UNL grants foster digital research on Whitman, Omaha and Ponca languages

Released on 09/08/2008, at 3:30 PM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln

WHEN: Tuesday, Sep. 9, 2008

WHERE: Visitors Center

Lincoln, Neb., September 8th, 2008 —

Two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities will support digital humanities research projects at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Kenneth Price, University Professor and Hillegass Chair of 19th-Century American Literature, and Mark Awakuni-Swetland, assistant professor of anthropology and ethnic studies, recently received major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Awakuni-Swetland and his colleagues are creating a comprehensive Omaha and Ponca digital dictionary, which will be available online for native communities, students, researchers and the public. A $348,800 NEH grant funds this work through a joint NEH-National Science Foundation-Smithsonian Institution "Documenting Endangered Languages" initiative. It's also a "We the People" project, a special NEH recognition for model projects advancing the study, teaching and understanding of American history and culture.

Awakuni-Swetland hopes this project will make it easier to teach, preserve and revive the language. Originally a united group, the Omaha and the Ponca became distinct political and historic entities long ago. Today, only a few dozen elders in Nebraska and Oklahoma speak Omaha and Ponca as their first language. This project will provide extensive information on the language and will be far more robust and usable than existing resources.

"We're going to dust off a historically and linguistically important collection of Omaha and Ponca language," Awakuni-Swetland said.

Twenty years ago at the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives, Awakuni-Swetland microfilmed the field notes and unpublished lexicon of James Owen Dorsey, a 19th century ethnographer and linguist. The dictionary will include Dorsey's 20,000 handwritten slips -- each containing an Omaha word, most with an English translation. Words will be transcribed into modern spelling systems, and linguists and native speakers will add grammatical information and cultural notes.

"Many of Dorsey's slips include sample sentences in Omaha that describe how the Omaha were living in the 1870s-1890s. It's a treasure of both language and Omaha history," he said.

Awakuni-Swetland, an adopted member of an Omaha tribe family, developed an Omaha language program at UNL. He is collaborating with UNL's Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, and Catherine Rudin, linguistics professor at Wayne State College.

Kenneth Price received a $300,000 grant from the NEH to support his editing of Walt Whitman's writings about the Civil War. The funds will enable Price to complete the interdisciplinary project by 2011, in time for the sesquicentennial of the outbreak of the war. Price is a renowned Whitman scholar, co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive, a comprehensive online resource for scholars and the public, and co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities.

"In 'Walt Whitman's Civil War Writings' I propose to electronically edit, arrange, annotate and publish, often for the first time, key documents that give voice to Whitman's experience of the war," Price said. "This work on Whitman and the Civil War will be cross-cutting in nature. Prior work on the Walt Whitman Archive has been organized around genre or type of document. The work done under this grant will transcend genre and document types, bringing the Archive's presentation of Civil War materials to an advanced state."

Price also recently received a major award and another grant for his digital research. A $75,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission will further support this project. He has also received an $80,000 Digital Innovation Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies for his ongoing work on the Walt Whitman Archive. The award is made possible through funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which promotes scholarship in digital humanities. The Whitman Archive is the first literary project to receive this award from ACLS; UNL historian Will Thomas received this award last year.

"Our faculty truly are leaders in this exciting area of digital humanities research," said Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development at UNL. "Major grants such as these highlight the growing stature of our digital research and scholarship."

News Release Contacts: