Vickie Jensen and Jay Powell are partners in both life and work. Since the early 1970s they have worked together in Washington State and British Columbia to study, document, and help revitalise indigenous languages in the communities in which they were active. In addition to language work, the couple promoted Aboriginal artists and assisted First Nations in their efforts to achieve self-determination.
James V. Powell (Jay) completed his first degree in archaeology at Wheaton College in Illinois in 1959. He then studied Near Eastern languages at the National University of Mexico, the University of Chicago, and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Between 1958 and 1965 he worked on excavation sites in Mexico, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1965, seeking a quieter life, he began a degree at the University of Denver studying Archival Science, which he completed a year later. He then took a research librarian position at the New York Times and published two books on the translation history of the bible. In 1968 Powell began graduate studies in linguistics at the Pacific and Asian Linguistics Institute, University of Hawaii. In 1969 he began to conduct research on the Quileute language in La Push, Washington State for his M.A. and PhD degrees in Anthropological Linguistics. His dissertation, Proto-Chimakuan: a Reconstruction was completed in 1974.
Jensen earned a B.A., magnum cum laude, in English from Luther College in 1968. She then went on to do a Master of Arts in Teaching at the University of Iowa, which she completed in 1970. For her Master’s degree she specialised in education for children and youth that have trouble fitting into mainstream schools. During this period she also studied photography. She was employed in alternative education programs, and while teaching in South Dakota worked with Sioux adults. These experiences led to her strong conviction that teaching materials should reflect the students’ own environments and that language education should be pragmatic and realistic in its goals. She felt that incorporating photography that the students could relate to would lead to success in achieving these objectives.
In the summer of 1972 Jensen travelled to La Push to visit Powell, with whom she had been corresponding. While there, she photographed the community. In December of the same year she immigrated to Canada to join Powell in Vancouver where he had taken a teaching job at the University of British Columbia (UBC). At that time, the two began their collaborative work with Northwest coast communities, travelling to the villages in which they produced educational materials during Powell’s breaks at the University. Powell taught linguistics at UBC until his retirement in July 1999. Throughout his career he researched the languages of a number of indigenous groups and produced approximately 130 publications in linguistic, anthropological, pedagogical and popular journals, and books. Jensen’s first job in Canada was at the Gallery of Photography in North Vancouver where she worked and taught. In addition to a number of other photographic projects, many as part of her collaborative work with Powell, Jensen was editor of Westcoast Mariner Magazine from March 1988 – June 1991, and for Office @ Home from 1997 – 1999. Between 1995 – 2001 she published a number of articles and books on marine themes, focussing on underwater vehicles.
In addition to their work in the Northwest Coast, Jensen and Powell have also photographed and conducted research in communities around the world. This includes work in the USA, Mexico, South America, as well as four sabbatical years that took the couple and their two sons through Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. As well as research trips, Jensen and Powell have spent recent years lecturing on cruise ships and travelling for pleasure.
Powell has remained active as an ethnographic and linguistic consultant throughout the Northwest coast since his retirement from UBC. He and Jensen continue to work with communities with which they have established relationships, on both a formal and an ad hoc basis. Powell has an ongoing contract with the Haisla, and there will likely be more work with the Quileute, in addition to casual projects that come up periodically.