While the pandemic has enabled more people to learn an Indigenous language using technology, it isn’t without problems. For people on tribal lands, internet connectivity remains one of the biggest obstacles. According to a 2018 U.S. census report, just over half of Native Americans living on reservations had access to broadband internet, compared with 83% of non-Native people. Those without good internet access are often simply left out entirely, though some people are still able to access it at local community centers. But with the pandemic, many of those spaces are closed right now too. As classes become more accessible to people living away from tribal lands, they risk becoming less accessible to those living on them.
And even if teachers and students do have good internet and a good computer, there’s another problem that parents around the country are familiar with: Not everyone is great at learning online. Some students learn languages better with in-person interaction. Additionally, many of the traditional keepers of the language are elders or older members of the community, who may not be proficient at managing complicated technology.
“Most of the elders are like, ‘I don’t know how to do that. Send someone to my house and tell them to hook it up,’” says Treuer.
Toulouse, for example, relies on volunteers to help him manage his online classrooms. “I can barely send an email,” he jokes again in class after thanking his helpers.
Some virtual learning projects that involve in-person interaction to produce are simply being put on hold. Treuer was previously working on a comprehensive multiyear Rosetta Stone course, but now that’s been put off due to safety concerns of having an outside film crew on the partner reservations.
Other organizations are finding creative ways to adapt. The Language Conservancy (TLC) on the traditional lands of the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee people in Bloomington, Indiana works with tribes to create Indigenous language-learning materials. Since they can’t physically travel to reservations to collect recordings of Native language speakers, they’ve tried something new for the first time in working with the Crow tribe on their recent language collection efforts.
“We sent out the equipment, the mics and everything to where the people could come to the Crow community school and record there, but with just members of the reservation there. So no linguists coming from the outside in,” says Chris Branam, a public relations specialist for the organization. “Our linguists were actually here in the office and they were going over the words via Zoom and getting their recordings from that.”
“Even in terms of gross numbers, I’m not sure that’s a perfect offset for what we’re losing.”
Preserving and teaching Indigenous languages is literally a race against time in many cases, and Covid-19 has made that race even more difficult as it most severely impacts elders. One of Treuer’s other projects is collecting stories from elders to print into books. It’s a task that normally requires convening 50 people, and so it’s been put on hold for now. “In Mille Lacs, one of the elders that was a major contributor on our books just died. So if not for that, we probably would have had another 20 stories from her,” says Treuer.
Indigenous people have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic. According to recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the incidence rate of Covid-19 in 23 states was 3.5 times higher among American Indian and Alaska Native communities than among the non-Hispanic white population. The Navajo Nation in particular has suffered incalculable losses, with more than 10,000 diagnosed cases of the disease resulting in over 500 deaths.
Treuer says that any death in the community is a loss for the language. “In the Ojibwe language universe,” he says, “I think losing anybody either as a student, or a teacher, or an elder contributing to developing resources for the language, those are unacceptable losses. And we are taking some. We are gaining a few new students who are able to gain access because of the technological delivery over Zoom. But even in terms of gross numbers, I’m not sure that’s a perfect offset for what we’re losing.”
Virtual classes will never make up for the heartbreaking loss of community members brought by Covid-19. Still, despite the many challenges of moving courses online, there’s plenty of optimism about virtual learning’s role in revitalizing online languages. Treuer is excited for the possibility of new technologies like holographic language tables and rooms with directional audio/visual systems that more closely simulate an in-person learning experience, as well as the eventual release of the Rosetta Stone Ojibwe program. TLC is also currently working with software developers to bring new speech-recognition technology to their language-learning apps that allows learners to check their pronunciation via the software. And finally, many teachers and organizations that have moved online, like TLC, are planning on continuing their online offerings indefinitely in conjunction with their in-person events.
“I’d rather have no Covid. But any kind of disturbance does create the potential for growth. When there’s a forest fire, it does create the potential for blueberries and under-canopy things to grow,” says Treuer. “I think it’s forced some people to innovate. If it’s getting some people off of their plateau, great. But there are costs and some of the costs are permanent.”