Collaborative Research: Landscape, Image, and Language Among Some Indigenous People of the American Southwest and Northwest Australia
David Mark Principal Investigator
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Scholars from a range of disciplines long have sought to understand relationships between visual representations and linguistic categories of landscape elements. One line of inquiry has sought to address the question: Do speakers of different languages think in different concepts, or is thinking more nearly universal and language more superficial? This collaborative research project will investigate how people conceptualize the natural landscape and how they relate to it. The project will investigate landscape terminology used by some indigenous communities living in arid landscapes. Language will be a major focus of the research. The project will study both the generic terms that the people use to refer to elements of the landscape and also the ways that the people describe the landscape in their traditional narratives. The research will examine how members of three cultural and linguistic groups subdivide, classify, and talk about their landscapes. The three groups are the Navajo (Dine) of northern Arizona and New Mexico, the Hopi of northern Arizona, and the Yindjibarndi of the northwestern part of Western Australia. Project researchers will conduct in-depth interviews with expert consultants within the three communities regarding the vocabulary for referring to landforms, water bodies, and other geographic features. Researchers will express the definitions within a formal ontology of the landscape and will confirm the definitions and term lists by compiling pictorial dictionaries. The researchers and consultants also will recruit young members of these indigenous communities to take photographs of significant aspects of the landscape, discuss the content of these photographs with elders, and report results. Photographs of these landscapes also will be shown to English-speaking undergraduate subjects to provide baseline interpretations for English language terminology.<br/><br/>The project will investigate the degree to which the apparent structure of the landscape depends upon the raw facts of physical reality, how much of the structure arises due to the nature of human perception and other aspects of cognition, and how much of the structure is determined by culture, language, and lifestyle. These are fundamental issues in the behavioral and cognitive sciences for all knowledge domains, yet they hardly have been address with respect to the landscape. The research seeks to understand the close yet different interconnections among culture, history, spirituality, and landscape for each of the cultural groups. One goal of the research is to characterize these peoples' landscape categories and terminology with sufficient precision and rigor to allow geographic information systems (GIS) to detect, manipulate, and reason about the categories and the entities belonging to them. Some of the tribes, including the Navajo and Hopi, currently are using commercial GIS to manage tribal lands, but it appears that the software cannot readily incorporate traditional knowledge and integrate such knowledge with technoscience data from government sources. Lessons learned in this project will guide future work on cross-cultural interoperability of geographic information systems and will contribute to the design of databases and GISs that can be used by speakers of different natural languages both within their communities and for joint management of lands and landscapes. Pictorial dictionaries of landscape terminology also will provide the tribes and cultures in question with material that may contribute to cultural preservation through use in the schools and other outlets.