cultural secrets” (p. 14). Indigenous communities were objects of study, and what material researchers collected was typically viewed as property of the one who collected it. Indigenous language communities, on the contrary, saw their language and cultural knowledge a prized and private part of their community. Therefore, communities developed a strong resistance to academic research because it was acting as an extension of colonialism. In recent years, the language revitalization field has grown as activists and linguists built relationships together that emphasized ethical approaches to issues that are sensitive to Indigenous languages and speech communities.
Although social scientists have long been concerned with ethical issues relating to their work, in recent years, much more attention has been focused on these as a result of the spread of ethical regulation. Moreover, generally speaking, this regulation has assumed a biomedical model of quantitative clinical research, whereas Indigenous research in general has a qualitative, nonexperimental research tendency (Cameron et al. 1992). Eckert (2015) alerts that the government regulation and university ethics review can be “both a help and a hindrance in fostering ethical practice” (p. 11). Leonard and Haynes (2010) identified that a human “participant” (subject) application form at a higher education institution did not offer space to cite partners from the language community that collaborate with a researcher. Engaging in community-anchored research challenges us to reflect on why we do research, what we accomplish in each study, and also how we do it. This ethically reflective process can help all researchers approach collaborative opportunities with Indigenous language communities and, possibly, can lead to fruitful and even better research results (Austin 2010) in the end by documenting larger collection of language corpus and enabling deeper linguistic analyses.
This chapter focuses on an aspect of ethical research surrounding Indigenous language maintenance and revitalization that is fairly unique to this field: community ownership of culture and language. Discussions include relationship development between linguists (researchers) and Indigenous communities, the role of linguists, collaborative research in order to avoid research abuse, and how to perform ethically conducted research by sharing equal ownership of it. I will share insights drawn from a review of community-based research in the literature of Indigenous language revitalization, reflections from my own experiences working with local communities in the United States, as well as from case studies from different regions and offer a deeper ethical perspective built from the historical context. (There are some similar research categories/concepts that describe the nature of collaborative research such as inclusive research and emancipatory research. Nind (2014) compares several concepts and contributes to ideological discussions in her book What Is Inclusive Research? For this particular chapter, I adopted the term and ideology “community-based research” covering the Indigenous language revitalization field with a particular focus on its relationship to language communities.)
Community Practices in the Field of Indigenous Language Revitalization
In recent years, an increasing number of scholars in the Indigenous language revitalization field identified the concept of collaborative research or community-based research as an important component in the ethics of linguistic research (Bischoff and Jany 2018; Cameron et al. 1992; Eckert 2015; Fitzgerald 2007, 2018; Kono 2013; Leonard and Haynes 2010; Rice 2006, 2018; Yamada 2007).
Karen Rice (2006) closely examined ethical issues in linguistics by quoting three models presented by Cameron et al. (1992): ethical research, advocacy research, and empowering research. Ethical research is still defined as research “on a social subject,” whereas advocate research and empowering research models are more closely related. The main difference between these latter two is that empowering research requires not only “research on, for” (which is a tenet of advocacy research), but also “research with” the participants. In the empowering model, researchers treat research participants as people, not subjects, who have their own goals and equal power in steering project outcomes. Rice encourages researchers to practice empowering research models, and some have followed her lead. In 2007, Colleen Fitzgerald echoed this direction by raising a critical question to her audience at a presidential speech on the role of linguists: “The question this raises is whether there is a moral or ethical obligation to use our linguistic knowledge to counter prevailing myths about language, particularly when those myths perpetuate language discrimination. These questions are also important for the profession in our consideration of ethics... (p. 2).”
The language revitalization field now has more than three decades of academic practice and accumulated literature. And while many academics might have begun language community work as outsiders, collaborations and ethical considerations have proven to be the key components to the success of their work. In her recently published Handbook of Language Revitalization (Hinton et al. 2018), Leanne Hinton eloquently illustrates some of the core issues of language revitalization as follows:
It is important to bear in mind that language revitalization is not really about language. It is about many other things: autonomy and decolonization, knowledge of traditional values and practices, a renewed understanding and care of the land, a sense of community togetherness and belonging, and a strong identity that children can grow into. Language is one of the keys to all of this, and language revitalization is about all of these things. (p. 501)
Implied in Hinton’s assertion is that to collaborate on revitalizing a language requires collaboration on understanding traditional values and enriching the community support systems. In other words, ethical considerations of how to work with communities are central aspects of language revitalization and its research.
