Oct 12 2006

Education Trends: Old Cultures, New Technologies

The Navajo, the Chippewa, the Tulalip and other Native American tribes use new tools to preserve their culture and languages including Internet-based collaboration, robust multimedia PCs and voice recognition software.

Tribal educators use IT to preserve and teach Native American culture


MID-MORNING IN OCTOBER, AND GOLD DESERT SUN BATHES A SMALL BAND OF NATIVE American teens trekking up a craggy mountain face in New Mexico’s Colorado Plateau. The leader stops and gestures to the others. The high school students fan out across the rocky beige soil. One kneels to closely examine a yucca plant. Another spots a brown horned toad. Some take digital photos or sit and sketch specimens.

Later, at school or home, the students continue their work: identifying, researching and illustrating local plant and animal species. Seated at a Wyse 3730LE thin-client Windows terminal, each enters information into a Microsoft Access database: careful descriptions of habitats, scientific names, Native American names, commercial and traditional uses gleaned from interviews with area businesses and Navajo, Ahima, Zuni and Pueblo elders.

Click HereFor many of these students, as likely to have grown up with “Wiley Coyote” cartoons as with traditional Native American “Coyote” stories, this hunting adventure represents more than just clever integration of computer technology with their school’s science curriculum.

The semester-long project, conducted by the Rehoboth Christian School near Gallup, N.M, is an example of how North American Indians increasingly are using the Internet, computers and other information technology to preserve age-old language and culture.

Thanks to grants from foundations and industry, and support from colleges, universities and growing networks of IT support organizations assisting Indian tribes, tools such as video conferencing, voice recognition, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and other sophisticated knowledge bases are appearing in areas where, until recently, universal telephone service or electricity were unavailable.

Many of the new digital preservation efforts piggyback on programs to improve the economy and quality of reservation life or help Native Americans, among the continent’s poorest minorities, enter the Information Age.

Take Rehoboth Christian. During the last three years, the private, independent school was stymied in its efforts to replace three-ring notebooks with Web pages used to catalog and present field data gathered by science students. The reasons, according to Doug Evilsizor, the school’s director of development: Eight-year old Apple Macintosh computers, a 1:8 computer/student ratio, and a lack of home computers.

All that changed last summer. The 100- year-old, financially challenged school won a national educational technology contest. The prize: $104,000 in hardware, software and services anchored by Citrix Corp.’s MetaFrame XP technology. Administrators used the windfall to create a network of 150 thin clients connecting labs, classrooms and student homes across an 11,000-square mile area. A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation paid for four years of on-staff technical support.

In short order, 400 students from 280 families in rural Northwest New Mexico had entered a technology-driven learning program with one eye on the past and one on the future.

Tulalip Tribes

Similarly, the Tulalip (Too-LAY-Leap) Tribes of Washington State make cultural preservation and K-12 education a priority of its IT efforts. A motto adopted by the tribes’ technology arm, called Tulalip Technology Leap (TTL), says it all: “Preserving the past, protecting the future.”

Established in 2000, TTL is a regional partnership between the Tulalip Tribes, the University of Washington at Bothell and Everett Community College. Its mission: To provide computing infrastructure, applications and support to tribe members while educating families, children and college students, says Bill Erdly, TTL director of technology.

After many meetings with the tribes, TTL identified 23 crucial technology projects, including 911 services, call center, mail tracking, and preserving tribal language (known as Lushootseed). Teams came armed with grants from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and others.

So the Tulalip Cultural Resources department, TTL, tribal members and students set to work developing a scalable Lushootseed Unicode font for Microsoft Word and the Web. Another program lets users automatically download, install and register the font as an executable file.

Plans are underway to make the font available on CD, Erdly explains, an associate professor of Computer Science at the University of Washington and former aerospace executive. Work recently began on a companion thesaurus and dictionary.

Also underway is another preservation priority, a Digital Management System (DMS)—a massive multimedia knowledge base nicknamed “Encyclopedia Tulalip.” The completed DMS will include digital audio and video archives, recorded conversations with tribal elders and digital photos of cultural artifacts.

Less flashy, but no less important, are tens of thousands of searchable text documents, ranging from tribal health records, military service records, financial and legal documents and minutes from tribal board meetings. For several months, teams have been digitizing these papers with 40-ppm scanners. Current DMS efforts focus on using technology to create fast-search capability and adding Web links to digital material.

Tribal leaders consider their new Geographic Information System (GIS) an important teaching tool. So an advanced tech team has begun creating digital maps of the reservation, detailing historical and current boundaries, locations of tribe members around the U.S. and more.

Current events also get electronically archived. For example, digital photos, bulletin board chat, trip details, rosters and the Web site from a recent canoe journey hosted by the tribe will be added to the DMS. “Culture is not just the past,” Erdly says. “It’s the present and future too.”

United Umatilla Tribes

For the United Tribes of the Umatilla, losing a traditional language is not just a possibility but also a sad reality.

