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Building Indigenous technology

Today, we are talking to four of the eight Native fellows selected for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Class of Indigenous Communities Fellows to hear more about the innovative ways they are helping out Native communities.
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When it comes to Native cultures, language, health, and history, technology can be key to improving all of these areas. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT is rewarding some Natives who are innovative and tackling these issues with Indigenous technologies. They just announced the third annual Class of Indigenous Communities Fellows. Today, we are talking to four of the eight fellows that were selected and they are going to participate in a nine month program and will receive $10,000 grant.  

Michael Running Wolf, International Wakashan AI Consortium

"My proposal and project is to build automatic speech recognition using AI technologies for a language family. The language family is the people that are traditionally in the Northwestern part of the United States and the Southwestern part of the Canada, so are there on the Vancouver Island and on the most Western part of Washington state. We were originally started working with the Kwakwala based in Vancouver Island and British Columbia. And we wanted to extend their project to also include more people's language family. And that's how we were able to connect through the canoe journey. So friends and through our contacts with the Kwakwala, Wakashan, put us in touch with the Makah."

"The Makah were very interested in working with us because of course, it's important and we needed this cooperation because of data we're working on. We're building artificial intelligence, and we need a lot of training data, particularly for speech recognition, typically for something like Siri or Google assistant. They use over a million hours of annotated audio, and we just don't have that."

"So our project is really a very much an applied scientific project. We expect to actually make scientific progress because for one, current automatic speech recognition systems, kind of expect all languages to be similar to English. And what I mean is that they are atomic. Each word is its own subcomponent. Like there's only one word for anything like car or snow, for example versus Indigenous languages. There's that old stereotype that Eskimos have 28 words for snow and that's actually, that's just a complete mis-characterization. What they mean is that there's one concept of snow, which is a morpheme and they have 28 variations."

"The reason why we're pulling together multiple tribes within this family is that there is a problem of not enough speakers, so we're trying to build the datasets. Ultimately the goal is to create more speakers. So we're not building an AI simply as a scientific experiment, we're actually doing this simply because we're trying to build tools for language education."

Eva Burke, Food from Fire

"In Alaska 95 percent of our food is imported and most of our communities are off the road system. So most of our communities receive the majority of their food via air. The other issue that we're having is climate change is affecting our traditional food, as well as just contemporary lifestyles. Harvesting and preparing food has to be part of everyday life. And so a few years ago, I started to revitalize fish camps on the Yukon river and Tana river. And we built a couple of fish wheels, and I started to see the way that the community was coming together and that people were very interested in learning how to harvest traditional foods, and how to prepare them and preserve them as well. And then, there's a few of our villages who actually were taking things to the next step and looking at agriculture historically around the turn of the century."

"So early 1900s in Alaska, many of the villages had gardens, and that was a typical common practice. And we've fallen out of that practice. And so really this is revitalizing foods, whether it's agriculture or traditional foods and the biomass greenhouse has came about because winter is so long in Alaska where I'm at, in the interior it's nine months. And so, you know, to be able to supply the needs during that amount of time. We have to be thinking about growing year-round and in Alaska, our energy and electricity costs are off the chart. And many of our rural communities, the heat is actually subsidized. And so where we can look at renewable energy or heat or electricity, these biomass greenhouses will need both heat and electricity. And so there's a few villages who started off building them and they worked with the local schools and it just took off in these villages and they started to be able to sell the produce that they were growing in these greenhouses to the local stores, to local restaurants. The kids were coming in, it was part of their curriculum and so the whole community was coming together to address food security in the village. So we've got a couple really strong examples of greenhouses that are working in Alaska right now."

Austin Serio, ShockTalk

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"So ShockTalk is really focused on delivering culturally appropriate health care for Native American and Alaska Native communities. So I'm a member of the Chicoran Shakori tribe, which is based in South Carolina. So I'm calling in from Connecticut because my ancestors left South Carolina during the great migration. And they came up North for the good union jobs. They were sharecroppers and they left a place called The Dim Resettlement."

"My mom is a nurse. She was the first person and our family to rise above sharecropping and to be able to go to college. And so having a strong healthcare background, I could see as someone who is a member of an unrecognized Nation, how much we've really just fallen through all of the cracks in the system, which isn't to mention again, the cracks that Native people are facing with culturally appropriate healthcare that's been intentionally underfunded, by the Indian Health Service. So we know that Natives are the only group with the legal right to healthcare. We know that the guarantee is there, but it hasn't been realized."

"ShockTalk came about when I first met my partner Sutton King, who is the co-founder of Urban Indigenous Collective. She founded Urban Indigenous Collective while she was at NYU and we met through the NYU Native students group. So we got to talking about, you know, these challenges that we've both seen as urban Natives and the challenges that Urban Indigenous Collective is trying to address in the tri-state area. And that's where we really saw the need for this culturally tailored tele-health platform."

"It's really clear that the Western system has gotten a lot of things wrong and we know that so many Indigenous communities are paying the price. We know that that price is being expressed through the mental health crisis and so we are really looking forward to addressing that in a meaningful way ideally once and for all."

Elizabeth Rule, Indigenous DC

"In July 2019, I launched the guide to Indigenous DC, which is a completely free and publicly facing iOS mobile application. And really what I wanted to do when I set out to create this application, was map 17 sites of what I call Indigenous importance. And so these are a combination of historically relevant sites, as well as contemporary sites of Indigenous importance. They range in subject matter from everything from national federal monuments to sites of Indigenous activism, Indigenous artworks, and so on."

"Because of the breadth and depth of the subject material, my hope is that the guide to Indigenous DC will be able to serve as an educational resource for everyone - K through 12 audiences, folks that live in the DC area, the millions of tourists who visit our nation's Capitol every year, but also of course, that it serves both the Indigenous community that calls DC home and many Native people, including myself who come from tribes from elsewhere, but who live in DC to do Indigenous advocacy work."

"So right now I'm working to create a guide to Indigenous Baltimore, and I'm finalizing a guide to tribal colleges and universities. Both of these are different, of course, in scope one's national and one is another city just up the road from us in DC. But I'm also expanding to work with other additional partners as well."

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Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. She is also the anchor of the weekday newscast. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider.

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