Another scholar who heavily supported this view was the celebrated and talented linguist, Ken Hale (1934–2001). In addition to his own personal service to befriended communities, he pioneered community-based work in linguistics by advocating for linguistic training for community people so that they may analyze their own languages. Building on this, some Native American language training institutes were created (including the Arizona Indian Language Development Institute, Northwest Indian Language Institute in the USA, and Canadian Aboriginal Language Development Institute in Canada). Hale is a role model in this arena and has left a legacy to the linguistic field carried on by the Linguistic Society of America. The Linguistic Society of America now includes an award category for Excellence in Community Linguistics, which is given to community linguists of endangered languages who make extraordinary contributions to the field, including Valerie Switzler in 2016 for her Warm Springs Tribal languages maintenance and revitalization contributions. Due to collaborative partnerships by researchers like Hale, linguists and community experts are continuously promoting Indigenous language revitalization projects.
Researchers: Knowledge produced through investigation; explanations most important (whereas) Community: Knowledge produced through experience; existential aspect most important (p. 96)
This insight arose from his numerous experiences as a language planning/policy adviser, and he describes this as an ethical dilemma (Bianco 2015). The logical result is that academics is interested in studying and explaining the languages (and their similarities and differences), whereas language communities are more interested in sustaining their community languages (e.g., increasing the number of the language speakers).
When I was hired by tribes of the Pacific Northwest, I encountered this ideological contrast between the academics and language activists in the communities. I saw a healthy amount of valuable tribal material captured in the academic world that the tribes would benefit from, yet it was not readily accessible or available to the whole community for various reasons. Responding to a request from a community elder, my first task for the sake of both parties was to invite scholars, who had previously worked for the community, to return to the community. Through the process of organizing a conference in 2003 as a joint effort between Portland State University and the Warm Springs tribes, I heard many positive voices from both academics and language communities. For example, one of the elders shared her own mother’s happy memory working with a linguist. She invited more scholars to return to the community, and many of the researchers responded positively to her request. Among the many friendships I observed between these scholars and community members, there was a circle of people who dedicated themselves to working with the community for many, many years (Kono 2010). This circle started with Drs. French and French at Reed College, back in the 1960s, who cultivated a group of scholars that would follow in their footsteps. These community-dedicated scholars included Dell Hymes, his wife Virginia Hymes, Robert Moore, and Hank Millstein. Hank served as a tribal linguist and continues to work with tribes remotely, most recently on a project to produce an Ichishkiin dictionary through the National Science Foundation. The majority of these people’s work was done under the banner of anthropology or linguistics, but now squarely fits within the field of Language Revitalization. What is so noteworthy about Drs. French and French – and why they are the ideal models for bridge building – is their empowering and humanistic approaches that nurtured long-standing friendship between the academics and a language community.
Nancy Hornberger (2011) describes Dell Hymes’ contributions to both academics and language communities and his ethical-political stance as follows:
Forty years on and more, it is clear that Hymes’s scholarship and political advocacy have in no small measure led the way in that task—with a social justice impact reaching beyond anthropology to educational policy and practice and, far more importantly, to the lives and well-being of countless learners and teachers, individuals, and communities around the world. (pp. 316–317)
Dell Hymes’ ethical stance, which deeply aligns with empowering research, is highlighted in his own words (1996):
This chapter has argued for understanding speech communities as actual communities of speakers. In this way one can go beyond a liberal humanism which merely recognizes the abstract potentiality of languages, toward a humanism which can help with concrete situations, with the inequalities that obtain and can help to transform them through knowledge of the ways in which language is organized as a human problem and resource. (p. 60)
What I learned through interacting with people in this circle is the fullness of Hymes’ argument: that the most important benefactors of Indigenous language work are those communities that are home to the language. And this is the foundational essence of ethics for the language revitalization work, which is carried by new generations of activists and scholars in the field of Indigenous language revitalization.
