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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


December 1, 2001 - Issue 50


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Indian Cultures Get Hi-Tech Help

by Annette Trinity-Stevens Montana State University

BOZEMAN – Four Montana Indian reservations will begin projects to revitalize tribal languages and cultures using methods unheard of a generation ago.

Starting in the fall, the Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Rocky Boy and Fort Belknap reservations will begin equipping schools, senior centers and field museums with computers, scanners and related equipment.

One goal of the project, funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce, is to make high-end digital equipment available for training reservation residents who constitute one of the country’s digitally underserved populations, said Kim Obbink of the Burns Telecommunications Center at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Burns Center staff submitted a proposal to the Commerce Department’s Technology Opportunities Program that brought the $1.6-million project to Montana. Half of the funds comes from the federal government. The other half comes from MSU as matching funds.

Another goal is for the tribes to apply the multi-media technology to cultural projects of their choice, said Terry Driscoll, a program manager at the Burns Center.

Tribal members could record sacred songs and oral histories, for example, or create virtual museums. They could make Web pages or take digital photos of beadwork and art work. They could videotape dances or put on CD-ROMs classes on speaking native languages.

“This is a perfect use of these kinds of tools and technologies,” said Burns Center director Kim Obbink.

“I like to think of this as a way to maintain and revitalize culture and language,” said Mike Jetty, an adjunct instructor of multicultural education at MSU-Bozeman and a consultant for the three-year project.

“It’s a finite resource moving down those tracks pretty fast,” said Jetty, referring to the number of elders, knowledgeable of tribal history, language and customs, who are getting older and passing on.

By the year 2050, fewer than 12 Indian languages will be spoken in the United States, Jetty said. Today there are 300.

“This is one way tribes can project themselves into the future,” said Jetty, who is of Spirit Lake Dakota and Turtle Mountain descent. “It puts tools and training into the community, and those will stay there after the grant ends.”

Called Montana Indian Technology and Cultural Heritage Learning Centers, the program mirrors efforts a few years ago among six Montana tribal communities to digitize cultural information and create Web pages.

Fort Peck tribal elder James Turning Bear, for example, recorded the Ihanktowanna language spoken by his ancestors. He scanned and digitally restored a crumpled photograph of his grandfather and posted it on his Web site.

But the new grant puts the equipment at several locations on each of the four reservations, rather than requiring people to come to the Burns Center. The grant also will provide training and support to people who will staff technology learning centers located at a tribal college or elementary school, Driscoll said.

Learning-center staff members will teach classes on Web-page development, digitizing images and sound, networking, creating Quick Time virtual reality presentations and panoramas and use of the World Wide Web.

Tribal youths will be tapped to help teach elders how to use the equipment packages, but the greatest interest in using the technology for cultural uses may come from older generations.

Driscoll said her presentation on a similar digital project drew a standing-room-only crowd of elderly Native Americans at October’s National Indian Education Association conference in Billings.

“It’s this generation that’s excited and sees the need to do this,” Driscoll said.

The Northern Cheyenne reservation will be the first to install equipment and train staff, followed by the Crow, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy reservations at about nine-month intervals. The grant ends Sept. 30, 2004.

Driscoll said only four of Montana’s seven reservations were included in the grant because the Commerce Department limited proposals to three years and $900,000 in federal money. But other reservations have expressed interest in the technology centers and are working with the Burns Center to find funds.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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