In Memoriam: Joel Fred Sherzer
Joel F. Sherzer 1942-2022
In Memoriam: Joel Fred Sherzer
Linguistic Anthropologist, Visionary Digital Archivist, and Pioneer of Speech Play and Verbal Art Studies
By Susanna Sharpe November 22, 2022
Joel Sherzer, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, died peacefully on the morning of November 6, 2022. The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to his widow, Dr. Dina Sherzer. He was 80. In addition to Dina Sherzer, he is survived by his brother William “Billy” Sherzer. Joel Fred Sherzer was born on March 18, 1942, in Philadelphia, PA. His scholarly career straddled the disciplines of anthropology and linguistics. A prolific author and researcher, beloved professor, mentor, and friend, Sherzer is best known for his work on the language and culture of the Guna Peoples (known prior to 2010 as Kuna) in Panama. 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 co-founded in 2000. He is also well known as one of the founders of UT's vibrant and longstanding strength in linguistic anthropology, and as a proponent of the view that culture centers around speech play and verbal art, known as his discourse-centered approach to language and culture. Sherzer grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Central High School. He attended Oberlin College, where he majored in French and Spanish, graduating in 1964. It was during his senior year at Oberlin that he met Dina Marin, a Fulbright scholar who was working as a French assistant. The two were married later that year in Mexico City. After college, Sherzer pursued his interest in languages and linguistics during two summer programs: funded by a Fulbright fellowship, he studied Nahuatl at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City with Miguel León-Portilla and Morris Swadesh in 1964; at the University of California Los Angeles, he attended the Linguistic Society of America Summer Institute in 1966. He began graduate work in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, completing his doctorate in 1968. His dissertation, titled “An Areal-Typological Study of the American Indian Languages North of Mexico,” was published as a book in 1976. In April 2014, The Linguist List published Sherzer’s short essay “How I Became a Linguist.” Here, Sherzer recalled his interdisciplinary graduate education, writing, “I was fortunate to study and interact with a creative, dynamic, and pioneering group of people in various departments. The work of my Penn teachers has remained with me all of my scholarly life. Along with others, I frequently crossed the street between the anthropology and linguistic departments.” He cited Henry Hoenigswald, Dell Hymes, J. David Sapir, Erving Goffman, and William Labov for their influence on his development as a linguist. Academic Life and Archiving Indigenous Languages Sherzer joined the faculty of the Department of Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) in 1969, and served as its chair from 1987 to 1995. He became a member of the UT Department of Linguistics in 1978. He was the recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships in 1975 and 1997–98; a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978–79; and several grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities between 1975 and 2008. In 1989, he was named Liberal Arts Foundation Centennial Professor, a title he held until his retirement in 2008. Dina Sherzer retired from UT’s Department of French and Italian the same year and is now Professor Emerita. “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.” His approach to Guna language and culture led him to develop, along with colleagues Greg Urban (Anthropology, formerly UT, now Penn) and Anthony Woodbury (Linguistics, UT), his discourse-centered approach to language and culture. A series of conferences followed, at which researchers presented field recordings of different forms of discourse in Indigenous America. Some of these recordings would eventually become the basis for AILLA, which Sherzer founded along with Woodbury and Mark McFarland (UT Libraries), and for which he served as the first director. 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 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 his role in linguistic anthropology as an advocate 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.” Physical copies of Sherzer’s collection formed the core of pre-digital Guna-managed collections in Panama. According to AILLA Manager Susan Kung, PhD, Guna Peoples regularly access the digitized materials online via AILLA. Although Sherzer was primarily known for his work among the Guna on verbal life and verbal art, he also published on gesture, puppetry, Balinese speech play, and Mexican fiestas, according to an obituary published by the UT Department of Anthropology, which is the source for the subsequent two paragraphs. Sherzer’s major publications