Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Sara Child, Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, wants to “unlock” the power of the Kwak̓wala language and, if she and her team are successful, it could mean that other Indigenous peoples will have the keys to revitalize their endangered languages as well.
Child is a professor in Indigenous education at North Island College. The not-for-profit society she established in 2017, the Sanyakola Foundation, has received several years funding (May 2021 to May 2024) through the Mitacs Indigenous Pathways program.
Thirty internship units worth $450,000 hired through the project will be doing painstaking work, consulting with Elders to build a framework for what a new teaching approach grounded in a Kwakwaka’wakw lens will look like for learning the Indigenous language.
The strategy includes developing leading-edge voice-to-text technology, such as a mobile app capable of identifying everyday items from pictures snapped on a smartphone with Kwak’wala words pronounced in the voice of an Elder.
While this type of technology is common in English, French and other mainstream languages, not so with Indigenous languages, which are verb-based, reads a press release about the project. That means researchers must develop their own recognition system from scratch, must carefully authenticate transcribed words from archived sources before feeding them to a machine learning system that is starting to learn Kwak’wala.
“This work is arduous and time consuming, adding complexity and barriers to Indigenous language revitalization,” Child said. But, “If we break the code for building voice-to-text technology for Kwak’wala — and I’m sure we will — the impact will be absolutely phenomenal across the globe.”
Indigenous language revitalization is complex work. Early in her career as an educator, Child worked to support the Elders who were teaching their language and culture to the children.
“I began to see how intricately tied our language and culture was to our wellness for our people. And (seeing) the detrimental influences of taking our languages and denying our culture had on our people, the lack of wellness that caused,” she said.
When Child was in her twenties, “it was a time of revolution where people started talking about Indian control of Indian education. I was working in a school run by the band, but virtually all the teachers were not Indigenous. And those of us who were Indigenous were support staff. We didn't have control of what was being taught, and how it was being taught.”
She and others started to advocate for teaching Indigenous children from an Indigenous worldview and exploring how that could revitalize language and culture.
Part of early conversations with Elders were about whether it was appropriate for cultural practices to be taught in schools.
“Through that dialogue, we realized most of our children’s lives are now spent in school,” said Child. So, by necessity, culture needed to be taught in schools. This then led to important conversations about the need for Indigenous educators that bring to the class an Indigenous worldview and ancestral knowledge.
After going back to university and getting her masters and “working for so many decades in education, it brought me full circle back to that very question that I asked when I was a little girl– Why is our language so important?”
Child started focusing her attention on the vital link between language and the restoration of wellness.
“Our Elder states that we can't just dig into archives and dictionaries to restore the knowledge of Kwakwaka wak’w through words. We need to do the work. We need to physically get our hands dirty and get back into the estuary in order to recover that vital knowledge.”
Child describes learning from the Māori experience. “After a decade of teaching Māori language, Elders said ‘our children are speaking Māori, but they are spouting Western values and beliefs.’ Because of the approach to teaching and learning the language, the children weren't becoming good Māori people.”
“So we can either create speakers of the language, or create people who have a Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw soul.”
Kwak’wala has concepts that can only be fully understood by performing land-based and cultural activities, reads the press release.
So Child and the Sanyakola Foundation with the interns provided by Mitacs funding are ready to “get back into the estuary” and are working on a multi-pronged approach to teaching the language. This includes natural, land-based studies, including cultural activities, and ceremonies. It also includes language immersion through virtual reality technology.
Caroline Running Wolf is a member of the Crow Nation with a talent for language. She speaks 11 languages fluently. But when she returned to Montana to earn her Master’s degree in Native Studies, she found her own language difficult to learn.
“If you don't live on or really close to the reservation, then you usually don't have any access to language learning programs,” said Running Wolf. “The majority of the Native American population don't actually live on the reservation, but almost exclusively, the language programming happens on the reservation.”
Technology can bridge some of those barriers. Running Wolf’s PhD research focuses on applying immersive technologies—augmented reality, virtual reality—and artificial intelligence as a means to enhance Indigenous language and culture revitalization.
Her husband, Michael Running Wolf, is a software engineer and of the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Blackfoot nations. The couple attended a tech conference and had the opportunity to try early version of extended reality devices, glasses and headsets.
“It was just amazing—mind boggling amazing—how immersive that actually is,” said Caroline Running Wolf.
The experience sparked the idea of combining technology and language to create language immersion through virtual reality.
“We are both passionate about language revitalization, said Running Wolf. “We both see the potential of technology to assist with that language revitalization and reclamation.”
Candice Loring is the director of business development and Indigenous community engagement for Mitacs. She introduced the Running Wolf team to Child’s Sanyakola Foundation to explore how immersive technologies could support Kwak̓wala language revitalization.
“You could put on a virtual reality headset and you could be immersed in the environment, land, culture while you're learning and applying the language," said Running Wolf. “And it could be some kind of a game. Maybe you'd be having fun playing this game without feeling the weight as much,” she said, explaining there is weight on Indigenous language learners because of the importance of reclaiming the language.
“You'd be also learning the language and knowing how to apply it in the cultural context of the language, not just sitting in the classroom, memorizing vocabulary,” said Running Wolf.
One example could be the canoe journey experience. The immersive technology wouldn’t replace the experience, “but it could give people the opportunity to learn the language and the protocols associated with that cultural context and give them the possibility to practice it in the privacy of their home.”
Child said the language revitalization project is more than about building technology support. It’s about “feeding the ultimate goal that we want language spoken on the land, on the sea, in the Big House during our spiritual ceremony, with our small children, with our grandparents. Everybody needs to see the bigger picture and be a part of rebuilding that.”
Running Wolf agrees.
“This is Indigenous research done by Indigenous people directed by Indigenous people of the community. This is not just from some random one off thing. This is a holistic project that's really trying to address the issues from multiple angles.”
Loring sees her role at Mitacs as giving her a platform to advance the Indigenous innovation ecosystem. This includes helping Sanyakolas develop a solid strategy, explore and expand the potential for virtual immersion.
She is looking back while looking forward, she said. “Honoring our ancestors where I am today, but also looking to our future, my children in the next generation.”
Loring says her role means doing the work of decolonization and Indigenization.
“Never once did Sara have to explain why she was doing this work. Or why it was so important that they stuck true to Indigenous methodologies and, standing true to their Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and not trying to conform within a colonial framework.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.