In Memory of Joel Sherzer

An Academic Life Committed to Archiving Indigenous Languages 

The University of Texas Press was saddened to learn that author Joel Sherzer, professor emeritus of anthropology at UT Austin, has passed away. His scholarly career straddled the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics, and as a prolific author and researcher, Sherzer was best known for his work on the language and culture of the Guna peoples (known prior to 2010 as Kuna) in Panama. He published five books with the University of Texas Press: Kuna Ways of Speaking: An Ethnographic Perspective (1983), Nation-States and Indians in Latin America with Greg Urban (1991), Speech Play and Verbal Art (2002), Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs of the Kuna Indians (2003), and Adoring the Saints: Fiestas in Central Mexico with Yolanda Lastra and Dina Sherzer (2009).

His ethnographic and linguistic work was deposited as the Kuna Collection of Joel Sherzer in the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), a digital repository he cofounded in 2000. He is also well known as one of the founders of UT’s vibrant and longstanding program in linguistic anthropology, and as a proponent of the view that culture centers on speech play and verbal art, known as a discourse-centered approach to language and culture. 

“My contribution to linguistics has been to analyze language in cultural and social contexts,” Sherzer wrote in The Linguist List. “While at Texas I began many years of fieldwork among the Kuna of Panama. My Kuna research involved close collaboration with individuals who do not read or write but who shared with me their remarkable linguistic and cultural knowledge, expressed in their conversations, stories, myths, chants, and songs.” 

Sherzer’s leadership in digital language archiving was widely known and appreciated. In 2018, he received the first Archiving Award from the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas (SSILA) for the Kuna Collection of Joel Sherzer, housed at AILLA.

“Sherzer’s recordings of Kuna narratives, curing chants, political oratory, and joking conversation became the basis for a large opus of books and articles that used linguistic, poetic, musical, and ethnographic exegesis and analysis to delve into and honor traditional and contemporary Kuna life,” wrote Anthony Woodbury in the SSILA nominating letter. “Through this work, Joel Sherzer became a major linking figure within a historical progression that began with Franz Boas’s vision of the role of language, speaking, and text in the documentation of the indigenous languages and cultures of the Americas; and that has led to the still-developing archive-centered enterprise now called documentary linguistics.” 

In the extensive document supporting his nomination, Sherzer’s colleagues, students, and friends described him as an advocate in linguistic anthropology for the preservation of recorded materials through digitization, as well as a proponent of “archiving as an ethical responsibility,” in the words of co-nominator Aimee Hosemann. Sherzer’s student and former graduate research assistant Lev Michael elaborated: “This collection was intimately connected in [Sherzer]’s mind with the notion of returning the materials he collected to the communities in which he worked, and to the Kuna people more generally, at a point in our discipline’s history . . . when very few people were thinking about materials and communities in this way.” 

Sherzer’s major publications include Kuna Ways of Speaking: An Ethnographic Perspective (1983), a groundbreaking work (often considered the first full-length ethnography of speaking). His Verbal Art in San Blas: Kuna Culture through Its Discourse (1990) was an exercise in using his discourse-centered approach to language and culture to explore the verbal artistry of a variety of Guna genres of speaking and chanting. The final book in his Guna trilogy, Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs of the Kuna Indians (2003), further explored artistic ways of speaking, chanting, and singing among the Guna. His last book was Adoring the Saints: Fiestas in Central Mexico (with Yolanda Lastra and Dina Sherzer, 2009).

AILLA: Sherzer’s Vision and Legacy 

The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, or AILLA, is one of Sherzer’s most significant legacies. At this writing, the archive represents some four hundred different Indigenous languages spoken in Latin America. “This is about 70 percent of all Indigenous languages that we know about between the Rio Bravo and Tierra del Fuego,” said Ryan Sullivant, PhD, AILLA’s language data curator.

“Joel Sherzer was motived to find a way for linguists and anthropologists to easily share their primary research data, that is, the recordings, the notes, the drawings, the photographs that they created and that they based their academic research on,” said AILLA manager Susan Kung. “He realized that the internet was a way to democratize access to these recordings, as well as to provide access to many more recordings. What’s more, he was tireless in advocating for AILLA, holding regular fundraisers to grow the endowment, and talking about AILLA to friends, colleagues, and basically everyone he met. AILLA would not be the internationally recognized digital archive that it is today if he hadn’t dedicated his post-retirement life to ensuring its success and its enduring legacy.”

Memorial Tribute 

The Departments of Anthropology and Linguistics, as well as LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, plan to hold a memorial service for Joel Sherzer during the spring semester of 2023. Written tributes are being collected by AILLA on Sherzer’s memorial page.

The portions of this obituary contributed by the UT Department of Anthropology were written by Anthony Webster. For more information, please contact Susanna Sharpe, LLILAS Benson Communications Coordinator.