include Kuna Ways of Speaking: An Ethnographic Perspective (1983), a groundbreaking ethnography of speaking (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 verbally 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). A summary of Sherzer’s thinking on speech play and verbal art as a critical site for ethnographic investigation was published as Speech Play and Verbal Art (2002). He was also known for his editorial work. The volume he edited with Richard Bauman, Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking (1974, reissued 1989), was a foundational text in linguistic anthropology. Likewise, Native South American Discourse (edited with Greg Urban, 1986) and Native American Discourse: Poetics and Rhetoric (edited with Anthony Woodbury, 1987) articulated the contours of the “discourse-centered approach to language and culture.” His Translating Native American Verbal Art: Ethnopoetics and Ethnography of Speaking, edited with Kay Sammons (2000), is an important contribution to experiments in and through the translation of verbal art. A Beloved Colleague and Mentor “When I was an undergrad, I came across Joel’s books on Kuna verbal art, and fell in love with his descriptions of people and how they used humor in everyday life,” wrote Tulio Bermúdez Mejía, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago, for whom Sherzer was a dissertation adviser. “The beauty of his work on speech play and verbal art is that it is so theoretically expansive and materially grounded that anyone can feel safe to work in that paradigm. . . . [Tony Woodbury] once wondered whether Joel was able to document so much humor and language play because of the kind of person he was to attract it. I think that couldn’t be closer to the truth. Joel was probably the most down-to-earth academic I ever met, and I hope those of us who knew him can carry that flame forward.” “Joel was the reason I decided to come to UT Austin for graduate school,” wrote UT Professor of Anthropology Anthony Webster. “He was deeply concerned about linguistics and anthropology and the work that we do. Writing about his friend and fellow linguist and anthropologist Bill Bright, Joel said that ‘too much of anthropology describes people who don't speak; too much linguistics describes languages without speakers. . . . The voices of actual people in actual social and cultural contexts are always at the forefront of his work.’ The same could be said for Joel. It's what I admired most about his scholarship—that and its sheer humanity.” Tony Woodbury wrote fondly of his relationship with Sherzer as a conversation that began in 1979 and continued to unfold over the course of decades. “Sometimes, our animated and excited talk launched from opposite ends of a classroom with a giant table, Joel with his blackboard behind him and I with my blackboard behind me” in the class the two co-taught, Speech Play and Verbal Art. “The conversation continued, through teaching, books, archives, conferences, and just sitting around, until last month, when [UT Professor of Linguistics] Pattie Epps and I visited Joel where he was staying, chattering animated and excitedly, in English with us, in his lovely Spanish with a staff person there, and with asides in French with Dina. I will so so so miss Joel.” Sherzer had a gift for making people feel seen and cared for. “As a graduate student at UT, I was struggling to keep up with my classes in linguistics and with my obligations at home with my family, community, and being a mom,” wrote former student Hilaria Cruz, Assistant Professor of Comparative Humanities at the University of Louisville. “One day while feeling very sad and despondent, I saw Joel. He greeted me with a beautiful smile and said to me, ‘Hilaria, I am so happy you are here!’ Those simple words reminded me of the real reason I was here, to learn linguistics so that I could work on the Chatino language. My husband and I visited Joel at the nursing home last year. The first thing he did when he saw me was to utter a parallelism, ‘with one lip, with two lips,’ by Bill Bright. What an amazing human being, I will never forget him for a long as I live.” Former student Emiliana Cruz, Professor of Anthropology at CIESAS–Mexico, shared a particularly endearing story about the Sherzers, who showed up at her café in Oaxaca on a December day in 2001 right after the water had been shut off. In spite of this inauspicious first visit, they became regulars there. Upon hearing the news of Joel Sherzer’s passing, Cruz wrote, her sadness was tempered with deep appreciation: “When I received the news that Joel had died, I was arriving at my village. . . There awoke in me an enthusiasm for life, for who I am and what I do. It is not by chance that I met Joel; extroverted and adventurous people like ourselves had to encounter each other.” (Translated from the original Spanish.) “Joel and I started out together as fellow graduate students