Reclaiming a culture: How IU is helping an indigenous community restore its endangered language

Linguists then work closely with native speakers to interpret the literal translations, correct errors and account for idioms. Once a revised translation is created, linguists work with curriculum developers to synthesize the recordings into stories that can be used to teach beginning language learners. Then curriculum developers build lessons and work with native artists to produce the textbooks and dictionaries, a difficult feat considering only a handful of native speakers remain to help with this process.

The team hopes to have instructional material for students in kindergarten through fifth grade completed by the end of July 2020. Materials for kindergarten and first grade, along with a teacher's manual, will be presented at a meeting of the Montana Indian Education Association in April. The team is also developing an educational app and hopes to create a Nakoda keyboard for smartphones so the community can text and communicate via Facebook Messenger in their native language.

In addition to helping the Assiniboine people reclaim their language, IU has been repatriating culture by sharing recordings of songs in IU's Archives of Traditional Music and sharing archival images of Assiniboine people from the early 1900s that are part of the collection at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. Bowman said these materials have inspired members of the indigenous community to uncover old recordings, often in outdated formats, from their own basements and attics. Recently, he helped digitize one of these recordings made on a badly damaged record and uncovered seven lost songs.

From the top: Curriculum developer Cynthia Ramlo leafs through draft pages of Nakoda language textbooks; materials developer Josh Richards points out lines of translation done by a computer database developed by IU; the institute is also developing an educational app for the Nakoda language. Photos by James Brosher, Indiana University

Curriculum developer Cynthia Ramlo said IU may be the only university that can work with the Assiniboine on a language project of this scope and impact, given its resources like the Archives of Traditional Music, the Mathers Museum and the American Indian Studies Research Institute, as well as decades of faculty connections and research with these communities and its strength in digitization.

Henne-Ochoa said the institute hopes to continue building on the tradition of research and repatriation of indigenous culture by strengthening ties with people like the Assiniboine and creating new relationships with other tribes. Eventually, he said, the institute would like to work with other tribes to create instructional material for their languages and even create exchange programs for students and faculty at indigenous universities.

"We are in an era where there's strong potential for reconciliation," Henne-Ochoa said. "If we listen to indigenous people and hear and appreciate that they have worldviews, indigenous epistemologies and knowledge systems, we can not only understand the human experience, we can enrich the human experience for everyone."