The seeds of some ideas are just too strong to die. Falling first on rocky ground, they settle into a crack, take root and keep growing, in spite of the odds. The Burnaby Aboriginal Literacy Blog is just such a seed.
This project began in 2007, when a group of about 25 researchers and practitioners in Aboriginal languages and education wrote a proposal for a critical review of literature on Aboriginal peoples and literacy. Although the proposal was not funded, the idea sprouted anyway under the guidance of Barbara Burnaby, a retired faculty member from Memorial University whose academic and practical work has focussed on the role and development of Aboriginal languages in Aboriginal education. Despite the lack of funding, the collaborators kept collaborating, and three graduate students with assistantships in linguistics (two at Memorial University and one at the University of Toronto) were engaged to continue the work.
Initially, the collaborators contributed lists of references they knew best into a central pool. The research assistants reviewed the references and, together, they developed a system for categorizing the entries. These categories included the major Aboriginal language family groups in Canada as well as a number of relevant topics such as community development, policy, and so on. With the addition of Nik Rolle’s relational database skills, lists of papers relevant to each major category were produced.
Sharing this information was the next obvious goal. The database and categorized lists were shared with the initial collaborators, but the database itself was still in too raw a form to be easily distributed when the grad students’ assistantships came to an end.
The next hope was to have a national conference on these materials, the database and the implications, to be attended by all the participants involved from the start. Most direct meetings between academics and community practitioners occur in the field, in settings limited to a single Aboriginal language family group. A meeting that invites participants to collaborate across these natural cultural and linguistic boundaries is crucial to our concept of the project. We still hope for the opportunity to gather in person, but until then, maintaining communication among the collaborators is essential.
Barbara’s strengths may not extend to computer networking technology, but interpersonal networking has always been her forte. By inviting the original collaborators to stay in touch informally, she encouraged the idea to continue to grow. She also arranged for significant advocates of Aboriginal language and literacy to access the database in support of their research interests and application. In the process, Barbara became a recognized communication hub, whom collaborators inform of their upcoming events, and who faithfully relays their news to a list that has grown from the original 25 to well over 100.
At the 2010 Algonquian Conference in St John’s, Barbara reconnected with her old conference acquaintance Arden Ogg. Arden’s twelve-year term as Managing Editor of the Papers of the Algonquian Conference (under the academic editorships of D.H. Pentland, J.D. Nichols and H.C. Wolfart) had ended in January 2009 when the University of Manitoba withdrew its support from the project. She had begun a self-funded collaboration with Cree-speaking friends and colleagues from Saskatchewan and Alberta to establish the Cree Literacy Network (http://www.creeliteracy.org), to support the publication of Cree language literacy materials. Asking Barbara for bibliographical references was virtually inevitable.
Arden was very soon in touch with Nik Rolle, who had maintained the database long after his assistantship had ended. With years of experience designing Cree text editions, and a skill set that includes databases, mailing lists, editing, publication and web authoring, Arden recognized the tremendous value to her own work of the bibliography and Barbara’s informal list, and was intrigued with the possibility of distributing them more widely.
Working together – still unfunded – Barbara and Arden believe the need for this project is greater than ever. We hope that by launching it in blog and web form we can begin to offer the communication and outreach that Barbara has nurtured through her emails to an even broader audience in Canada and beyond. In blog form, Barbara’s periodic e-mails will become a public archive of news and initiatives in the field of Aboriginal language and literacy. We have also begun to polish and further develop the critical bibliography, in hopes of opening it to broader collaboration as well. We are excited to launch into this new conversation and hope new possibilities emerge that help this persistent seed of an idea continue to grow and flourish.*
*If you’ve read this far, you will have recognized Barbara Burnaby as force that connects and drives all the elements of this project. In recognition of her estimable networking skills and tenacity, and over her humble objections, this blog is named to acknowledge her career-long vision and leadership in this important field. Click here to view