Meet the Mother-Son Duo Translating Astrophysics Into Blackfoot - Atlas Obscura

Meet the Mother-Son Duo Translating Astrophysics Into Blackfoot

Corey Gray and Sharon Yellowfly want to bring gravitational wave astronomy to speakers of the language.

Corey Gray and his mother, Sharon Yellowfly, after lecturing on their translation project.
Corey Gray and his mother, Sharon Yellowfly, after lecturing on their translation project. Corey Gray

Whenever her son detects a strange force rippling in the fabric of spacetime, such as a gravitational wave or binary black hole, Sharon Yellowfly begins the delicate work of translating the vocabulary of his work—astrophysics—into Blackfoot, an indigenous language. Blackfoot traditionally has no words for these kinds of observations. Sometimes her act of translation is as simple as mashing two words together. Other times, it rises to the level of poetry. After hearing an astronomer describe the sound black holes make as a “chirp,” Yellowfly translated the term into biixiini_gi, or “bird singing.”

For the past 21 years, as a lead operator at the California Institute of Technology’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), Yellowfly’s son, Corey Gray, has helped to run machines that detect gravitational waves. These violent ripples travel through spacetime like waves created by a pebble dropped into a pond. They can be caused by the collision of two black holes or the collapse of supernova, and there are even some still rippling around from the birth of the universe—you know, small things.

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves over a century ago in his general theory of relativity, but scientists only first observed these ripples in 2015, thanks to LIGO detectors in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, where Gray works. (It seems like we’re always going to be catching up to Einstein). When Gray, who is a member of the Siksika Nation of Alberta, Canada, found out about this major scientific milestone, he began to think about the press releases. They would no doubt be translated into widely spoken languages—French, Japanese, Mandarin. “That’s when I thought it would be freaking cool to get my mom involved and translate this news into Blackfoot,” Gray says, adding that he isn’t quite fluent in the language himself. “This way she would be a poet for Einstein and astrophysics. A code-talker for gravitational waves.”

Gray installing a sensor inside the enormous detector at LIGO Humboldt.
Gray installing a sensor inside the enormous detector at LIGO Humboldt. Corey Gray

After asking for permission to break the embargo on talking about the discovery—so he could tell his mom—Gray pitched her the idea. With some understandable trepidation, she said yes. Yellowfly had just two weeks to translate astrophysical jargon into words that had never before existed. “When Corey emailed me the press release, I opened it, and was like ‘Oh my goodness,’” she says. “‘What is the word for that! What does this mean?” She called relatives for help and asked Gray to explain meatier topics. Right before the announcement deadline, Yellowfly completed a full translation of the press release into Blackfoot , one of the 17 languages it appeared in. The mother-son duo also released a video of Yellowfly reading the release out loud. Since 2015, she has translated five additional press releases on LIGO discoveries.

Though she now lives in southern California, Yellowfly grew up on a reserve in southern Alberta, Canada. In 1957, she enrolled in the Crowfoot Indian Residential School, as was required by Canadian law. These boarding schools were a long and cruel tradition in Canada, where governments and churches pursued a policy of cultural genocide to stamp out the culture of First Nations people, according to a 2015 report from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Yellowfly remembers that the first French word her mother learned during her own boarding school experience was “sauvage,” the slur the nuns lobbed at their indigenous pupils.

“The school wanted to get rid of everything that made us native,” Yellowfly says. “The language, the religion, the ideology—everything that was Blackfoot.” If the nuns caught children speaking their native language, the children weren’t allowed to return home over the weekend, and could be physically punished. Yellowfly remembers how she and her classmates developed an underground whisper network in which they spoke to each other in Blackfoot whenever the nuns were out of sight. These small acts of rebellion helped Yellowfly cling to her identity and language.

A photo of Sharon Yellowfly's class at Crowfoot Indian Residential School.
A photo of Sharon Yellowfly’s class at Crowfoot Indian Residential School. Corey Gray

Blackfoot is an agglutinative language, meaning its words are sculpted out of morphemes (linguistics’ smallest building blocks) that can stand on their own, even if removed from the word, according to Eldon Yellowhorn, a professor of First Nations studies at Simon Fraser University. Instead of sentences, Blackfoot relies on long phrases all built around a root word swathed in prefixes and suffixes. For example, the word for “goodbye” in kitakitamatsinopoao, which is comprised of the morphemes that individually translate to “you and I will see each other again.”

Yellowfly deconstructed the press release’s intimidating jargon into four categories. First, she identified traditional words that already exist in Blackfoot, such as naduusi (Sun), gagaduusi (star), and spuu?ts (universe). Second, she noted words that could be directly translated by combining traditional words. For example, “black holes” becomes sigooxgiya—a merger of the Blackfoot words for “black” and “holes.” Similarly, “binary black holes” becomes nadugisstsii sigooxgiya. This approach is similar to how Blackfoot linguists have coined other new words, Yellowhorn says, such as miiksskimmapi, the word for “robot,” which translates to “iron man.”

(In order to indicate sounds and inflections unique to Blackfoot, Yellowfly peppers her translation with symbols and capitalization defined by a key in the press release. For example, “?” indicates a glottal stop, or a consonant produced by obstructing airflow in the vocal tract. In English, we pronounce the word “button” with a glottal stop, skipping over the “o.” Yellowfly also capitalizes “A” to indicate when the vowel should be pronounced like it sounds in “acorn.”)