Given that we are losing large numbers of fluent speakers of Indigenous languages, documentation and archiving the Indigenous languages becomes a critical component in the Indigenous linguistic field, especially with rapid technological development. “The practice of documentary linguistics has a greater impact in a community than traditional data collection practice” (Thieberger and Musgrave 2007, p. 26). Traditional data practices placed high value on the analytical output, often resulting in source recordings being kept private and ignored as having value in their own right. But language documentation today recognizes the value of the materials, as well as the analysis, as they may serve in producing additional derivative output value to the community – not to mention that documentation from even one generation ago can be a treasure for communities facing dangerously few fluent speakers. (A recent example of language documentation is as follows: a documentation team can collect and document language (including conversations, oral stories, and written materials) and analyze language material and then develop dictionaries, grammar books, and other teaching materials. They will also archive the language data (audio, visual, and written files including filed notes) into one or more secure storage locations with “meta-data” (information about the data: who collected the information, who were the speakers, where the recordings took place, etc.). The information is sorted and stored with a trusted archival system that offers acceptable data access and management systems, for example, enabling controls of who can access which materials and how.) Himmelmann (1998) sets out strong ethical obligations for linguists in the field which gives rise to many detailed questions (e.g., what should linguists record, how should they go about recording, who owns the recordings, and who can access recordings – just to list a few). In Australia, the Australia Council for the Arts: Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language has developed several guidelines for ethical research in Aboriginal/Indigenous research. According to Thieberger and Jones (2017), “Research projects should be conducted in accordance with the principle of Indigenous peoples’ rights to maintain, control, protect and develop their intangible heritage, including their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions and intellectual property.”
One critical observation this chapter makes is that there have been several generations of scholars, each learning and building from the previous, who have been exploring what the linguist’s role is, consideration of language ownership, and how to bridge academic and community ideological differences. This generational learning sought to understand the intersection of ethics and research, and this formed the essence of community-based research. Rice (2018) described community-based research as community-situated, collaborative, and action-oriented, which is based on principles from the Centre for Community-Based Research, Canada:
First, community-based research begins with a research topic of practical relevance to the community and is carried out in community settings. Second, community members and researchers equitably share control of the research agenda through active and reciprocal involvement in the design, implementation, and dissemination. Finally, the process of results can transform and mobilize diverse ideas, resources, and experiences to generate positive action for communities. (p. 15)
Aspects of language documentation and archive research should thoughtfully integrate strong ethical practices, trust-building, and community-oriented goals into all project work. Many field linguists follow this trend and create pedagogical materials during the fieldwork or as part of the results of their research in addition to linguistic analyses. Material development during the fieldwork (or as results) can help to develop trust relationships with the participants and communities with the community recognizing the researcher’s willingness to contribute to their lives. Chirkova (2018) has worked on a documentation and revitalization of Duoxu with Tibeto-Burman communities of Southwest China and also identified the importance of being “part of a language revitalization team as a field linguist such as ‘writing teaching materials, helping with teacher training, and teaching the language’.” (p. 452). Another example comes from Akumbu (2018), who amplified an African voice by suggesting a cultural appropriate way to disseminate language documentation results by providing opportunities to watch or listen to products of research rather than giving research papers, which might not be read by community people. During the research, community experts and linguists may find additional resources from other researchers or academic archive, and these resources can also be shared to create more integrated community-based archive.
As we reviewed in this section, ethical reflection on the role of linguist and/or awareness of language ownership is central to each action and decision through the course of research. Communities each have their own unique situation and desire that offers creative ways for researchers to collaborate. A recent volume of community-based research (Bischoff and Jany 2018) covers case studies from various regions from around the globe.
Historical Perspective: Collaboration for a Pathway Toward “Healing” (Being Trauma-Informed)
As part of entering into a collaborative relationship, it is important to understand the community background and goals. Leonard and Haynes (2010) encourage us to critically re-examine the collaborative relationship to avoid an imbalanced power relationship. One path to examine in order to understand the power balance is the historical background of the communities and their languages. I echo Kramsch and Whiteside (2007) as they emphasize that researcher positioning needs “to be explicitly and systematically accounted for and placed in its historical, political, and symbolic context” (p. 918).
