Preserving Language and Culture

Humanities6 MIN READ

Tiffany Creegan Miller’s work to ensure the survival of an Indigenous language takes root at Colby

Tiffany Creegan Miller, assistant professor of Spanish, is a fierce advocate for the power of learning languages and for the continued relevance and importance of Indigenous Maya cultures. She is fluent in Kaqchikel, one of 24 Indigenous languages still spoken in Guatemala today.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Ashley L. Conti
May 9, 2023

Growing up in North Carolina, Tiffany Creegan Miller did not have a template for becoming an academic.  

Miller, who started learning Spanish as a kindergarten pupil in her public elementary school, figured out her own path. She became the first person in her family to go to college, eventually earning her doctoral degree in Latin American literary and cultural studies. She also branched out, becoming fluent in Kaqchikel, one of the 24 Indigenous languages still spoken in Guatemala today.

Now an assistant professor of Spanish and the associate director of the Oak Institute for Human Rights, she’s a fierce advocate both for the power of learning languages and the continued relevance and importance of Indigenous Maya cultures. 

“A lot of times people have this idea of 2012 and all the Mayas left and are gone. That’s not the case,” she said. “I want people to know that there’s this vibrant Maya culture today and that it didn’t die with the builders of Tikal [an ancient Mayan site in Guatemala]. There are a lot of folks who are alive and well today, and many of them have the same concerns that we have in the U.S. or in other parts of the world. About the planet, about ecological sustainability, about mundane concerns about health care, about family well-being.” 

Shifting the focus

Miller’s passion and commitment are palpable, and her work is garnering positive attention. Last spring, she published her first book, The Maya Art of Speaking Writing: Remediating Indigenous Orality in the Digital Age. Through nearly a decade of fieldwork in the Guatemalan highlands, she explores how Maya authors make use of multiple media, or tz’ib’—specifically painting, books, and a variety of online platforms—to communicate, create, and disseminate knowledge. 

The book is written in English, but Miller hopes in the near future to have it translated into both Spanish and Kaqchikel. Though Kaqchikel, which has 500,000 or so native speakers, is mainly an oral rather than a written language, the translation seems especially important given its current endangered status. 

“It feels really symbolic,” she said. 

As well, she’s part of a team that last month received a $75,000 seed grant through the University of Colorado Boulder to organize a film festival. The event, which also is supported by Colby, Marquette University in Wisconsin, and the University of Konstanz in Germany, will focus on global Indigeneity, issues of land sovereignty, and ecological sustainability. 

The 18-month-long festival will start this fall, with directors and actors traveling to various locales, including the Maine Film Center in Waterville. 

“It’s looking at global Indigeneity very broadly,” Miller said. “In Indigenous studies recently, there’s been this shift to look beyond just Turtle Island, North America, and Abya Yala, a Guna Indigenous term that refers to the Americas in their totality. So we’ve included North and South America, but we also have films that bring Africa and Asia into the dialogue.” 

‘A different path’

Miller first became interested in Indigenous Maya languages in 2009, when she was working on her doctorate at the University of Kansas. She had some free time and a big curiosity, and when she saw classes offered in Kaqchikel, she eagerly signed up. 

“It just took me on this different path,” she said. 

Tiffany Miller, assistant professor of Spanish, helps students during her SP135: Indigenous Latin America course. Colby students are eager to take a course she’s planning that would combine Kaqchikel language with global health studies.

Her language teacher was also involved in Wuqu’ Kawoq: Maya Health Alliance, a medical non-governmental organization that provides health care and promotes Indigenous language rights and literacy in Guatemala.

The group, which began in 2007 with two linguists, an anthropologist, and a physician, was working in a country still healing from a 36-year-long civil war. More than 200,000 people, mostly Indigenous civilians, were killed or disappeared in the conflict, which ended in 1996. 

“A lot of people have these fresh memories of the violence. A lot of folks were targeted for openly identifying as Maya,” Miller said. “Mayas were identified as subversive to the state during that period, so you just didn’t speak Kaqchikel, or Maya languages. A lot of times there’s just a lot of language loss.” 

So Wuqu’ Kawoq had a lot of work to do, and it needed help. 

Miller began making trips to Guatemala to improve her language skills and to work with the alliance. Initially, she wanted to help preserve the language by asking the Kaqchikel speakers she met about songs and poetry. Often, though, they had health and other pressing concerns on their minds, and her questions about poetry and songs might get answered with thoughts about their grandmother’s diabetes diagnosis, for example. 

Tiffany Creegan Miller, the first person in her family to go to college, knows the power of education.

“Sometimes I know that it can look like poetry and health care are really divorced,” she said. “But for me, through my experiences in the field, it was very much together. And even actually, a lot of times at the end of the clinical consults, the way people would thank you almost sounded poetic. You would have a lot of the repetitions and parallelisms that you would see in the poetry. It was really pretty.” 

Expanding the world

Over the years, her interest in the Kaqchikel language and culture deepened, even as her life circumstances changed through graduation from her Ph.D. program, full-time employment, and the birth of her children. 

Still, she serves as an advisor to Wuqu’ Kawoq and meets every Friday over Zoom with a native speaker to keep up her language skills. She’s also getting ready to work on her next book, which will focus on Kaqchikel spirituality, and will spend some of a planned sabbatical next year returning to Guatemala for more fieldwork. 

After that, Miller wants to start a hybrid course at Colby that combines a Kaqchikel language component with a global health component. 

“There’s a lot of people on campus who are all so very smart and so socially driven with social justice ideals,” she said. “I feel the terrain here is just ripe for this kind of work. I’m really excited about it. And every time I mention it to students, they ask, ‘When?’” 

Learning a variety of languages is useful, Miller said, because it can expand a person’s outlook. For example, Kaqchikel has a lot of anthropomorphism that other languages don’t. The door of a house is ruchi’ jay, or the mouth, and the roof is the hair of the house, ruwi’ jay. And the center of a town or village is called its heart, ruk’u’x tinamït.

That kind of perspective change is one reason why she is excited to teach languages. Miller knows that people at times consider learning languages to be something that doesn’t have broad relevance to their lives, but that’s not the case, she said. Learning languages can facilitate many different paths and support professional trajectories in health care, economics, global studies, international relations, and beyond. 

“These humanistic fields of inquiry and language learning could very much complement these other fields of study,” she said. “It gives you this whole other way of understanding the way that humans relate to the world and our experience within it.”