Staying Connected: How Technology Can Help Revive Native American Cultures, Traditions, and Languages

Feb 6th, 2014 | By | Category: Features, Online features, Web Exclusive
By Ahmed Al-Asfour

technology-and-cultureWe are witnessing a quantum change in technological innovation across the globe. The transformation has opened new opportunities for how people learn and communicate with one another. Thanks to the technological boom and the growth of the Internet, individuals can now connect easily to a larger audience with fewer resources and in less time. With all the hype about technology, the question is, how can technology be leveraged to revive Native American cultures, traditions, and languages?

For the past century, many traditions and languages have been lost due to pervasive efforts to assimilate American Indians. Although some books and articles have been written and knowledge has passed from one generation to another, it is apparent that these recordings and oral transmissions have not been enough to keep some Native cultures alive. The boarding school experience exacerbated the problem, taking a generation of Native people out of their own environment and forbidding them from learning their own cultures, traditions, and languages. This experience created a cultural gap. More recently, tribal leaders have discussed and debated the best methods to preserve and protect their heritage, and how to stay abreast of best practices in education. Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) arose out of these discussions and debates. But the question remains: what do we need to do from here? Before we can fully answer this question, we need to first understand the current generational differences in the United States.

Currently, the American population is divided into five distinct generational cohorts, depending on the time period in which they were born. The five generations are Veterans (1922–1943), Baby Boomers (1944–1960), Generation X (1961–1980), Generation Y (1981–2001), and Generation Z (2002–present). Each of these cohorts has developed a set of values, attitudes, and learning styles that differ from the others. For Native Americans, historically such differences did not exist.

It stands to reason that since the method of sharing knowledge has changed, so should the means by which we pass that knowledge on. For example, many Native language speakers are of the Veterans generation. And many Baby Boomers did not learn their Native language due to a variety of factors, including the government’s policy of relocation. With the passage of the Indian Relocation Act (also known as the Adult Vocational Training Program or Public Law 959), the government encouraged Native Americans to move away from reservations to seek employment in large cities such as Denver or Chicago. Like those who attended boarding schools, many of those who were relocated did not pass on their culture, language, and traditions to their children.

Unfortunately, many Native elders of the Veterans generation are passing away and their knowledge is passing with them. The advent of technology, especially access to the Internet, can save and revive Native cultures, traditions, and languages. Technology can make a difference. But it is important to acknowledge generational differences and amend our strategies accordingly. What follows are three technologies that can be employed to reach different generations.

Radio. On many of the reservations across the U.S., there are radio stations broadcasting to their listeners, offering a variety of cultural programs. For instance, on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, KILI radio station broadcasts songs, the “Wakalapi Talk Show,” and other programs solely spoken in Lakota. All of these different programs can be heard as far away as Rapid City where many Lakotas live. KILI can also be accessed online. This keeps many Lakota connected to their culture, traditions, and language.

Television. KOLC TV on the Pine Ridge reservation offers culturally relevant streaming video and cable television programming to the community at large. Because Native heritage is maintained predominantly through oral tradition, the Woksape Tipi (House of Wisdom) has archives and transcriptions from interviews with elders who have passed away. There are also cultural programs for children and adults. People on the reservation can watch such programs and learn at their convenience. Oglala Lakota College partners with KOLC to podcast some classes on television, such as math, to help students and community members develop their skills.

Internet. The Internet is increasingly making geographical location a non-issue in education. Tribal and non-tribal members can visit websites to learn about various topics related to a particular tribe. In addition, many people have established YouTube videos, Facebook accounts, and many other social media outlets to discuss cultures, traditions, and languages. TCUs have also offered courses for their students online to educate them about their cultures, traditions, and languages. The Internet can be a powerful source for many tribes, providing valuable education for their tribal members. By using social media and online courses, tribes can reach out to different generations, especially those which are tech-savvy and enjoy communicating via the Internet.

Modern technology is having a positive effect on endangered cultures, traditions, and languages. American Indians have an opportunity to preserve, practice, and pass on their knowledge by employing various technologies. TCUs can facilitate this and achieve their mission goals. Technology provides the means, but it is up to us to learn.

Ahmed Al-Asfour is a faculty member in the Business Department at Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota.

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