Preserving Indigenous Culture Through Language and Law

Aaní Perkins '23 weaves together research in Native American and Indigenous studies and linguistics to advocate for Indigenous voices and revitalize the language and culture of her people. 

For Aaní Perkins '23, reading The Round House by Louise Erdich '76 was more than an assignment; it was an awakening.
The novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dartmouth alumna portrays a boy's investigation of an attack on his mother on a North Dakota reservation—and the miscarriages of justice that can occur when crimes intersect both Indigenous and state or federal jurisdictions. It was one of several works Perkins studied in Professor N. Bruce Duthu's upper-level Native American and Indigenous Studies course, Native American Literature and the Law.
"That course was really impactful for me," Perkins says. "The Round House spoke to me as an example of how tribal governments interact with federal law. As a result, I started getting interested in how Indigenous value systems contradict Euro-American legal frameworks."
Perkins's interest in Indigenous value systems has deep roots. An Alaska resident, she is a member of the Sitka Tribe and serves as a Tlingit language instructor for the Sitka Native Education Program. At Dartmouth, she is pursuing a double major in Native American studies and linguistics and serves as co-president of Native Americans at Dartmouth

Over the course of her Dartmouth experience, Perkins has pursued research opportunities that enable her to preserve and advocate for Indigenous voices. 

Last year, a research assistantship through the James O. Freedman Presidential Scholar program offered Perkins an opportunity to learn more about Indigenous legal systems. The paid program provides students with opportunities to participate in research first-hand by working as research assistants with Dartmouth faculty.
Perkins was tasked with identifying tribal court decisions that would serve as the basis of an updated version of Indigenous Legal Systems, a course Duthu teaches this winter term. Open to both government and NAIS majors, the course examines Indigenous legal perspective as part of an analysis of the limits of legal pluralism throughout the world.
Over the course of two terms, Perkins combed through a variety of physical and digital resources—including Indian Law Reporter, Navajo Common Law by Raymond Austin, and the online library of the Native American Rights Fund—for records of tribal court opinions.
"I was systematically going through these huge volumes of tribal court cases and digging for things that spoke to the themes that Professor Duthu wanted to talk about in his course," Perkins says. "I then sorted these cases based on whether or not I thought students would be interested in talking about them, or if I found them relevant to learn about."

"Aaní succeeded at identifying tribal court opinions that highlight cultural and traditional values as part of the decision-making process," Duthu says. "Those opinions have provided our students with an important window into tribal worldviews on a number of subject areas, including concepts of belonging and citizenship; environmentalism and the rights of nature; criminal justice; and accountability of tribal leaders in terms of law and ethics."
Perkins was struck by Indigenous lawmakers' efforts to preserve tribal values and culture in the midst of a legal system heavily influenced by Euro-American structures.
"Some of our tribal court frameworks are adopted from American judicial frameworks—you have a tribal judge, and potentially a jury, and perhaps a constitution upon which you're basing these decisions," she says. "While those frameworks have been institutionalized, they do not necessarily mirror the traditional ways that tribal nations determine justice."
"Tribal nations have been incorporating our values into tribal courts for a very long time. We've found ways to incorporate elements of our creation stories, and of different entities, into the idea of why things are right or wrong. This research really gave me a greater appreciation for how Indigenous people work with what we have, using what we know to put a new lens onto what the state and federal courts are doing."

For Perkins, assisting in the course's revitalization was also an opportunity to bring visibility to Indigenous culture and the issues that affect tribal communities.
"Erasure is one of the biggest barriers to the success and growth of Indigenous peoples," she says. "I think it's super important for non-native students to learn about our law and culture—which will potentially enable them to help fight for Indigenous voices to be heard. There's so many ways that our voices have been systematically silenced and suppressed."

Preparing for a Lifetime of Scholarship and Advocacy

During her sophomore year, Perkins was selected as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, a program that supports students from communities underrepresented in the professoriate who are interested in pursuing PhDs. As part of the program, Perkins conducted research in her home community on Lingít language revitalization that will serve as the basis of her senior honors thesis.


Aani Perkins
Aaní Perkins '23

"I worked with the Sitka Native Education Program to develop a culturally responsive language curriculum, which my thesis will build on in an analysis of the importance of uniting language revitalization efforts with Indigenous movements for sovereignty over our lands and waters," Perkins says. 

"Language is intimately connected to both cultural identity and the natural environment in which it has evolved. For Indigenous communities, settler colonialism has attacked all three of these aspects: language, culture, and environment," says Associate Professor of Linguistics Laura McPherson, who serves as Perkins' thesis advisor alongside Duthu. "Aaní's work recognizes this important connection and works towards language revitalization strategies that tie language back to cultural practices and environmental stewardship."

Perkins created language lessons based on Lingít cultural values and how they relate to herring ("'yaaw"), including its anatomy, lifecycle, and respectful harvesting practices that have been handed down over generations. 

"Her thesis is very much a marriage of linguistics and Native American and Indigenous studies," McPherson says. "Her linguistics training informs her language pedagogy, giving her the tools to help teachers with pronunciation and to help students master difficult verb forms; her NAIS training grounds this language teaching in its broader context, working to combat the historical and ongoing harm perpetrated against her community while celebrating the beauty and resilience of her culture." 

Perkins says that her myriad experiences conducting research at Dartmouth have played a vital role in preparing her for her ultimate goal: earning a PhD in linguistics or ethnic studies and returning to Alaska to research the Tlingit language and develop a curriculum that will help make the language more accessible.

"Tlingit is declining in speakers very rapidly, and has been for the past 100 years or so," she says. "I care very strongly about serving my community, and I'm very passionate about maintaining and revitalizing the culture and language of my people."

This past fall, Perkins was awarded Dartmouth's annual Ranny B. Cardozo Jr., 1978 Award, an honor that recognizes her academic enthusiasm alongside her "genuine concern for fellow classmates" and "dynamic participation in campus and community activities."
"The skills that I've gained through my research, through my classes, and through just being at Dartmouth will make me be a better citizen of my tribal nation," she says. 

"All of these experiences will help me think critically about the issues that we face and how to address them, considering our cultural values and keeping them at the center of all that we do while also progressing forward. That's a really important part of who we are."