in Dell Hymes’s first graduate course at Penn, the Ethnography of Symbolic Forms,” recalled anthropologist Richard Bauman (Professor Emeritus, Indiana University). The two ended up at UT Austin, where they joined forces to build the program in linguistic anthropology. “Not only was Joel a wonderful partner as co-author, but he was an equally generous and willing colleague in the backstage work of organizing conferences, constructing meeting sessions, developing curriculum, mentoring graduate students, and all the other kinds of ventures we undertook together.” The Congreso General de la Comarca Gunayala, the governing body of Guna Peoples in Panama, posted a tribute to Sherzer on their Facebook page, calling him “a great friend of our people.” Using his Guna nickname, Sigabula (bearded one), the text reads in part, “Without doubt, Joel Sigabula was a great collaborator. He coordinated support for the recording of songs and he shared the recordings with us; thanks to him, [we] learned stories in the voices of well-known people, which [we] would never have been able to hear, but, through the magic of the tape recorder, are now available to us. Our eternal gratitude to our friend.” (Translated from the original Spanish.) 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 400 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 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.” “Joel Sherzer—professor, benefactor, and mentor of many generations of linguistic anthropologists—will live on through his vast legacy,” said Adela Pineda Franco, director of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS). “His unremitting support to the students of Indigenous languages, his commitment to the Center for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (CILLA), and his pledge to the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America, which he founded, are the pillars of his legacy. We will be forever grateful.” Wikaliler Daniel Smith, PhD, Guna linguist, former student of Sherzer’s, and instructor at Valencia College, wrote that much archival work on Indigenous languages in Panama is “a direct result” of Sherzer’s efforts in digital archiving. “The creation of physical and digital repositories of those collections has been instrumental in responding to the Guna community’s interest in the accessibility of the materials now being used in different contexts by community members,” Smith said. Smith has contributed the Guna Collection of Wikaliler Daniel Smith to AILLA. The sounds of speech and song, word play, and humor were central to Joel Sherzer’s scholarship. That these were the interests of a kind man with a warm heart is not a coincidence. “Joel taught me a profound lesson, and it was that one should have a life—outside of academia, one should find and do things that gave one joy,” wrote Tony Webster. “I think of Joel as someone who found a great deal of joy in life, and who also brought a great deal of joy. It was the possibility of joy in life that was the most important lesson I learned from Joel.” Memorial Service and Tributes
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.
Testimonials below under the header Personal Tributes are full of loving and humorous anecdotes about a man who was curious, generous, welcoming, and engaged. Friends, colleagues, and former students are encouraged to submit their own recollections, written in any language, to this page. Please send your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "For Joel's tribute page."
Dina Sherzer requests that in lieu of flowers or cards, please make a donation to the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA) here: https://give.utexas.edu/?menu=OGPLAAR.
Those who wish to donate by check should follow these instructions: 1. Make the check payable to the "University of Texas at Austin" 2. In the Memo section, please specify "COLA – AILLA" 3. Mail the check to: University Development Office The University of Texas at Austin P.O. Box 7458 Austin, Texas 78713
Concerning Joel Sherzer James Howe, December 16, 2022
I first knew Joel in the late 1960s at Penn, where he was a graduate student several years ahead of me, a star pupil of Dell Hymes. I had taken a linguistic anthro class with Dell, but then when Joel took it over for a semester, I got permission to take the class all over again, getting a taste of the Sherzer intellectual excitement. I was not a linguistic anthropologist, but I benefitted from the intellectual ferment in that field at Penn in those years. Joel and I went to the Guna because of Olga Linares, then a lecturer at Penn. Olga, whose graduate training was at Harvard, had been inspired by the Harvard Central Brazil Project, in which graduate students of David Maybury-Lewis fanned out to do fieldwork with related peoples in the Ge linguistic family, coming together several times to compare notes, and ultimately producing a collective work, Dialectical Societies. Olga recruited Joel and me to do something similar with the Guna, and in 1969 she and her then- husband, David Sapir, went with Joel and Dina to scope out a future field site in eastern Gunayala, Sasardi-Mulatupu. I am told that in a small outboard canoe in rough seas, all four ended up vomiting over the side. Otherwise the visit was apparently a great success. My wife June and I settled in another village called Niatupu, a day to the west. Purely by chance, the two villages belonged to the same political confederacy or faction, and their leaders went back and forth regularly between the two communities, reporting to Joel on me and vice-versa, and as we later noted in a joint article, playing tricks on us. Travel along the coast was mostly by village-owned second-hand motor vessels, powered by stinky diesel engines, prone to rolling and pitching in rough weather, sometimes even capsizing and sinking. Mulatupu’s boat, the Carmencita, smaller than most, was known affectionately as “Muu (Granny) Carmencita.” We and the Sherzers each visited the other’s island once, and we also conferred often when our R&R visits to the city coincided. Joel’s enthusiasm for all things Guna was a great hit with the people we worked with on Niatupu, just as it was with us. There is a wonderful picture, also a favorite of Joel’s, of all of us standing around while Joel took field notes, with little boys plaguing him. Although there were only two of us, Joel and I fulfilled Olga’s ambitions for the project, bouncing ideas off each other and stirring up intellectual ferment, more so I believe than was true of the Harvard project. During these months we also encountered Mac Chapin, a Peace Corps volunteer who was producing a volume of Guna myth texts. The three of us were very different in many ways, but we shared a devotion to text-based anthropology. Guna ethnography is a crowded field (I ended up writing a book about it called Chiefs, Scribes, and Anthropologists; Joel is featured on pages 202-205); but the three of us were the only ones at that point to make extended stays and to work in the Guna language. After Joel and I left the field, we only saw each other in the flesh at wide intervals, but the three of us went on consulting and bouncing ideas off each other by letter (most of which I have saved) and on the phone. I vividly remember my wife June calling out one Saturday morning, “Oh God, you and Joel are on the phone again! I won’t see you for hours!” A lot of Joel’s virtues as anthropologist and human being are summed up in an anecdote narrated, appropriately, by Joel Himself. In the late 1990s, a number of Guna-ologists, Joel and me included, worked on a project organized by the late Mari Lyn Salvador, combining a museum exhibit and published volume, “The Art of Being Kuna.” For each of the several museum openings, we brought a delegation of several Guna men and women. After the first opening in Los Angeles in November 1997, Joel wrote me: “Jim, I thought you would enjoy this, during our Thai dinner Sunday night, Dina and I were sitting with Carlos López [Guna chief, oral historian, and key source for the project], and he told us he knew our old friend, sakla Nipakkinya very well and we started reminiscing about Nipa stories. He of course knew the one about how Nipa’s dog got drunk on chicha one day on the way to the sappur. And he told us one about Nipa was eating with a group of chiefs and there was not enough meat to go around so Nipa kept putting meat from the table on the ground under his feet, to eat later, only to have it eaten up by a dog. (This is of course a good story for our paper, since it shows once again how the Kuna joke about such serious topics as food). What fun we had laughing at all this. And what an irony of 2 gringos reminiscing with an 85 year old Kuna cacique about all this. The weekend was really an incredible treat. Best to June.” There’s Joel in his own words: full of life, full of humor, intellectually alive, and engaging in such a warm way with the Kuna and with everyone else. We are all lucky to have known him.
John McDowell, December 9, 2022
Joel was an inspirational teacher and mentor for me; I must have taken three or maybe four seminars with him, a memorable one co-taught with his wife, Dina. He is the persisting influence for the work I've done over the years with Indigenous languages and cultures of the Andes. After I left Austin in 1975, we remained in touch, and one fine moment was when we invited Joel to participate in the 2008 Symposium on Teaching Indigenous Languages of Latin America (STILLA) in Bloomington, sponsored by the Association for Teaching and Learning Indigenous Languages of Latin America (ATLILLA). Here's the link to a YouTube video of his excellent talk: https://youtu.be/nFiRG243QDM. Joel's presentation was titled "Kuna Stories, Myths, Chants, and Songs: From the Gathering House to the Internet."
