Invoking IT to help revitalize Indigenous languages at risk of extinction

The Miami-Illinois language of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma (Myaamiaki tribe) fell dormant during the 19th and 20th centuries, at a time when Indigenous populations faced forced relocations and abusive boarding schools, where children were forced to assimilate and were punished for using their own language.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that Indigenous rights were recognized by the US government, along with the right to their heritage, language, and culture. But the damage had already been wrought on Indigenous communities, including their languages, leaving modern linguists to piece together languages using archival material, which were often limited or scattered across the country.

But advances in revitalizing the Miami Tribe language have accelerated of late thanks to a relationship fostered in 1972 between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University. Data collection on tribal languages has been undertaken for decades, but in 2012, those working at the Myaamia Center and the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages realized that technology had advanced in a way that could better move the process along.

“We no longer have speakers of our language; we have to turn to the extensive archival materials that we have for that work. There are people speaking the language today — they are not fluent — but they’re learning, they’re using the language and it is starting to grow in the community because of this work, and because of the tools we created to promote the work,” says Daryl Baldwin, executive director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University.

Baldwin and his team foresaw that digitizing their archival efforts would enable them to explore the Miami-Illinois language more deeply and offer access to others seeking to learn the language. It would also empower linguists to translate historical documents. So, they spent three years coordinating resources, requirements, budgets, and technology to map out the best approach to digitizing the language revitalization project.

The result is The Indigenous Language Digital Archive (ILDA), which offers a searchable database and a range of resources aimed at linguists and language teachers alike to help them continue to restore the language. The project now includes nearly a dozen other tribes, who are putting the software to use to restore and revitalize their own languages. Undertaken in conjunction with Miami University’s IT department, ILDA has been awarded a 2023 CIO 100 Award for IT innovation and leadership.

Leveraging a longstanding relationship

The efforts toward language revitalization go back as far as 1988, but up until 2012, it was a manual labor of love. Documents and transcripts, spread across the country, were held by a range of libraries, universities, and museums, which typically offered just one copy of a manuscript or document for linguists to peruse in-person, says Dr. Doug Troy, coordinator of application development at the Myaamia Center and the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages through Miami University. But digitizing the project could help collect all those materials in one place, giving everyone access to instant copies of these vital historical documents.

The Myammia Center alone did not have the resources to undertake such a huge digital transformation. Tapping their longstanding relationship with Miami University’s IT services, Baldwin and his team gained access to servers and other necessary hardware, along with student developers to help build and maintain the platform.

“We knew that the long-term sustainability of ILDA was dependent on our ability to work with the university’s IT services, especially in terms of the development and deployment process,” says Baldwin, who says Dr. Troy was instrumental in getting the resources necessary to begin developing what is now a widespread effort to restore and revitalize dormant languages before they are lost to time. 

“Miami IT became kind of our partner to support the server structure. Supporting us with our repository for developers with a kind of a testing deployment architecture for continuous updates and employment and deployment. So basically, they made available to us their server platforms, their DevOps platform, and then consulting to help us use those things,” says Dr. Troy.

The efforts behind ILDA are largely driven by a passion for restoring Indigenous culture, and there’s a strong sense of community with everyone involved in developing the software, which Baldwin says is less about a grand strategic plan and more about “just doing what works, and nudging things along as opportunities come along.”

“There had been some software out years ago that was kind of cumbersome, designed mostly by linguists for linguists, but there wasn’t really anything on the market that was designed specifically to respond to the needs of individuals. And what we needed for this particular language, was to be able to take that large corpus of data, move it into a digital platform so that things could be searched, analysis could be done, and really kind of be a community-curated archive,” says Baldwin.

Because linguists and language teachers need different resources and materials to achieve their goals, one early ILDA requirement was the establishment of tools tailored to each. For example, the service shares some data in the background, allowing linguists to access archival material that’s been uploaded, while language teachers can access the data to help build curriculums. That way linguists can work on translating materials, identifying new words and syntax, while those interested in learning the language can consume more finalized material that offers proper translations.