Many Indigenous languages disappeared due to colonization, with very few having any historical records. It is estimated that over 300 languages were spoken in North America prior to European contact, and according to UNESCO, only about 158 languages are spoken today. In many communities today, fluent speakers are limited to a small number of elders, although some communities are fortunate enough to have a larger number of people who speak the language. Nearly all speakers are bilinguals, and “bilinguals are using more English rather than the heritage language” (Kroskrity and Field 2009). Colonial policies worked explicitly to suppress Indigenous language around the globe. For example, in North America, the assimilation policies oppressed Native American communities by eliminating traditional lifestyles and, especially, language. Between the fifteenth and late-nineteenth centuries, Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to schools which were specifically structured to eradicate Indigenous culture. In 1880, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) mandated that Indian (Indigenous) education had to be conducted in English at both missionary and government-run schools – otherwise those schools would lose government funding. This policy practice continued until the 1930s when day schools were built and Native American languages were again permitted (Kroskrity and Field 2009). Outside of the United States, similar assimilation policies were implemented in other places including Canada and Australia. There are children who are separated from their families and forcibly repressed exercising traditional customs and language. This oppression has left lasting emotional scars (intergenerational trauma) spanning entire communities that are still experienced today. It is reasonable to assume that this trauma contributes to the higher mortality rates, fetal alcohol syndrome incidents, and economic hardships that these communities face today. Due to these conditions, language revitalization work faces greater challenges. On the other hand, because of this environment, some communities are even more strongly committed to maintaining/reviving their culture and language for community development. In Canada, Gary Oleman shared his view of the experiences of residential school and emphasized that healing is a pathway to overcome these past experiences of trauma and also warned that the oppressed might become future oppressors and continue to pass on the trauma to next generations without healing (Gibbons et al. 2002). In recognition of trauma and its consequences, ceremonies have been offered collectively to share the Indigenous people’s experiences and help people move forward to empowerment and healing.
Denzin (2010) emphasizes that “Indigenists must conduct, own, and benefit from any research that is done on or for them” (p. 306). The moral inquirer “builds a collaborative, reciprocal, trusting, mutually accountable relationship with those studied” (Denzin 2003). This Indigenous researcher view is perfectly suited to the Indigenous language revitalization research area. As the historical context suggests, the concept of “language ownership” has great significance to Indigenous language communities. “The American and European ideology that a language is not part of a whom is simply wrong in some of the cultures that linguists work in” (Eckert 2015). Ethical care needs to be in the forefront through all parts of the research process as a researcher. And this can be done by regularly visiting Smith’s (1999) critical inquiry which explores ethical research for Indigenous people, by asking the purpose of research and who would benefit from research results, no matter whether the researcher is a community member or noncommunity member. It is not enough to just follow human subject “participant” regulations; in conducting research, we must recognize the embedded history that communities still live with and position ourselves individually, culturally, and institutionally with full awareness of ethics in our research environment. A powerful example of how a community took action to define a set of ethical behaviors to break negative patterns of research can be found in the European Commission’s TRUST project, which has been assisting the Indigenous San community of South Africa based on the San people’s communal and historical reflection on previous research abuse in the community. In order to best protect the community peoples’ cultural property, the San Code of Research Ethics (2017) identifies several core community values and asks researchers to follow the community-initiated research protocols accordingly.
Whether community values have been ignored in individual research or by policies of their surrounding environment, it is important to recognize that these communities are living with historical trauma – and it is critical to have that perspective when starting any language sustainability effort and research. Many elders with whom I worked shared their personal boarding school experiences, relaying particularly how that severed “intergenerational language transmission” – which is a critical aspect of language maintenance according to Joshua Fishman (1991). Psychological, as well as physical, abuse is painfully illustrated in many stories, Indigenous testimonies, and history books. Thus, often a major impediment to the revival of a language is this painful history. Owing to my most recent community partnerships, I have learned that recognizing our own trauma is part of the healing process. Any effort that fosters healing becomes an indispensable aspect of Indigenous language revival, even though at first it may seem removed from typical linguistic activities. Mercier (2014) described how a trauma-informed community-based participatory research was effective for health initiatives within Indigenous communities in Portland, Oregon. Although this “trauma-informed” care has been practiced in many other areas including improving health issues among Indigenous people and housing issues (namely homeless populations), it appears that this approach hasn’t been included in the Indigenous language revitalization research field yet. Howard Bath (2008), a psychologist in Australia, identified the three pillars of trauma-informed care for deeply distressed children as (1) safety, (2) connections, and (3) emotional management. Given the history of Indigenous language communities, it is likely no coincidence that several of the most successful language revitalization patterns explicity or implicitly address all three pillars, for example, master-apprentice methods (where a fluent master speaker passes on her cultural and language knowledge to a language apprentice learner by spending time together through hands-on culturally centered activities) and language nest approaches (where language instruction takes place in a small-group and intergenerational family setting). The first language nest project was created by Maori community in New Zealand, and due to its success, it was picked up by the Hawaiian immersion program (as well as many other Indigenous language communities after that). Students in the language community need safety and connections among community members. It is also important that they are emotionally supported through the language program. Researchers who hope to aid Indigenous language programs would be well served to hold this perspective when collaborating to create an effective language program. A similar argument can be seen in the recent Indigenous language revitalization research project development: Whalen et al. (2016) claim that acquiring Indigenous languages improved the health of Indigenous learners; therefore, it contributes directly to “healing.” If Indigenous family members who experience intergenerational trauma can understand their own history and find a path to heal, hopefully they will be motivated to learn their heritage language and participate in research project when the healing perspective is included.
