How Indigenous Millennials Are Using Tech to Save Their Dying Languages
Decades of oppression and forced assimilation have led to the steep decline of Indigenous languages. Now tech-savvy young people are fighting to preserve their culture.
A young woman in Indigenous dress in Ohsweken, Canada. Photo by Helen Sessions / Alamy Stock Photo
For generations, Lydia Prince's family used storytelling as their primary way to pass down knowledge and language. "Elders would speak to the children in their language and the kids would naturally pick it up," says the Vancouver-based Indigenous app developer, who is Carrier from the Tl'azt'en Nation on her father's side and Cree on her mother's side.
But that began to change in the late 19th century once the Canadian government passed the Indian Act. This law enforced colonial authority over First Nations peoples, partially to force assimilation through policies that displaced Indigenous people and removed them from their communities. Most notoriously implemented through church-run residential schools that aimed to erase Indigenous children's cultures and connections to family, these institutions enforced a language ban. If Indigenous children were caught speaking their own language, they would face corporeal punishment.
Forced assimilation largely contributed to Canada's Indigenous language loss by barring people from continuing to pass down language. Between 1951 and 1981, the percentage of Indigenous people reporting an Indigenous language as a mother tongue declined from 87.4 percent to 29.3; by 1996, 47 of Canada's roughly 50 Aboriginal languages were considered vulnerable or endangered.
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Over 20 years later, Indigenous languages are still disappearing, and the majority of British Columbia's Indigenous languages continue to face the threat of extinction. "It's an epidemic," says Prince. "We're scrambling to save our endangered languages."
Indeed, 91.4 percent of Canada's Indigenous people who are fluent in their languages are over the age of 45, and Prince notes that they range in age all the way up to the late nineties. The problem is that the majority of them live in remote communities or Indigenous reservations, which can pose a significant barrier to technological literacy and language stability. That makes it difficult for elders to connect with youth who have moved to bigger cities in order to pass down language knowledge before they die.
"Some of these places mimic third world conditions," Prince says. "They may not even have clean water, so being tech savvy is not a priority." (In 2013, a UN investigator called Canada's Indigenous reserve conditions a "crisis," citing the majority of homes being in need of significant repairs and high suicide rates. It is estimated that 60 percent of Indigenous children on reserves live in poverty.)
Denise Williams, the First Nations Technology Council executive director from the Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island, feels that Indigenous memories of colonialism may bar them from embracing modern technology. "One of the original ways contemporary technology was introduced to First Nations communities across Canada was by the federal government," she explains. In 1982, the Canadian government integrated Indigenous people's right to self-government into the Canadian constitution; within those clauses, they outlined that Indigenous governments and institutions must "ensure that information on administrative policies and standards is readily obtainable by clients" and "adhere to national accounting principles," which included adopting contemporary software and information systems.
"These were viewed as tools imposed on communities, added on top of an already imposed government structure," Williams elaborates. "The view of technology became negative for some First Nations people."
Even today, she says, the First Nations Technology Council faces resistance from some community members who view tech as a symbol of colonial oppression. She spent four years visiting over one hundred Indigenous communities in B.C. carrying out mobile technological training programs to overcome this deep-seated resistance, her team providing everything from Microsoft Office certification to PC repair training. The enthusiastic feedback she received made her view tech as a key tool for Indigenous empowerment.
"Right now, there's more information online about Indigenous people than is created by them," she says. "Increasing Indigenous access to the online space is the first step in decolonizing it." She notes that we've seen the profound effects of increased access to digital communication through movements like Idle No More and Stand With Standing Rock, which both achieved mass impact and galvanized activism. "Next, we need to empower more Indigenous people to build communities and drive economic development online. As Indigenous people gain the skills to partake in digital conversations, we increase reconciliation and make a better world for all Canadians and Indigenous people."
Moreover, Prince notes that Goozih as well as other technological initiatives driven by Indigenous millennials aren't just practical solutions. In fact, they're catalysts for cultural empowerment. "My co-founder and I aren't very knowledgeable on how to formally teach our languages," she admits. "But we are confident that just having this app out there will be a huge catalyst for people to go see their elders and take the initiative to learn their language. After all, using technology like this is completely new for Indigenous people."
Indeed, provincial investment into digitally empowering Indigenous communities has only recently emerged in Canada. Bridging to Technology got funding to launch just last year, and the provincial government announced their first-ever comprehensive strategy geared towards Indigenous digital empowerment only a few months ago.
Williams believes that Indigenous people have already used the limited tech tools available to embrace progress and independence—on their own terms. "It's really important that Indigenous people lead our technological progress, and that it's never the current dominant paradigm shaping how we will use the technological tools available.
"As connectivity comes to each of our unique and diverse 203 communities, we increase each nation's ability to achieve self-determination and strong, thriving communities."