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NILI Summer Institute offers native youth connection to heritage, preserves indigenous languages



The Northwest Indian Language Institute, or NILI, has finished up its 21st summer institute this week. Started in 1997 as a request by local tribes as a way to help local Native American communities teach their indigenous languages, NILI hosts a two-week on-campus institute that teaches classes linguistics, traditional ecological knowledge, advocacy and how to work with technology.

Through the years, the summer institute has expanded to no longer just be for elders and instructors, but now includes indigenous youth who want to preserve their languages in a globalized world. The institute has grown to include around a dozen different communities spanning across the country from Klamath Falls, Oregon, to tribes in Oklahoma and Mississippi.

Janne Underriner is the director of NILI and teaches an introductory class on the linguistics of native languages at the summer institute. According to Underriner, her class focuses not just on grammar, but the origin of a word’s sound.

“People really shut down when they learn sounds of languages,” Underriner said. “It’s not necessarily something that’s looked at as being fun, but for me it’s fun and I want them to think it’s fun too.”  

For institute attendees, they spend the two weeks dining together, attending classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in McKenzie Hall, and using campus dorms and local hotels. Everyone eats lunch and dinner together in Carson, and the youth in the program get to experience being on a campus and the Eugene area.

The summer institute can often be the first time on a university campus for younger attendees, according to Underriner. The scholarships to attend the summer institute are funded by a variety of university offices, including the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, the Office of Research and Native American Studies.

Much of NILI’s work revolves around not just creating teaching methods and lesson plans, but according to Marnie Atkins, who works with NILI and has also participated in the summer institute as a member of the Wiyot Tribe, it’s about preserving the knowledge in the language.

“It’s worlds of knowledge that each language holds within it, and so through that language, we learn philosophy and astronomy and science and biology,” Atkins said. “When these languages start to wane, we could lose that information if we don’t work hard to sustain it, to hold it from being lost.”

At the summer institute, it’s not uncommon that attendees will come back multiple years. According to Underriner, one attendee is in their 13th year of attendance. Since the youth program started four years ago, there’s been many returners there too. For Underriner, the sense of community across all age barriers has been a big success at the institute.

For Scott Delancey, a linguistics professor and an instructor at the institute said he wants people to understand that the summer institute and the work that NILI does with indigenous communities makes a difference.

“When I talk about NILI and programs like that, people are very skeptical and they say ‘ah well, that’s very nice but people aren’t really going to learn those languages.’ But in fact, we’re seeing young people showing up now with conversational ability in their heritage language that they acquired back home in their tribal language programs,” Delancey said. “That’s really exciting, and we see more and more of it every year.”


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Erin Carey

Erin Carey

Erin Carey is a Senior Reporter, majoring in Journalism and minoring in Comparative Literature. She loves coffee, hockey and telling visitors at the Oregon Zoo random facts about the animals.