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Sharing Kwakwaka’wakw worlds of knowledge through Kota

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Title: Sharing Kwakwaka’wakw worlds of knowledge through Kota
Issue Date: 03 Mar 2013
Description: The Kwak’wala word kota translates as ‘to play with string’. In 1930-31, a Russian ethnologist, Averkieva, accompanied Boas to Kwakiutl (Kwagu’ɬ, Kwakwaka’wakw) territory, where she recorded 112 string figures, many accompanied by lyrics (transcribed by Boas) and music (untranscribed; only a small subset of the melodies are still known). This collection, decyphered from her fieldnotes and published in English by Sherman in 1992, stands as “the most comprehensive Native American string figure collection ever assembled from a single tribe” (Averkieva & Sherman 1992:xiii). Even at the time they were documented, Averkieva reported that the figures were “not played extensively” (1992:3), and they have in the generations since then fallen away from practice and memory.

Our goals in this research project have been, through the re-introduction of kota into the now critically endangered Kwak’wala community, to bring together the domains of language documentation and revitalization as an integral part of the multifaceted, interdisciplinary, ever-evolving culture in which that language is embedded. Our research team represents a strong collaboration among the worlds of knowledge, life experiences, and perspectives of three Kwakwaka’wakw community members with extensive experience in academia and a linguist who has been working with the community for several years.

Our language documentation research sought, first, to establish the extant pronunciation (80+ years later) of the Boasian transcriptions of the kota. Among the revitalization consequences are not only the bringing back of the lyrics themselves as an oral tradition, but also the thrill for Kwak’wala speakers to (re-)discover words long dormant. Particularly challenging - but fundamental to the community’s revitalization goal of integrating Kwakwaka’wakw epistemology into fluent language usage - is moving beyond a literal interpretation of the kota lyrics. More like a genre of poetry than story, kota language may be cryptic, condensed, ambiguous - mirroring the visual form, the nature of kota being to ignite the imagination through spatial abstraction and minimalism. In a search for the layers of meaning in the kota chants, the insights of the few fluent speakers as the cultural knowledge-bearers are indispensible.
Beyond reconstructing the language of kota performance, we illustrate how string games function as an innovative, engaging, culturally-grounded methodology for eliciting features of the complex domains of geometrical shape, spatial orientation and temporal sequencing in Kwak’wala.

From the community perspective, kota engages all generations, it isn’t classroom-bound, it nurtures security beyond literacy, laughter overrides inhibition, and ... it’s creatively, infectiously fun!
URI/DOI: http://hdl.handle.net/10125/26128
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)



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