By Jen Ross
There are an estimated 6,000 languages spoken globally, but according to the United Nations nearly half are endangered. Only a few hundred have been given a place in education systems and the public domain. Fewer than a hundred languages are used in the digital world.
After centuries of colonization and discrimination, Indigenous languages face the greatest threats.
“From 1910 to 1990, governments took away our culture and our language, and put us in jail if we practiced our ceremonies,” explains Elder Herman Many Guns, of the Piikani Indigenous Peoples in Canada, where Indigenous people are known as First Nations.
“When residential schools came onto our reserve, they would wash your mouth out with soap if you spoke the language or you would be physically abused.”Elder Herman Many Guns
The small size of Indigenous communities is another factor. At the Piikani First Nation in southern Alberta, only about 20% of its 3,500 residents speak the Blackfoot language fluently, according to Many Guns. Among the entire Blackfoot Nation – 32,000 peoples from four tribes spanning the Canada-US border – he estimates only 40% can speak some Blackfoot.
Today, English is the main language at the on-reserve Piikani Nation Secondary School, although all 200 students get culture classes and at least a half-hour of daily Blackfoot language instruction. But Many Guns says that isn’t enough to achieve fluency, since few speak it at home or online.
“Retaining our language is really a key part of our existence as Indigenous People,” he says. “We need the younger people to understand the words that connect us with our past and with our culture, and for them to start documenting our culture and our ways. We need digital fluency to ensure our culture and language remain vibrant for the future.”
To that end, in 2017, the Piikani First Nation, University of Alberta, First Nations Technical Service Advisory Group, and Piikani Board of Education teamed up to create the Piikani Cultural and Digital Literacy Camp Program. The project, in collaboration with the Internet Society Canada Chapter and the university, combines digital technology with cultural and language studies to help high school students learn while documenting their experience on the land. It received a USD $30,000 grant from the Internet Society’s Beyond the Net program (which is now part of the Internet Society Foundation) as well as support from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Called ii na kaa sii na ku pi tsi nii kii in Blackfoot, the summer camp blends classroom and online teaching with hands-on activities and experiential learning in nature. Following traditional Piikani Blackfoot protocol, the three-day,two-night outdoor section begins in a teepee with a smudge ceremony to make a vow and invitation to the Creator to support the success of the students. There is also a sweat lodge offering and a daily morning pipe ceremony, led by an elder with Blackfoot transfer rights.
Before and after the outdoor camp, students spend four to six days in class, covering topics like cultural appropriation, basic digital media production, and data stewardship, through modules that are co-developed and co-taught by university facilitators and teachers from Piikani Secondary School. Students then apply their new digital skills to document and preserve the ancestral knowledge shared by Elders during the camp.
University of Alberta Associate Professor of Communications and Technology Rob McMahon says combining traditional Blackfoot and hands-on digital teaching approaches was essential.
“Digital literacy curricula typically get created in urban centres that are very removed from rural, and specifically Indigenous communities… It’s a hidden bias,” he says. “We wanted to see how it could be integrated into community development, and cultural and language preservation – to bridge those two worlds. Also, to start from a foundation of cultural modes of learning through nature that Indigenous People have used for millennia.”
Some 25 students have taken part in the camp so far, between the camp’s pilot and its first two installments in 2018 and 2019.
We got to catch a moment on camera so we can look back at it.”Tailyn Potts, a 15-year-old participant who said she enjoyed sleeping in a teepee as her ancestors did, as well as recording her community’s traditions.
Many Guns says many students face social problems and were shy at the beginning, but the camp helped them come out of their shell. He says those living on low incomes enjoy it even more because they are less exposed to technology.
McMahon says student evaluations after each camp have helped researchers revise the curriculum, to incorporate new topics like the importance of consent when posting to social media, or making sure they include the apps and digital tools students prefer.
The students want to be YouTubers and they’re really into tools for music-making. They want to share their culture with the world.”Rob McMahon, University of Alberta
McMahon says the project is also using the equipment purchased for the camp to start building a technology library at the Piikani Secondary School.
After the camp, Many Guns says several students improved their performance in school. “By learning more about their culture and about technology, they got excited. It was overwhelming for some of them, in a positive way.”
The project team is exploring ways to adapt and transfer the resources and planning tools developed to other communities, such as the Métis Settlements in northern Alberta, and the Internet Society is connecting them with Indigenous groups in other countries. They’re helping to preserve local, Indigenous languages – and increasing the languages used in the digital world one at a time.
* 21 February is International Mother Language Day