Byron Bates is meticulously adding more than 100 Cree words about medicine, pain and doctors into the mobile app he created, called ATC Cree.
The app developer and Athabasca Tribal Council member built his app in an effort to maintain the languages of his community, made up of about 5,000 Cree and Dene people in the Fort McMurray area. It launched early in March with 120 Cree words translated into English, and includes audio pronunciations. Now he’s working on more.
The band councillor and software developer has already received a lot of feedback, including how useful the app will be for elders who go into the city for medical treatment.
“Medical professionals can bring up the app and ask the elders where it hurts and ask them other questions,” Bates says.
The app is part of a new wave that has indigenous people taking to technology to maintain their traditions.
There are more than 370 million indigenous people in 90 countries worldwide, the UN estimates. They speak up to 6,000 languages, half of which are in danger of disappearing. Some indigenous languages in Canada are in a crisis state, with only a handful of speakers left.
“Technology is the way the world is going, and we want to be on the forefront,” Bates says from his home on Fort McMurray #468 First Nations reserve, about 430 kilometres north of Edmonton. “I think it’s important that we embrace the technologies and use them to the best of our abilities and use the full potential and power of them.”
Technology and social media are being called the new moccasin telegraph, allowing indigenous people around the world to communicate, share their cultures and support such movements as Idle No More and NoDAPL, the group fighting a pipeline in North Dakota.
For people wanting to text or tweet in indigenous languages, the FirstVoices app has more than 100 indigenous languages from Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. It was developed through First Peoples’ Cultural Council, which encourages technology-based solutions for indigenous language reclamation and revitalization.
Based in Brentwood Bay, B.C., First Peoples’ Cultural Council has been working with technology since 2003 to find inventive ways of preserving languages, including keyboards, games and software that curate and document languages and phrases. “It allows First Nations to be in charge of their own language data, to learn how to document and record languages,” said CEO Tracey Herbert.
“The languages are available online free to members, because technology can be a connector back to our communities. Whether it is through Facebook or FirstVoices, we are on the internet and using it.”
The median age of the aboriginal population is young, at 28 years — 13 years younger than the non-aboriginal population. And according to the 2011 Canadian census, roughly half of First Nations people don’t live in their home communities.
Herbert says it’s essential to connect with indigenous youth who live off-reserve, and technology can provide that pathway.
“If they can’t use their languages on Facebook, on Instagram, on their mobile devices, then it’s showing that the languages aren’t relevant,” Herbert says. “But if they are using them in their everyday lives, that’s really a sign that languages are becoming more relevant to everyday life.”
The key to all this is that the technology is being developed by indigenous people. That means they not only have the control but own the intellectual property rights used to maintain their traditions, Herbert adds. It also means a better understanding of how the technology can best represent the traditions and connect the community.
Gabriel Archie, a member of the Canim Lake Band (or the Tsq’escenemc in his native Secwepemcstin language) in B.C., has always tinkered with technology. He started to see how his interest in coding could benefit his community.
First, he built a database of his language. He also built audio pronouncers and a flashcard game, which he thought would help him become more fluent.
“For me it’s just a tool to have our own identity back, really. The number one thing for reconciliation is having our language not go extinct,” Archie says.
Building on that database, he’s now working on a new mobile app with Lydia Prince, 27, from Tl’azt’en Nation. It is called Goozih, which means “to be nosey,” in her Dakelh language, also known as Carrier language.
“We thought it was kind of funny to choose Goozih because, when you are looking for something, you need to be nosey, right?” Prince says with a laugh.
Although she’s been interested in making apps since she was a teenager, Prince is new to the professional game. She received support and funding last year through the First Nations Technology Council to take a coding bootcamp from Lighthouse Labs, which holds coding sessions across the country to teach people how to become developers.
There are many indigenous youth seeking to build their own startups, says Lighthouse Labs’ co-founder Jeremy Shaki. There is still an overall lack of awareness about what it means to code and the opportunities coding can provide for indigenous communities, but that’s starting to change, he says.
“One of the things that’s lost on a lot of people is that coding is providing solutions,” he says. “It’s usually automating something or getting an idea out there to more people.”
Plus, it opens up jobs and opportunities that don’t force indigenous people to leave their communities or change their traditions, he adds. “It allows people to work from pretty much anywhere in the world, it also doesn’t make it necessary to wear a suit or to talk a certain way. It’s very much based on hands-on skills.”
Geraldine Malone is a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs.