Exchanging words and skills: Language documentation in West Papua

Gasser, Emily
Gasser, Emily
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Much has been written about different models of collaboration for conducting linguistic fieldwork. How to respect the needs of the speech community while carrying out research is an extremely important question, and one whose answer will vary greatly between languages and communities. In many situations, such as that described by Wilkins (1992), fieldwork is done under the auspices of a language center in whose best interest it is to control and restrict the flow of data rather than granting unlimited access to the linguist and, through them, the world at large. This paper describes ongoing fieldwork the Wamesa language in West Papua, Indonesia, conducted in affiliation with a local language documentation center. As the cultural and political situation in Papua differs greatly from that in North America or Australia, so are community expectations quite different from those described by Wilkins and others. This example then provides a different model of how fieldwork may be responsibly carried out under local supervision. In 2011 I began fieldwork on Wamesa with a goal of writing a grammar for my dissertation. I was hosted there by the Center for Endangered Languages Documentation (CELD), a small Papuan-run organization, affiliated with the local university, which supports research on the languages of the area. West Papua is an area of huge linguistic diversity, but most of these varieties are both understudied and in danger of disappearing under pressure from Indonesian. The goal of the CELD, then, is to promote research on these languages both by outside linguists, to whom it offers logistical support and local expertise, and Papuan students, who gain access to training and equipment through the center. In this situation, the view of the center is that their best interests are served by expanding access and opening up the flow of information, an attitude shared by the Wamesa speakers with whom I interacted. In return for their continued support, the CELD made two main requests: that I leave copies of all of my data with the center, and that I employ a local assistant, one of their students, to help with recording and transcription. These stipulations help the center to build local capacity, making the data accessible within Papua and providing hands-on training so that Papuans themselves may carry out high-quality documentation and analysis of their own languages. This outlook is similar to that described by Holton (2009) on the Indonesian island of Pantar.
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