According to Thorne et al. (2015) in their report of Indigenous language research in Alaska, “Trust is earned through the development and maintenance of long-term relationships and by putting the goals of the communities before the goals of the academy” (p. 159). In my personal experience and research in the Indigenous language revitalization field, this trust can be gained through collaborative efforts among project members who all strive to find a path toward healing from historical trauma. Historical trauma itself perpetuates divisions among people, and the “trauma-informed” approach is critically important for Indigenous communities themselves as well as for non-Indigenous communities. In recognition of this (and explicitly to counter the trauma), a group of Indigenous language scholars (Whalen et al. 2016) are promoting healing and health benefits through Indigenous language use. This type of project is a strong example of empowering research. The inclusion of language as an influencer in healing is a long-waited addition to this interdisciplinary research area, which will open another door for revitalizing Indigenous languages as well as energizing communities. I also agree that “the opportunity to do research in the field is a gift” (Eckert 2015), given an opportunity to contribute not only to academic field, linguistics specifically, but also to civic engagement and personal growth. The self-reflective, teamwork-based pedagogy “community-based learning” (American Academy of Arts & Sciences 2017) and “community-based participatory research” (Holkup et al. 2009) approaches can work well toward this realm as these pedagogies encourage us to co-create the research agenda, goals, processes, and results and to critically examine power issues among community members, faculty, and students. I also would like to expand the definition of collaborative work, not only between researchers and communities but also among researchers themselves (which we saw between the Frenches and their protégés). The longer the collaborative relationship lasts, the larger the effect can be (Bernard Spolsky, personal communication, April 19, 2007).
The community-based research approach, of course, is not problem-free and shares some of the same struggles of collaborative research in other fields. How to ensure the power balance remains even through the entire project? How can we properly assess whether the research can be ethically designed, conducted, or disseminated? Who would perform the assessment? How can linguists find a balance between their passion toward language (linguistic) work and their contributions to community goals? How do we make sure community-defined “healing” is incorporated into the research? A more careful, detailed research planning process, as well as long-term partnerships, might be desirable. Also, team-based approaches from multiple perspectives might benefit the project by validating research planning processes, the data analyses, and dissemination methods. It is also desirable to include a key community person who can interpret, and even represent, the community views in the research team. And then, many of the important research processes and stages can be consulted or discussed periodically together with community authority/experts and researchers.
We might also have broader ethical challenges ahead of us, such as How can we continue to develop ethical guidance for the future use of technology (and the delicate decisions around access arising from the connected online world) in language documentation and revitalization? And at the institutional level, how can academics be rewarded for the time and effort involved in building relationships and trust with community partners? These are just a few of many questions for the ethical field – and they call for deeper inquiry. As the number of Indigenous experts and scholars increases and wider audiences’ ethical awareness is broadened, the research scene in this field continues to evolve. And as we continue to build theories and shape best practices on research ethics, lessons each individual learns can be shared with the research community and used to improve our ethical lenses in research. I believe the most effective method for us to do that is by engaging in steady and critical dialogue among us locally and globally, and across different disciplines, as well as within (and between) communities we partner with.
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