Anita Puckett, December 7, 2022
I met Joel Sherzer as a graduate student in the Department back in the 1980s. He was always very kind, understanding, and helpful to a woman "retreading" from Old English to linguistic anthropology. As my dissertation director, he gently, but firmly, guided me to a finish and then supported my efforts to establish myself at a campus without an anthropology department. His work was excellent, of course, as others have noted so very well, and his contributions far reaching. While my workload and health have kept me from Austin and a face to face visit with him in the past, I think of him often, consult his scholarship regularly, and rely on his work as a guide to my own. May he rest in peace.
Wikaliler Daniel Smith, December 1, 2022
Joel has been such an important part of my life that I don’t remember when I first met him. Since 1970s, he was already an important presence in Muladub, my father’s village, where he met my grandfather and father, and in the Guna academic landscape, having been invited by the Congreso de la Cultura Guna for several talks about Guna language and culture. It was in the latter context that my first memories of him come from. In one memory in particular when I was around fifteen years old, I was so fascinated by Joel’s talk that I asked him if I could eventually study linguistics at UT. He was encouraging and helpful. Years later, and because of the impact this conversation had on me, I arrived at UT. In Muladub (Mulatuppu in the orthography he used), many remember him and Dina fondly. I would get asked occasionally how he was doing by some of my friends from the village, most of whom did not know him personally, but their grandparents did. That speaks to the impact he has had on individuals’ lives. In the Congreso, several I spoke to had previously expressed their appreciation for Joel’s interest in our language and, more importantly, in his insistence on involving the community in the documentation and archiving of Dulegaya (the term the community now uses for the language). It was clear that we shared similar feelings about Joel, that he was a friend of the Guna community, as evidenced by the partnership he forged in those efforts of language documentation and revitalization, especially as many Gunas were moving out of villages and into urban centers in Panama City and Colon. I learned so many things from Joel during my time at UT, but what I will cherish the most is the personal connection he made with my family. My dad jokingly tells me that he and Joel competed to get recordings of my grandfather, who was well-versed in several curing chants. I am forever thankful that Joel was able to record and spend time with my grandfather, as those recordings serve as a reminder of the intersection between the relationships he built with the community and my family and his efforts to elevate Guna verbal art and language. Degimalo, Siga bula
Tony Webster, November 17, 2022
I first met Joel Sherzer in 1997. I was visiting UT Austin because I was trying to decide where to go for my PhD. I had read Joel’s “discourse-centered” paper and his Kuna Ways of Speaking and Verbal Art in San Blas, read too the edited volumes with Tony Woodbury and Greg Urban. The kind of work he did seemed to resonate with my own nascent thinking about languages and cultures and people. So I was excited about the prospect of attending UT Austin, but also, nervous as to what kind of person Joel was. Meeting Joel sealed the deal that I would be attending UT Austin. It was Joel’s enthusiasm and excitement for my project and for linguistic anthropology that made coming to UT the rather obvious decision. I never regretted that decision. I think for me, and I would suspect for others, one of the high points of my graduate education was taking Joel and Tony’s Speech Play and Verbal Art class. It was exactly why I came to UT. Once, when we were having dinner together, he mentioned that he and I thought about language in similar ways. I replied that I’d learned that from him. Joel stopped me. He told me that he’d seen that commonality when I applied for graduate school. That our views were similar, and that he’d noticed that long ago. He was probably right, but he helped focus my views and he helped confirm their importance. When, in 2000, my original dissertation project had collapsed, I went up to the Navajo Nation to see if there might be something for me to do as a dissertation there. It was then that I met Rex Lee Jim, and, over the course of a conversation at lunch, a dissertation project focusing