For thousands of years, the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes lived on 17 million acres in northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. After years of huge land losses, a 1949 treaty officially united the three neighboring “Plateau” tribes. Their combined population, estimated at 8,000 before the arrival of Europeans, has dwindled to around 2,400 today.

All three tribes spoke dialects of the Sahatpin linguistic group. While the languages of the Walla Walla and Umatilla survived, Cayuse has disappeared except for a few words.

Lloyd Commander, director of education for the United Tribes of Umatilla, laments, “Over the decades, our native languages have gradually been lost as the primary means of communication.”

Like many groups, the Plateau tribes have few everyday speakers of their native languages, especially members ages 30 to 55. Determined to continue teaching the surviving tongues, tribal leaders tried for years to get funding to preserve their language, culture and history, Commander says.

Things changed dramatically in 1995 following the opening of the tribe-run Wildhorse Casino and Resort. By the late 1990s, the Tribes had enough money to fund programs preserving and reviving their languages and culture, including the traditional religion called “Washat” or “Seven Drums.”

A hired linguist interviewed nine elders representing the three nations, and captured the basic tongues. These were then recorded on CDs and made available to interested members. The cultural protection group published a book about its efforts called “It’s About Time (híiwes wiyéewts’etki) It’s About Them (paamiláyk’ay) It’s About Us (naamiláyk’ay).”

Umatilla educators hoped to bring the newly documented languages to young members. So it seemed natural to use the knowledge captured on CD to develop middle and high school cirriculum.

Today, several hundred of the district’s 500 or so students have taken courses to learn their tribal language, culture and history, Commander says. It didn’t take long, though, to discover that traditional approaches to learning language were too slow for modern K-6 students. “They were bored,” he adds.

So this summer district schools partnered with the tribe’s Tamastslikt Cultural Institute and opened to create a “Digital Story Camp.” There, 15 students used pre-made characters from the traditional Native American “Coyote” stories, built in Macromedia Flash, to create their own digital stories. The program was a huge hit, Commander says. Now, tribal teachers are working on a new native language curriculum for younger students that includes the Digital Story Camp experience.

Tribal teachers and leaders also walk the technology talk. Many, including Commander, use a new video conferencing facility to take distance-learning courses from the University of Oregon.

Complex Issues Loom

Early efforts have been promising. But the introduction of modern technology to preserve traditional Indian knowledge also raises difficult issues.

As in any group, leaders in tribes disagree over what (and whether) to spend on information technology. Conflict can be acute in groups struggling with basic health and safety. Says Erdly: “For some, it’s understandably hard to understand why you need a Digital Management System. What does that do for me and the tribe?”

Mass digital publication and production of cultural materials also poses complex questions. Indians and non-Indians alike worry that easy online access to Native American know-how invites exploitation and misuse. “We are wary of scams,” says Commander, a Umatilla tribe member. “There are always people who try to make a buck off of Indian knowledge and ways.”

Currently, questions about intellectual property and usage outnumber answers. As sovereign nations not bound by U.S. law, how do tribes protect intellectual property? Who owns a native language font? What are appropriate roles for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Federal Communications Commission and other government agencies? (For his part, Commander plans to copyright Umatilla educational materials.)

Cultural clashes also loom. In traditional Indian culture, sociologists say, precious information gets shared only after a person is judged trusted and worthy. What happens, then, when millions of strangers can view the information on the Internet?

“The quality of information, and how it’s distributed are big, big issues,” Erdly agrees. In most cases, elders decide who sees what, where and how.

So work continues, carefully. Next year the Tulalip Tribes plan to begin testing an online museum, expanding the Boys and Girls Club Technology Initiative and similar youth training and publish the Lushootseed font and dictionary on CD-ROM.

The tribe has applied for a $700,000 grant to, among other things, expand the Tribal Management System and “Encyclopedia Tulalip.” Plans for a distance learning and conference center are also underway.

Through it all, Erdly, trained in industrial organization, stresses the importance of community self-sufficiency. “I tell tribal students that I want one of them to take my job,” he says.

Rehoboth plans to keep exploring how technology can introduce Native American material into economics, history, current events and other K-12 subjects. Evilsizor says the school plans to share its methods and materials with other schools. Rehoboth recently awarded more than $900,000 in technology sub-grants to other Indian schools.

The eventual goal, he explains, is using the online material to create K-12 curricula that include Native American materials. Current textbooks, he says, “are rotten” in that regard.

In addition to developing courses, Umatilla tribes will spend the next year deciding whether to use a Meyer Foundation grant to establish a charter high school that includes Native American material.

Although some programs started slowly, many tribes and educators believe digital preservation of Indian culture will continue to gain popularity. Many universities have started programs. And more tribes appear willing. “We are a small group of people who continue to care for and live on the land of our ancestors,” declares the mission statement of the United Umatilla tribes. More and more, that charge includes preserving precious territory in cyberspace.