Remembering Heidi Johnson

heidi johnson

The Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), the University of Texas Libraries and LLILAS Benson extend their sympathy to the family, friends and former colleagues of Heidi Johnson, who passed away unexpectedly on Wednesday, February 2, 2022.

As the manager of AILLA from 2001 through 2012, Johnson played a central role in building the archive into the internationally recognized language repository that it is today.

A major contributor to the documentation of the Indigenous languages of Mexico as well as a pioneering digital language archivist, Johnson was a fervent advocate for language archiving and its best practices not only among fellow archivists, but for a broader audience, including Indigenous communities working to preserve and use records of their heritage languages and linguists assisting in such efforts. 

“Heidi Johnson was the guiding force in establishing the university’s position as a leader in the preservation of at-risk Indigenous languages in Latin America,” said Vice Provost and Director of the University of Texas Libraries Lorraine J. Haricombe. “Her sudden passing is a great loss, but offers an opportunity to recognize the weight of her tremendous contributions to the field of linguistics, and her philanthropic support of AILLA and the Black Diaspora Archive.” 

“The Teresa Lozano Long Institute is a nexus for the study and preservation of Latin American Indigenous languages at UT. Heidi will always be a fundamental part of that, and through her leadership and generous support, she leaves a powerful legacy for which we are tremendously grateful,” said LLILAS Director Adela Pineda Franco.

“Heidi was not only responsible for designing and building AILLA into what it is today, she also was instrumental in establishing worldwide standards for the then-emerging field of language archiving,” said Professor Anthony Woodbury, Johnson’s friend and former dissertation adviser. “Always a teacher, Heidi spread the word about language archiving not only among fellow archivists, but to a much wider range of stakeholders, including Indigenous communities working to preserve and use records of their heritage languages, and linguists assisting in such efforts.” 

Johnson’s legacy at The University of Texas at Austin goes beyond her passion for Indigenous language archives. In 2016, she established the Black Diaspora Archive Excellence Fund with a $25,000 endowment. She has been a vital financial supporter of AILLA through the College of Liberal Arts and she has arranged for a major gift to be divided among several Libraries’ endowments, including AILLA, the Black Diaspora Archive Excellence Fund and the Heath Tomorrow Fund.

In addition to her work as a linguist, Johnson was a gifted and charismatic teacher and speaker, and a clever and engaging author of works of fiction. Johnson received her PhD training in Linguistics at The University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation, A grammar of San Miguel Chimalapa Zoque (2000), is a comprehensive description and analysis of a Zoquean language spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, by about 1500 people, mostly older adults, with whom she worked in San Miguel Chimalapa over a period of about five years. After teaching linguistics at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, from 2000 to 2001, Johnson returned to UT Austin to serve as the first full-time manager of the then newly formed digital Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America (www.ailla.utexas.org), a joint project of the College of Liberal Arts and the University of Texas Libraries.

AILLA Manager Susan Kung describes Johnson as “an inspirational friend and mentor.”

“Heidi was enthusiastic, self-confident, determined, motivated, encouraging, empathetic, fiercely independent, and more than a little bit quirky,” said Kung. “She was adventurous and unafraid to set out on her own and do whatever she wanted. She completely dedicated herself to every cause or project that she took on, whether it was documenting an understudied language, building a first-of-a-kind language archive, helping to establish best practices for similar repositories, researching and writing historical mysteries, teaching indie authors about self-publishing, remodeling her home, rescuing and training her dogs, or standing up for racial justice. As soon as she determined that her work was satisfactorily done to the best of her abilities, she would move on to the next project on her list.”

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