on Navajo poetry came into being. I later drove back to Austin to talk with Joel about my change in projects. We sat in his office in EPS and I told him the dim outlines of what I proposed to do. Joel told me that it was a better project and better suited to me than my previous project. Like in so many ways, he was, of course, right. He was an enthusiastic supporter of what has become a several decades long research project with Navajo poets. I always appreciated that moment in his office, the ending of my previous project had dealt me a hard blow, and Joel, without too much show, told me that things would be fine—likely better than fine—and that I would be okay. He was right on both counts. Once I returned to UT as faculty, after Joel had retired, I was lucky enough to co-teach with Tony Woodbury and Pattie Epps the Speech Play and Verbal Art class. Joel, of course, a guest speaker. He stole the show—as he often did. I also had the chance to drive across East Texas with Joel and Dina and my wife Aimee Hosemann. We went to SALSA (the other SALSA) for a session honoring 30 years since the publication of Native South American Discourse (co-edited with Greg Urban). The conference was lovely, but what I will remember is the drive—Joel’s search for a po’ boy, our eating in the back of a gas station, and the stories about UT and about Penn, stories he’d have never told me when I was a graduate student. In early March of 2020, I had Joel in my class to guest lecture—ostensibly the topic was Linguistic Relativity, but Joel talked about the history of linguistic anthropology, about Morris Swadesh, about Dell Hymes, about his own work over the years. Even then he was beginning to struggle with his words, but it was, for me, a beautiful experience. The enthusiasm still there. The joy still there. While I was doing graduate work, Joel taught me a profound lesson, and it was that one should have a life—outside of academia, one should find and do things that gave one joy. I think of Joel as someone who found a great deal of joy in life, and who also brought a great deal of joy. It was the possibility of joy in life that was the most important lesson I learned from Joel. It goes without saying that I would not be the scholar I am without Joel, but it is equally true that I would not be the human being I am without Joel. For that I am lucky. A world without Joel seems a strange place. I will miss him.
My conversation with Joel Sherzer Tony Woodbury, November 15, 2022
On the Sunday morning before Thanksgiving of 1979, dazed from days of careering around an AAA meeting hotel somewhere, awkward in my suit and tie, bereft of job nibbles, suddenly, on reading my lapel label, someone says: "You're Tony Woodbury. Joel Sherzer has been looking for you." It was Dick Bauman. Then from another direction, speaking twice as fast: "You're Tony Woodbury. I've been looking for you!" It was Joel. "Go to room ####," see you in 15 minutes." But then instead he walked with me, talking excitedly and animatedly about Edward Sapir and Franz Boas, like we'd known each other since forever. And the conversation never stopped. Two weeks later I'm in his car, dodging headlights and deer in Westlake Hills, and we're chattering away; then we're at his lovely house, meeting awesome Dina and talking animatedly and excitedly about Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet; then I'm giving a talk for an anthro job for which I was wholly unsuited (luckily they hired Greg Urban); and then a sojourn in Alaska after that, again in Austin, I'm talking animatedly and excitedly with Joel after a talk for a job for which (I hope) I was a little more suited. And so it went. Sometimes, our animated and excited talk launched from opposite ends of a classroom with a giant table, Joel with his blackboard behind him and I with my blackboard behind me--we called it a class, Speech Play and Verbal Art, which Joel had started with Dick Bauman, and which he and I did, every four years, for maybe 20 years, and where, like metal filings, grad students would pull closer to Joel or closer to me around that giant table in proportion to the strength of their linguistic anthropological or anthropological linguistic affiliation. And it continued, through teaching, books, archives, conferences, and just sitting around, until last month, on a Sunday morning, when Pattie Epps and I visited Joel where he was staying, chattering animated and excitedly, in English with us, in his lovely Spanish with a staff person there, and with asides in French with Dina. I will so so so miss Joel.