An old family photo of Yellowfly with a young Gray and his father Tom K. Gray.*
An old family photo of Yellowfly with a young Gray and his father Tom K. Gray.* Corey Gray

The other two categories required more careful consideration. Yellowfly grouped together conceptual words that require a deeper understanding of physics for proper translation. Take the interferometer, an instrument that splits a beam of light in two to create a measurable interference pattern, and is how observatories such as LIGO detect gravitational waves. There is nothing in Blackfoot remotely close to this, so Yellowfly created a new word inspired by what the instrument actually does. She landed on Anatsiwayagidutsim gii idumuya issxgwibiists, which translates to “light-splitter and marry/union measurements.”

In a way, Yellowfly’s conceptual translation makes it easier for someone unfamiliar with an interferometer to grasp what it does. She translated “gamma rays”—radiation emitted from the decay of atomic nuclei—into igaguu esstuumsKuutsp aanatsiists AsAxgaasimya, or “many provisions of self-strengthened lights exploding.” “Gravitational waves,” on the other hand, became Abuduuxbiisii o?bigimskAAsts, or “they stick together waves.”

The final and most challenging category in Yellowfly’s system concerns words or phrases that require an additional layer of certain poetic license. “There were words that would take four or five pages to explain,” she says. The most prominent challenge, of course, was how to translate “Einstein’s theory of relativity.” Yellowfly knew she only had to translate the phrase, not the theory itself. She chose bisaatsinsiimaan, or “beautiful plantings.” Bisaatsinsiimaan does not translate in any direct way to the theory itself, but rather acts as a metaphor for Einstein’s legacy. “This was a brilliant man who had this theory that hadn’t been proven,” Yellowfly explains. “The plantings of his ideas would be harvested by people later on, on so many different levels.”

Gray and Yellowfly standing beside one of the interferometer at LIGO's 2.5-mile-long arms.
Gray and Yellowfly standing beside one of the interferometer at LIGO’s 2.5-mile-long arms. Corey Gray

Precontact Blackfoot territory ranged over a wide swath of Western prairie in what is now Canada and the United States, according to a report from the Blackfoot Language Resources and Digital Dictionary. But according to a 2011 census, just 3,250 people speak Blackfoot as their mother tongue. Over the past century, Blackfoot-speaking tribes began to recognize the need to preserve their language before it disappeared entirely. In 1989, Donald Frantz, a linguist at the University of Lethbridge, and Norma Jean Russell, a native expert on the Blackfoot language, compiled the first Blackfoot dictionary of stems, roots, and affixes. It’s now gone through several updates, most recently in 2017.

Yellowfly did not consult the dictionary’s official writing system for her project, and decided instead to work phonetically to preserve the local inflections of what she calls her own “accent” of Blackfoot. “You kind of lose the beauty and flow of the language when you’re not speaking it or hearing it, and the inflections mean a lot,” she says. Like most languages, Blackfoot branches out into a web of local dialects with distinct phonetics, lexicon, grammar, and slang—almost none of which lands in the official dictionary. In her eyes, Yellowfly’s own translation incorporates the distinct way she learned to speak Blackfoot.

This customization does make it more difficult to read. Frantz had to conduct some guesswork to understand Yellowfly’s translation, he writes in an email. The official dictionary, as its name suggests, is perfect for linguists but somewhat inaccessible to actual members of the Blackfoot community, according to the Blackfoot Language Resources and Digital Dictionary project. Yellowfly’s translation includes a key to help people understand how she defines her own phonetics.

A young Sharon Yellowfly held by her mother, Cecile Yellowfly, another survivor of the residential schools.
A young Sharon Yellowfly held by her mother, Cecile Yellowfly, another survivor of the residential schools. Corey Gray

At the age of 23, while speaking with her mother in the kitchen, Yellowfly came up with the idea to create her own Blackfoot dictionary. Her mother referenced a piece of toast, a word that does not exist in Blackfoot, by coining a new term that roughly translates to “bread that is burnt.” Yellowfly began compiling words as her parents spoke them to her, a project she tabled after they passed. But her recent translation work for LIGO inspired her to pick up the project again.

Yellowfly sees her dictionary less as an academic project and more as a way to impart the language to her two sons and two daughters, who all speak varying degrees of Blackfoot. “There were so many things I wished I had asked my parents, but they’re gone now and all that knowledge and experience and words are gone with them,” she says. “I know that when I’m gone, my kids will have some questions. This will be a little bit of me that will be with them.” Ever the organizer, Yellowfly divides her dictionary into three sections: a traditional dictionary, one that includes commonly used words for real-life situations, and a third that contains personal dialogues between people in her life.

Gray and his cousin organized a special gravitational-wave–themed grass dance contest at his tribe's annual pow wow.
Gray and his cousin organized a special gravitational-wave–themed grass dance contest at his tribe’s annual pow wow. Corey Gray

Since the first astrophysics translation, Gray and Yellowfly have worked together to spread awareness of gravitational wave astronomy to Blackfoot speakers, and introduce members of the scientific community to them. Gray helped organize a traditional Blackfoot grass dance competition at the tribe’s annual pow wow before rushing home to monitor the first “triple” detection of a binary neutron star. A few years back, the two co-presented their results at an indigenous language symposium at the University of Lethbridge, which is located in Blackfoot territory. Relatives from their tribe came out to hear them speak. Last summer, Yellowfly visited Gray for a tour of LIGO’s observatory, where she got to see the 2.5-mile-long arm of the interferometer that first detected a gravitational wave.

Though Gray has always considered himself a mama’s boy, this project has brought the two even closer together. They text often, about Gray’s work and random vocabulary questions that pop up as he tries to improve his grasp of the language. “As I’m getting older, I don’t have to be as much of a disciplinarian,” Yellowfly says. “So Corey now feels like a child who is also my friend.”

“My mom is a superstar,” Gray says, meaning every sense of the word.

*Correction: This story previously identified Gray’s father as Russell J. Barber. Gray’s father is Tom K. Gray.