observing how his 12-year-old daughter fiddled obsessively with
the family's iPad, computer programmer Darrick Baxter designed an
app just for her, downloaded it secretly onto the device and waited
to see what would happen.
The app was a program to help people learn Ojibway, the ancestral
language of Baxter's Anishnaabe people, and he saw almost immediate
"I didn't tell her anything about it, but within a week, I heard
her talking to her grandma and she was using Ojibway words," said
Baxter, 36. "I just realized then this is such a great way to learn
a language. Today kids are more likely to carry a smartphone or
a tablet than a book."
In October 2011, Baxter founded Ogoki Learning Systems Inc.,
a software design company that specializes in creating smartphone
and tablet apps and publishing e-books that help teach Native languages,
and he says there is a huge, largely untapped market for Native
"The Ojibway language is one of the better off languages, and
our language territory spans from the state of New York to Saskatchewan
to Montana and Ontario. It's a large speaking group," said Baxter,
whose company is based in Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation in Manitoba.
Since the Ojibway Language and People app was released in 2011,
there have been about 14,000 downloads, and Baxter said he often
hears from colleagues and schoolteachers who are using the app to
foster a love of language learning. The original app, which can
be downloaded from iTunes for free, contained 100 Ojibway words,
but has since been expanded to 260.
The demand has grown beyond Ojibway territory as Baxter has
worked with the Blackfeet Tribe and other First Nations to design
apps for their languages. Even at conferences, Baxter is flooded
with requests from language learners and tribal officials to create
apps for their language.
This led to Baxter making the unorthodox decision to give away
his company's invention, the source code for the Ojibway language
app, for free. The code is now available on his company's website,
and anyone can download it and work to adapt it for their own native
"People's eyes would light up when I would tell them I could
send them the source code, and I wanted to create a legacy and help
people save their languages," Baxter said.
He also said he wanted to honor the memory of the Ojibway elder,
Eddie Munroe of Garden Hill First Nation in Northern Manitoba, who
lent his voice for the original Ojibway app but passed away at the
age of 58 only a week after making the recordings.
"He was very close and important to me," Baxter said. "After
he passed, I couldn't listen to his voice at first, so there was
8 or 10 months of lag time before I finally released the app on
Baxter said his small company, which currently has two-contract
employees, will still be able to make money by publishing e-books,
creating new apps or by consulting with organizations and schools
that download the app but need more assistance to tailor the code
to their needs. They also bring in revenue by producing native language
CDs and DVDs, he said.
There doesn't seem to be a limit to the creative ways the language
apps can be used, Baxter said. For instance, he recently received
an e-mail from a nurse who asked him to include medical terms and
phrases, like "Can you describe your pain on a scale from 1-10,"
so medical first-responders could better communicate with elders
in isolated communities in Northwestern Ontario.
currently looking for a medical organization to partner with to
honor the nurse's request. He is also planning a workshop with at-risk
youth in Winnipeg where he'll teach them to make apps and discuss
with them how they can start their own business.
In a way, it's fitting that Baxter's app is helping to save
lives as his company is named after the Ogoki River, which flows
through his people's traditional river and, as he says, "has been
feeding and sustaining our people for countless generations."
"I've gotten calls from all over the globe, from the Maori in
New Zealand to the Sami people in Norway, who I had to Google. I
didn't know about them," he said. "It was kind of an awakening of
just how global this desire to speak and preserve our languages