My colleague Matt Bokovoy
met Louis Headman, a Ponca elder, about a year ago in Oklahoma. Bokovoy is the Indigenous Studies editor at the University of Nebraska Press and was on
his way to a gig with his band in Oklahoma City. He was keen to talk with
Headman about his work on the first Ponca dictionary, a project Headman was
undertaking in collaboration with the language's remaining speakers -- a group
of six elders.
Collaboration is key to publishing, perhaps nowhere more so than at university presses. When a press like Nebraska becomes involved with an ambitious and sensitive project like the Ponca dictionary, a lot of the acquiring editor's work comes down to helping assemble (and manage relations among) the right players.
Bokovoy was impressed with what Headman showed him during their first meeting. "Louis’s dictionary follows the same scholarly format that you would see from a linguist," Bokovoy told me. "He's a polymath with multiple graduate degrees, and he taught himself linguistics through his research on the history of the Ponca language." But Bokovoy also thought the project would benefit from collaboration not just with the few remaining native speakers, but with a professional anthropological linguist. Headman initially viewed the suggestion with suspicion, since a group of Osage friends had been through a negative experience with a linguist who struck them as arrogant. Bokovoy succeeded in winning Headman over when he introduced him to Sean O’Neil at the University of Oklahoma, an academic linguist dedicated to the idea of "shared authority." O'Neil is now coeditor of the dictionary.
Another collaborator on the Ponca project is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports Recovering Languages and Literacies of the Americas (RLLA), a multi-publisher initiative involving the university presses at Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma. RLLA assists the publication of scholarship about indigenous languages, and is dedicated to supporting indigenous communities in cultural preservation programs aimed at language recovery, revitalization, and maintenance. The grant from Mellon -- part of a program designed to stimulate collaboration among university presses -- is also facilitating the sort of delicate back-and-forth that's so central to complex and important projects like the Ponca dictionary.
The Ponca dictionary won't be out for a while, but if you're interested in the Ponca Nation, Nebraska has several books, including The Ponca Tribe, by John H. Howard (with an introduction by Judi M. gaiashkibos), as well as our great titles by Luther Standing Bear. If you're interested in the preservation of native languages more generally, you can check out Nebraska's first title in the RLLA initiative, Defying Maliseet Language Death, by Bernard C. Perley.