Greenleaf Scholar Collects Miskitu Language Resources

September 3, 2013

Melanie Wetzel is the recipient of an LAII Visiting Library Scholar award which enabled her to visit the University of New Mexico (UNM) to review UNM's Latin American library holdings in order to collect materials in the Miskitu language, as well as to compile other documentation of Miskitu history and culture. On Thursday, September 12, 2013, Wetzel will present her research findings to the LAII community from 12:00-1:00 p.m. in the LAII Conference Room. For reference, please see the event flyer.

As a master's student in the Latin American Studies program at the University of Kansas, Wetzel received several Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships to research Kaqchikel Maya and Miskitu. In Summer 2013, Wetzel obtained a FLAS to study the Miskitu language in Nicaragua, after which time she became attuned to the dearth of resources related to this less-commonly taught language. Her research to find additional resources ultimately led her to UNM, one of the few institutions with holdings relevant to the Miskitu language. Other strong holdings are located in universities within Nicaragua, most notably at the University of the Autonomous Regions, URACCAN. While at UNM, Wetzel will both investigate the holdings immediately relevant to the Miskitu language, such as the text Gramatica Miskitua, as well as the potentially pertinent holdings of Professor Emeritus Karl Schwerin, which may contain uncataloged resources regarding the Miskitu people and their language.

The Miskitu Indians of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras have a unique history. Their geographic location on the outskirts of Spanish Colonial power resulted in the Miskitu being allied with British colonists. The Moravian Church was also influential in the region, converting large numbers of Miskitu to Moravian Christianity as early as the 1850's. The Moravian Church published bibles and hymnals in the Miskitu language, providing some of the earliest translations and linguistic studies of this indigenous language.

During the Nicaraguan war of the 1980s, the Miskitu in large part comprised the counter-revolutionary forces that opposed the Sandinista Revolution. In their own language, their political party is known simply as Yatama, but in U. S. news and historical accounts, they are described as "Contra-revolucionarios" or simply, Contras. In the present, there are several political parties active the Miskitu regions, including the Yatama party, the Sandinista party, and even a combined Yatama-Sandinista party, promoting continuing peace in Nicaragua.

Today, the Miskitu Indians have political autonomy within Nicaragua. From coastal ports, they work at sea as lobster divers. Other communities lie along the Rio Coco and Segovia, or the Wangki, as it is called in Miskitu language, a major waterway that provides a portion of the border between Nicaragua and Honduras. From Honduras to Nicaragua there are almost 300,000 native speakers of the Miskitu Indian language. Many stakeholders are currently involved in efforts to document, protect, and teach the Miskitu language, including the Universities of the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua, Miskitu activists and linguists, and international scholars.

Originally from Kansas, Wetzel spent thirteen years living in Honduras. During her time abroad, she graduated from the National Autonomous University of Honduras with a Law degree, after which time she practiced, and worked as a journalist, translator, and teacher. After returning to Kansas in 2009, she began graduate studies at the University of Kansas, where she will complete an M. A. in Latin American Studies in 2014. Her interest in indigenous languages led her to receive Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships to study Kaqchikel Maya and Miskitu.

Wetzel's efforts to preserve and teach the Miskitu language align with the LAII's broader objective to support less-commonly taught languages of the Americas - an objective aptly demonstrated by the LAII's recent completion of the K'iche' Maya Oral History Project, an online archive of written and spoken oral history in K'iche' Maya.

Worthwhile to note is that the Richard E. Greenleaf Visiting Library Scholar award is not limited to research involving language preservation. Each year, the LAII provides three individuals the opportunity to work as visiting researchers with the University of New Mexico's Latin American library collections, one of the largest and most complete Latin or Spanish American collections in the country. For the 2013-2014 academic year, the LAII awarded two other Richard E. Greenleaf Visiting Library Scholars: Theresa Avila, an independent scholar who researched "Rebellion in the Archive: The Mexican Revolution in the University of New Mexico's Latin American Collections" in Summer 2013, and Breanne Robertson, a visiting assistant professor in Art History and American Studies at Wesleyan University, who will research "Pan-Americanism in UNM Campus Murals, 1933-1945" in Spring 2014.