Emiliana Cruz, November 13, 2022
Cuando me llegó la noticia de que Joel había fallecido estaba llegando a mi pueblo, vi cómo la neblina cubría las montañas suavemente, me puse triste, pero igual en mi despertó ese gusto por la vida, por quien soy, por lo que hago y no es casualidad haber conocido a Joel, la gente extrovertida y aventurera como nosotros nos teníamos que conocer. Todo empieza así, entre las mil aventuras de mi vida decidí un día abrir un café en la ciudad de Oaxaca, para ser exactos fue en diciembre del 2001, era el segundo mes de funcionar como café. Mi hija Frida de diez años era la mesera, portaba una frase en su blusa que decía “trabajo por propina, mi mamá no me paga”, con esa frase conseguía buena propina. Frida fue la primera persona que Dina y Joel conocieron en el café. Llegaron justo cuando se nos había acabado el agua, el café lleno y no podíamos cocinar más. Los clientes nos gritaban, optamos por correr a todos, pero Dina y Joel no se fueron, Frida los invitó pasar a la cocina donde yo estaba escondida. Joel se presentó y me dijo “aparte de ser comerciante ¿a qué más te dedicas?” Me reí mucho. Cuando el agua volvió abrimos el café otra vez, Joel y Dina regresaron como fieles clientes todos los días, sabía cuando llegaban porque los escuchaba hablar con otros clientes, un día escuché a Joel decirle a unos clientes que yo preparaba los mejores huevos de Oaxaca, me dio vergüenza, Joel para entonces ya se había convertido en parte del equipo del café. Así pasaron los días, nos llegamos a conocer mejor. Un día le dije a Joel que le iba a responder a su pregunta acerca de qué más hacía, le dije que quería estudiar mi maestría, que estaba esperando los resultados de mi solicitud de la Universidad de Arizona, que quería estudiar educación indígena. Joel me preguntó “¿hablas una lengua indígena de Oaxaca? Le respondí que sí, eso fue como música a sus oídos. Desde ese día frecuentaron más el café e insistieron que tenía que conocer la Universidad de Texas en Austin, en eso quedamos cuando se regresaron a Texas. En esos tiempos no era común el celular, como tampoco tenía yo dinero para volar a Austin, así que viajamos con Frida de la Ciudad de México a Nuevo Laredo, de ahí tomamos el Greyhound. Joel nos esperó por varias horas en la estación de autobús. Cuando nos vio bajar estaba muy contento y nos contó su aventura mientras nos esperaba. Nos llevó a su casa, Dina nos tenía una pasta muy rica, terminando de cenar, Joel y Frida se sentaron a tocar piano, Frida estaba muy contenta. Joel estaba muy emocionado con mi visita y emocionó a sus estudiantes también, tan emocionado que pagó la cena de todos, querían que me convencieran a quedarme en el programa. Me gustó mucho el programa y me encantó la idea de trabajar con Joel, así que abandoné el proyecto de Oaxaca para venirme a UT. Todo fue tan rápido que no dimensioné lo que estaba haciendo, más bien me dejé llevar por las aventuras de Joel, pero en agosto del 2002 me cayó el veinte, desperté en la ciudad de Austin y me dije “¿qué carajos hago acá? Me dio un poco de miedo porque todo fue muy rápido, pero como soy una persona que no se raja, tenía que terminar esta aventura, así que felizmente empecé el programa. Estoy infinitamente agradecida a Joel por lo que compartió conmigo, su amistad, su humor y su gran admiración a las culturas indígenas. Conocer a Joel cambió mi vida, no sé quién sería yo si no lo hubiera conocido, nunca lo sabré, pero el destino nos puso en el mismo camino y ahora se le extraña. Joel, esto no es un adiós, es solo un hasta luego,
Dick Bauman, November 8, 2022
Joel and I started out together as fellow graduate students in Dell Hymes’s first graduate course at Penn, the Ethnography of Symbolic Forms. That was way back in 1965 and Joel and I have been close friends and colleagues ever since. Joel came to UT in 1969, two years after I did, and we quickly joined forces to build the program in linguistic anthropology and to contribute what we could to the nascent field of linguistic anthropology at large. We educated each other, sharing our excitement about the power of form, the richness of reported speech, the nuances of parallelism and prosody, the emergent dynamics of performance. Who else but Joel could share my great enthusiasm for “Abnormal Types of Speech in Nootka?” I have had the good fortune to collaborate with a number of brilliant and stimulating colleagues, but with none of them was I as seamlessly compatible and closely attuned as I was with Joel. We corked so closely together in those early years that if there was something to be said about the Quakers in a section of one of our joint pieces that Joel was writing, he could fill it in as well as I could, and likewise if there was something to be said about the Kuna in a section I was writing, I could cover it myself. Not only was Joel a wonderful partner as co-author, but he was an equally generous and willing colleague in the backstage work of organizing conferences, constructing meeting sessions, editing working-paper series, developing curriculum, mentoring graduate students, and all the other kinds of ventures we undertook together. Above all, Joel was a dear friend and a wonderful travel companion. I treasure the memories of the trips we took with Joel and Dina to Annecy, the Valle d’Aosta, Guatemala, their visit to Beverly’s family’s ranch, our outings to the Broken Spoke, their festive presence at our wedding, our family gatherings and celebrations in Austin, and more. Te extrañaré, amigo. Que descanses en paz.