Scaling the software for other communities

As ILDA grew, the Myaamia Center believed the project had the potential to help other Indigenous populations facing the same struggles with language revitalization.

Because each language is unique and requires cultural context, individuals and experts close to each language would need to be involved in the development process to ensure the needs of each individual community using the software were met. Ultimately, this led to the development of the National Breath of Life: Capacity Building for Community Language Archivists Apprenticeship Program.

The Myaamia Center connected with other tribal communities through the National Breath of Life Foundation, asking them to appoint members from their community to work with developers to incorporate the tools and features they needed to be successful. Seeing the creative ways other communities put the software to use has only helped the software improve, Baldwin says.

“We kind of have our own internal process figured out, but as other communities start to use the software, they’re using it in different ways. They have different programs; they have different goals. They have different needs, or their community culture is different. There’s all kinds of little intricacies that are different for them. And we’re learning from that process as well,” he says.

Baldwin and his team are halfway through the apprenticeship program now. Apprentices appointed by the tribal communities are provided a stipend through the university and are trained on the software. They then embark on a 24-month long apprenticeship where they bring in archival material for their own language. Although still new, the pilot program has shown promising results, and has proved beneficial for both the tribal communities and Miami University’s IT services.

A shift in development strategy

As the software platform grows, new challenges arise. For example, scaling up development and operations to meet the platform’s rising complexity proved difficult due to the turnover of undergraduates the university originally employed to work on the software.

To ensure more consistency, Dirk Tepe, director of application architecture and operations at Miami University, shifted to working with graduate students completing their master’s programs for computer science, computer engineering, or software development. Two or more developers, funded by grants, work with the program for two or more years while finishing their degrees. The shift to working with graduate students has allowed for greater continuity, enabling apprentices and developers to work together throughout their commitments.

The relationship between the Miami Tribe and Miami University has empowered developers to “consistently build and deploy their applications with very little assistance from Miami’s IT services team,” says Tepe. They can work at their own pace, managing product releases as they see fit, while still maintaining that operational support as needed.

“From a technology perspective, success was defined in the simple terms of being able to expand the ILDA software suite to other participating tribes while continuing to develop the features and capabilities of the application. The partnership between the center’s development team and Miami’s IT services enabled this by leveraging existing infrastructure and processes. Our measure of success is that nearly two dozen instances of ILDA have been created to date,” says Tepe.

Moving forward

When asked about the future of the program, Dr. Troy is hopeful that technologies such as machine learning and AI can be integrated to help automate processes for linguists. He also has an eye on more powerful search tools, database engines, performance improvements, and stronger search functionality. There’s already an iOS and Android dictionary app, giving users easy access to ILDA on mobile devices, but he notes there’s always room for advancement.

Technology has not been the sole driver of ILDA’s success; passion has played a large role as well. The goal isn’t about making money, but about thoughtfully assisting underrepresented and oppressed communities, helping them take back meaningful aspects of their culture that they have historically been forced to abandon.

“The most meaningful experience for me is feeling the impact this work has on the lives of members of tribal communities involved with language and culture revitalization. In the technology field, we often want to work on the ‘next big thing,’ or use a cool new technology. This program is not about those things,” says Tepe. “This program makes a real difference in people’s lives. Hearing someone describe how it feels to greet you in their native language, a language that was previously sleeping [a documented language without living speakers], and how that led to a reawakening of an entire culture is deeply moving.”

For the Miami Tribe and other tribal communities involved in ILDA, language and culture revitalization is about more than saving a language from extinction. It’s about taking back their identities, defining their culture in modern times, and establishing a clear presence in society.

“We’re living people with a past, not a people of the past. And I think that we continually try to push that so that the rest of America starts to see us and understand us as contemporary peoples,” Baldwin says. “Our language and culture are important. We’re not our ancestors. We’re not going to be our ancestors. However, trying to preserve those things that are healthy for us or good for us allows us to maintain ourselves as communities — and language and culture is central to that identity piece.”

CIO 100, Digital Transformation, Diversity and Inclusion, Education Industry, Software Development