Student Susan Gehr Hopes to Create Karuk Language Archive

Susan Gehr has long worked to help document and revitalize the Karuk language, collecting more than a decade’s worth of notes and recordings of the northern California tribal language. “When I realized that we have all of this unique and irreplaceable material that we’re going to have to lean on in 50 years, it became clear to me that this was an archival issue,” she said. So Gehr enrolled in our School’s MLIS program in Fall 2009 to find out how to build an archive of the Karuk’s culture and language from scratch.

Gehr, who is an enrolled tribal descendant of the Karuk, became interested in learning the language when she moved back to the Humboldt, Calif., area after receiving her undergraduate degree from University of California at Santa Cruz. Gehr taught Karuk language at the Hoopa Valley High School, which offers native language courses for the Karuk, Hupa, and Yurok languages.

But there were very scant materials, and the few that existed tended to be dense dissections of grammar written by linguists. Gehr decided to earn a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Oregon so she could “reinterpret those materials into practical grammar” that non-academics could read. When she returned home, she served as the Karuk Tribe’s Language Program Director for six years. During that time she co-edited a dictionary of Karuk with linguist William Bright.

Gehr knows what a challenge she has in building a language archive from the ground up. She received a scholarship to attend the Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums National Conference in Portland, Oregon, in October 2009, and hopes to meet other people who have created their own tribal museums. She also has been accepted to present at the Tribal College Librarians Professional Development Institute next June in Bozeman, Montana.

There are some 3,500 enrolled Karuk tribal members, whose ancestral territory stretches from Humboldt County to Siskiyou County. If Gehr’s archival project succeeds, she expects to use her skills to help several neighboring tribes with their own collections.

Outside of going to school full-time and raising her three-year-old son, Gehr and her husband are both self-described “techies.” Every January they trek to Macworld. “I’ve always been very comfortable with technology, and I feel like I’m getting into archives at the right time because of the emphasis on digitization,” she said.