Hilaria Cruz, November 7, 2022
I am so very sorry to hear this news of Joel’s passing. He was a true champion for the underserved people and communities and this is what we see in his life’s work with the Kuna people as well as his unyielding support for indigenous students. I once asked Dina how they met and she told me this story. She was an exchange student in Philadelphia and she had a secret crush on this handsome dude named Joel. One weekend there was a silent auction to benefit some programs for underserved communities. Since Joel was a poor graduate student, he did not have any material things to offer for the auction, but had his own self. When I became a graduate student at UT, I was struggling to keep up with my classes in linguistics and with my obligations at home with my family, community, and being a mom. One day while feeling very sad and despondent, I was walking to take the bus home. While making my way down the steps by the UT Tower, I saw Joel coming up. He greeted me with a beautiful smile and said to me, “Hilaria, I am so happy you are here!” Those simple words reminded me of the real reason I was here, to learn linguistics so that I could work on the Chatino language. His words made my day and I felt much better and went back home with a lighter stride. Continuing with the love story, he could not be at the auction because he was driving some underserved students to an activity. For a donation, he offered to take someone sightseeing in Philadelphia. Dina put a bid on him and this is how their beautiful love story began. I asked Dina, "Was he expensive?" To which she replied, "No! He was very cheap, only 5 dollars." Last story, my husband, Michael, and I visited Joel at the nursing home last year (2021). The first thing he did when he saw me was to utter a parallelism “with one lip, with two lips” by Bill Bright (1990). What an amazing human being, I will never forget him for a long as I live. Thank you for everything Joel.
Tulio Bermúdez Mejía, November 7, 2022
When I was an undergrad in UNC Chapel Hill, I came across Joel’s books on Kuna verbal art, and fell in love with his descriptions of people and how they used humor in everyday life. That same year (2007) I started doing fieldwork in Panama on how indigenous people (Ngäbe, Kuna, Wounaan, and Embera) played with language and inverted the uses of hegemonic missionary prayers to make their own counterhegemonic meanings. Joel was the reason I chose to go on to grad school at UT Austin in 2012, and although he had retired by then, he was always very active and supportive of everyone and of my own work in Panama with Naso people. The beauty of his work on speech play and verbal art is that it is so theoretically expansive and materially grounded, that anyone can feel safe to work in that paradigm. Although I didn’t tell him my latest research on gender and language, but I feel that he’d be proud to know I’m expanding his vision beyond indigenous and ethnically minoritized languages by engaging deeply with my own community of practice– trans latinx communities in Panama, and my home Colombia, and now Chicago. His 2002 book on SPVA was far ahead of its time and I don’t think we appreciate enough the way he engages deeply with political activism of people on the ground and artists who use SPVA. I also think I might have been his last formal student (?) by the fact that he was on my dissertation committee (2018). There’s something that Tony Woodbury said once– that he (Tony) wondered whether Joel was able to document so much humor and language play because of the kind of person that he was to attract it. I think that couldn’t be closer to the truth. Joel was probably the most down-to-earth academic I ever met, and I hope those of us who knew him can carry that flame forward. nomiccama nomiccanacayo (Nahuatl) ‘hands of our departed, body of our departed’ (the protection of our departed) jekong këgong (Naso) ‘far away’ (departed and remaining into our future)