Susan Gehr is a PI for the Karuk Tribe’s NSF-funded Karuk Archives and Accessibility Project (#1500605), a workshop coordinator for the LSA’s and the Endangered Language Fund’s Building Capacity in Linguistics and Endangered Languages at Tribal Colleges and Universities project, and a reference librarian at College of the Redwoods. She earned an MA in linguistics in 2004 from the University of Oregon and a master’s in library and information science (MLIS) from San José State University in 2013.  She is a co-convener of the Advisory Circle for the Institute on Collaborative Language Research (CoLang), where she has also taught courses on Toolbox and on language archives.

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

 Q: When did you first join the LSA?

I joined as a student member at some point when I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, so some time after 1999.

Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

I attended my first LSA in 2002, in San Francisco.  I went to many of the SSILA and American Name Society sessions. Immediately following the LSA that year, I attended the Macworld Conference and Expo in part to learn more about the tools that I use in my linguistic work. At the Anaheim LSA in 2007, I was asked to speak at William Bright’s memorial.  The council of the Karuk Tribe wanted me to tell the LSA how much Bill meant to the Karuk Tribe, that he really set the standard for a happy relationship between our tribe and the linguistic community. Somewhere around this time, I became less directly focused on linguistics because I was more focused on questions of what to do with all the Karuk language materials that we were creating and collecting. How do we store them, how do we provide access to them? I spent the next four years working on an MLIS focusing on Native American language archives and writing my thesis on the Breath of Life Workshop hosted by the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival and the University of California, Berkeley’s Linguistics Department.  My next LSA was Portland 2015, where I gave a poster presentation on Breath of Life as part of the CELP organized session on Utilization of Language Archives in Endangered Language Research, Revitalization, and Documentation. At the 2017 LSA in Austin, I coordinated and was a presenter at the the Building Capacity in Linguistics and Endangered Languages at Tribal Colleges and Universities workshop.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

One of the most important services the LSA provides is the concentration of opportunities for linguists and fields of study needing the involvement of linguists to collaborate. To meet to further both linguistic innovations and reflections on how the field itself changes in its practice. I am very grateful to be involved with the LSA / TCU work, as it is evidence of NSF’s and LSA’s commitment to working with and for language communities.

Q: What are you currently researching?

The questions that have on my mind have to do with the roles of linguistics, archives, and language communities in linguistic research and revitalization. I’m in the middle of two NSF-funded projects, one with my tribe, the Karuk Archives and Accessibility Project (#1500605) and one with the LSA, Building Capacity in Linguistics and Endangered Languages at Tribal Colleges and Universities.  For the MLIS I recently finished, I researched the role of archivists in the process of collecting, documenting, and providing access to Native American language collections. I’ve long noticed the varying degrees to which linguists interact with the archives profession in the development of linguistic archives, the effect on the collections, and the language communities.

Q: What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

William Bright’s 1957 “The Karok Language.”  It’s why I pursued graduate studies in linguistics. Bill’s work on Karuk and his generosity with his work is a contributing factor as to why Karuk is so well situated in terms of language documentation. It’s well written, it’s thorough, the language community and the linguistics community speak well of it to this day. Bill not only encouraged me to incorporate his lexicon into the Karuk dictionary we worked on together, he volunteered many hundreds of hours working on the dictionary until he was struck by brain cancer in 2006. He worked with and for the Karuk language community, not on us.  

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

I decided not to go on for a linguistics PhD, and yet linguistics is one aspect of my career. I would say pay attention to the questions that you have that motivate you to investigate something thoroughly.  Be willing to continually improve yourself as a scholar and as a human being. Be enthusiastic about what brings you to linguistics and thoughtful about your role in language communities. And here's what Bill Bright told me when I asked him for professional advice. He told me to go to conferences, institutes, and workshops.  Get to know other people in linguistics and language work, and let them get to know you.