Monday, July 16, 2007

Recording and preserving the Dakota language

Photo by Elizabeth Flores , Star Tribune
Because tribal elder Curtis Campbell is one of just a handful of fluent Dakota speakers left, he and Wayne Wells have spent hundreds of hours together at Campbell’s home on the Prairie Island Reservation recording words and phrases of the dying native language. Wells was amused by a translation.

Recording and preserving the Dakota language

A device resembling a small computer, called a phraselator, is being used to record and preserver the Dakota language. The electronic interpreter was first used in combat zones.

By Jean Hopfensperger, Star Tribune

Dakota language teacher Wayne Wells pulled a chair next to tribal elder Curtis Campbell, who had settled into his favorite living room rocker to begin an unusual recording session. Wells clutched a gray metal box called a "phraselator," an electronic interpreter first introduced in Iraq and Afghanistan for use by U.S. soldiers at military checkpoints and security zones. He handed a microphone to Campbell, and asked him to repeat -- in Dakota -- decidedly civilian phrases such as "I want some coffee."

Campbell responded, "Pezutasapa mak'u wo." And the words were added to a databank of hundreds of phrases and sentences stored in the device. Word by word, the effort is helping students at Prairie Island Indian Community preserve their fragile native language.

"There's only about two or three people here who speak Dakota fluently, so time is of the essence," said Wells, the language teacher at the community outside of Red Wing. "If the kids don't learn it now, there won't be anyone left who knows it."

Last year, the Prairie Island Community became one of more than 50 Indian communities nationwide to integrate phraselators into their arsenal of language preservation tools. The hand-held device resembles a small computer, with a monitor showing tabs for 'weather,"family,"animals" and "Dakota virtues and values," among other subjects.

"You can scroll up and down and find different phrases," explained 12-year-old Kachina Yeager, one of Wells' students, sitting on her front porch and fiddling with the tabs. "Say I want to hear the word for 'mother.' I can find it here and then tap it. Or I can just speak 'mother' into the top of the phraselator."

A few seconds after explaining this, Campbell's deep voice boomed "een na" out of the phraselator.

The first batch of phraselators was loaded with phrases in languages such as Arabic, Pashto and Farsi, said John Hall, president of VoxTec International, the device's Maryland-based manufacturer. The stock phrases would include "show me your hands" or "stay away from the area," he said. But a few years ago, it began catching on with Indian communities as well, Hall said.

Because Campbell is one of just a handful of native speakers left, he and Wells have spent hundreds of hours together in his living room decorated with tall Indian vases from the Southwest and Native American art on the walls.

Last week, the two were completing a section on food. The session showed the challenges of bringing ancient languages into modern times. Wells asked Campbell to translate, "I want some cake."There is no word for 'cake'," responded Campbell. "How about 'sweet bread'?" Ditto for "restaurant."How about 'food house'?" he asked.

Campbell, a retired construction worker, said he speaks Dakota fluently in part because of a lucky turn in his childhood.

Growing up in the 1940s, he was able to avoid being sent to a Indian boarding school, where children were beaten if they spoke their native language. He did, however, have to cut his long shiny hair in order to start school at a little one-room schoolhouse, he recalled, and had to learn to speak English fluently. But he continued to speak Dakota at home.

Wells wasn't so fortunate. He said his grandfather refused to speak Dakota with his children because he was so "traumatized" by the boarding school experience. So Wells learned Dakota at the University of Minnesota. He's still nowhere near fluent, but
recording with the phraselator is helping, he said.

Kachina's mother, Shelley Buck-Yaeger, has been so impressed with the device that she's planning to buy one for the family. Her parents didn't speak Dakota either, she said, and she's always wanted to learn.

Plus the phraselators are practically indestructible, a key feature given the wear and tear they can undergo at the hands of active children. Made for combat, they can be dropped 6 feet onto cement without damage, according to the VoxTech advertisements.

The phraselators aren't cheap: The cost of purchasing three of them, plus installing the software, and receiving training and technical support, was about $25,000, said Alan Childs, treasurer for the Prairie Island tribal council.

But the device can be used for more than just basic translation, he said. It can also preserve traditional Dakota songs and stories, said Childs, who is a singer in the community.

Over the years, there have been other attempts to preserve the Dakota language, which now only has about 100 fluent speakers in four Indian communities in Minnesota, Childs said. It's still too soon to tell whether the phraselators are going to make a breakthrough, he said. But a combination of a fancy high-tech tool and a dedicated teacher from the tribe could start making a difference, he said.

"You start building the wheel," Childs said, "and eventually it will start turning."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511 •

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The new Google Earth Outreach will let nonprofits tell their story using layers on Google Earth.

By Christopher NicksonStaff Writer, Digital Trends News

In a new venture, Google is using its Google Earth to help nonprofits. Called Google Earth Outreach, it will use Google Earth layers to allow the nonprofits to tell their stories. The program will provide the resources and software the nonprofits need to implement the technology.

While most of us know Google Earth as something free, there’s also a Pro version (which costs $400) that has tools for building maps and layers.

Google took its first steps in this direction back in April, when it showed a “Crisis in Darfur” layer that had been created by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The layer showed affected areas in the region, along with video and audio testimony of the crisis. Since then others have created layers, including the United Nations Environment Program.

“Our goal with Google Earth Outreach is to help public service organizations worldwide leverage our mapping technology to further their goals by providing tailored technical guidance and grants,” said John Hanke, director of Google Earth & Maps.

The Outreach site will have video tutorials, case studies, and forums moderated by staff. Organizations will also be able to apply for grants for further technical support.

The site will also have a showcase of some of the most compelling new stories. Google says there have been 250 million downloads of Google Earth to date.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

New Indigenous ICT Discussion List created...

(IITF) - At the Tunisia phase of WSIS Indigenous delegates agreed to establish an Indigenous ICT Task Force to continue the work of WSIS in particular the aspirations of the indigenous parallel event in Tunis called Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society: “Towards an International Indigenous Portal.”

This discussion list will allow the members of the Indigenous ICT Task Force to share ideas and programs with the wider audience and facilitate further discussion.

Everything about this list: