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Science Communication

Black holes in Blackfoot and colorful chemistry in Navajo

by Matt Davenport
May 18, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 20

 

Sigooxga

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Credit: Courtesy of Corey Gray
You can hug with interferometer arms: Sharon Yellowfly and her son, Corey Gray, pose near a LIGO observatory.

Like most mothers, Sharon Yellowfly would do anything for her children. Unlike most parents, she has pulled an all-nighter for her son’s job to translate a press release about colliding neutron stars into the Native American language of Blackfoot, or Siksika.

This all started back in 2016, when the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—you can call it LIGO—detected gravitational waves for the first time. The signal emanated from two black holes merging into one. The measurement confirmed a 100-year-old prediction of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. LIGO wanted to share the news with the world by translating the press release of the discovery. Corey Gray, Yellowfly’s son and the lead operator of LIGO’s observatory in Hanford, Washington, wanted to help.

He got permission to share an embargoed copy of the press release and asked his mom to translate it for the Siksika Nation, of which they are both members. Since then, Yellowfly has translated five LIGO press releases into Blackfoot, including the one she pulled an all-nighter for.

Gray tells Newscripts that he sees this work as another innovative way in which indigenous peoples are working to save and share their languages. For example, Star Wars and Finding Nemo were dubbed in Navajo. Earlier this year, the play-by-play for a professional hockey game was broadcast in Cree. “All these creative ways in which language is preserved are awesome,” Gray says. “It gives us hope that our language will be carried on.”

Yellowfly grew up speaking Blackfoot, despite attending a boarding school that worked to eradicate any expression of indigenous culture. And she tells Newscripts that as older Blackfoot generations have passed away, some of their language has been lost forever. Wanting to stem this loss and to have something she could give to her children, she started writing her own Blackfoot dictionary when she was 23.

Now, she’s adding to that lexicon thanks to her work with LIGO and her son. “Black hole” is one example. Sigooxga comes from the Blackfoot words sixinatsi and oxga, for “black” and “hole,” respectively. Other concepts were less straightforward, however, and Yellowfly allowed herself more literary license with those. But throughout the process, she called relatives to get their feedback on her use of the language and talked with Gray to make sure she was staying true to the science.

An example of a more challenging concept is Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which Yellowfly described using bisaatsinsiimaan, meaning “beautiful plantings.”

“His idea came to life 100 years later,” she says. “And scientists are still asking questions about it.”

 

Color Riot!

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Credit: Courtesy of Carol Ann Mackay
Unidentified artist: A Navajo blanket featuring aniline dye, circa 1890.

Readers in Phoenix can visit the Heard Museum to see another example of modern (for the time) science expressed in indigenous culture. The museum is featuring Navajo textiles made during the latter part of the 19th century. During this time, the Navajo faced forced removal from their lands at the hands of the US government, but they also encountered new peoples, new ideas, and new aniline dyes—one of the first mass-produced synthetic dyes (aniline put the A in BASF). The exhibit, called Color Riot!, runs through Sept. 2.

Matt Davenport wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

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