With funding from the NSF Documenting Endangered Language Program, the University of Arizona and the American Museum of Natural History are collaborating with the Hopi Tribe to record toponyms (place names) as a means of documenting the endangered Hopi language. While most Hopis over the age of fifty learned Hopi as their first language, and remain fluent, today less that 5% of Hopis younger than nineteen speak the language. As senior speakers pass away, knowledge of toponyms and the cultural practices they encode is being lost. The project will produce a lexicon of toponyms using digital audio and video files to preserve the sounds of the names vocalized by native speakers of Hopi. These place names will be transcribed using a standard orthography developed by the Hopi Tribe. Cultural, social, historical, and geographical information about each place name will be documented in a geographic information systems database. The toponyms to be documented during this project constitute a potent and understudied linguistic domain. In Hopi discourse, important ideas and processes involving cultural and historical order are localized, commemorated in the landscape, and indexed by place names. Events happened at particular places: an understanding of events is embedded in place names, so knowledge of those places and an understanding of place-names are needed to fully document Hopi language and history. The working hypothesis for the project is that the Hopi have a systematic theory of place and place-naming that has not received the scholarly attention necessary for scholarly comprehension. This research project will articulate a grounded theory of Hopi toponyms to create a body of knowledge can be compared to systems of place-naming in other indigenous communities.

Although Hopi has been the subject of substantial ethnographic research over the last 125 years, there has been relatively little work that documents the morphology, phonology, etymology, meaning, and use of toponyms. The information documented by this project will provide significant linguistic and anthropological information about Hopi cultural transmission, moral instruction, and symbolic links between cultural landscapes and identity. This information is important for understanding the development of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Documenting place names will also provide important information for future use in tribal language preservation programs and reservation curriculum development, thus helping to disseminate Hopi linguistic and cultural knowledge among Hopi youth. Preserving knowledge about Hopi place names will increase public understanding of Hopi history as it relates to the geography of the Southwest.

Project Report

Project Description: The Hopi Tribe, University of Arizona, and American Museum of Natural History completed a three-year long collaborative research project to record Hopi toponyms (place names) and document their social and cultural meaning. The Hopi language is endangered because less than five percent of Hopis less than twenty years old speak the language fluently. As older Hopis pass away, the linguistic and cultural knowledge contained in place names is rapidly being lost. To help preserve this knowledge, 282 place names were recorded using digital audio and video media that document how fluent Hopi speakers pronounce place names. Interviews with fifteen members of the Hopi Tribe were conducted in their homes and during fieldwork to identify places with Hopi names (Figures 1–3). A trained linguist transcribed the place names and prepared a dictionary to preserve that knowledge, paying attention to the dialectal differences in the pronunciation of place names among residents of the three Hopi Mesas (Figure 4). The spatial location and geographical attributes of named places were mapped using Geographic Information Systems software (Figure 5) and photographed where possible. Information about 246 place names was deemed appropriate to share with the public and archived at the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution, Northern Arizona University, and the American Museum of Natural History. All of the information collected during the project was filed at the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. Intellectual Merit: The intellectual merit of the Hopi place names project is evident in how it has significantly advanced anthropological and linguistic knowledge of the Hopi language. Hopi has been the subject of substantial ethnographic research over the last 125 years but there has not been much research focused on the study of place names. Numerous studies of other Native American languages have shown that place names are a vital fund of linguistic and cultural meaning. This project has collected comparable information about Hopi place names and made that available for future comparative studies. The status of the Hopi language in the history of linguistics as an independent branch within the Uto-Aztecan language family makes this research project significant because of the information it documents about cultural geography and linguistics. Hopi has more than 1,000 years of history as a sedentary Pueblo society so there are rich relationships between Hopi language, culture, and the local environment. Documenting the morphology, phonology, etymology, meaning, and use of a large set of place names provided significant information about Hopi cultural practices, moral instruction, and the symbolic links between cultural landscapes and social identity. Broader Impacts: The project achieved broad social impact because by furthering the cultural preservation goals of the Hopi Tribe. The policy of the Hopi Tribe is to preserve the Hopi language for the benefit of future generations of Hopi people, and the documentation of place names on this project has helped to do that. The Cultural Preservation Office of the Hopi Tribe is charged with documenting historical information and sharing it as appropriate with the general public. This project also helped attain that goal. Named places are important in Hopi culture because they contain information about the emergence of humankind from the world below, clan origin, the migration routes that clans followed to the Hopi Mesas, sacred sites of continuing ritual importance, and the geopolitical and social boundaries between Hopi villages and between the Hopi and neighboring tribes. In Hopi oral traditions, knowing where something happened is an important part of knowing that it happened. The 282 place names recorded during this project help document more than millennium of Hopi history. These place names are mapped using Hopi categories of land, including kitsoki (modern villages), kiiqö (ancestral villages), paahu (water), and tutskwa (landform). The documentation of Hopi place names accomplished with funding from the National Science Foundation has provided important information for future use in tribal language preservation programs and curriculum development. At a community meeting held in November of 2011, members of the Hopi Tribe discussed how the fund of knowledge documented during the research will provide a substantial benefit by making Hopi linguistic and cultural knowledge more available to Hopi youth (Figure 6). Preserving knowledge about Hopi place names also increases public understanding of Hopi history as it relates to the cultural history and geography of the Southwest.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Shobhana Chelliah
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University of Arizona
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