Broadband innovations: Fiber optics reaches the tipi

By Kajsa Linnarsson, PC World |  Tech & society, broadband, Tech & society

"Broadband Innovations" is a four-part series that highlights ground-breaking uses of broadband, and the people who are using the technology to preserve the past, reshape the future, and fulfill their dreams. One group of such people is the Ktunaxa Nation of British Columbia, Canada.

Though information technology increases global assimilation and encourages adoption of new ways of life, it also offers tools to help preserve the old.

Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the indigenous Ktunaxa people of British Columbia had a thriving culture going back 10,000 years. Following more than a century of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of the Canadian government, however, the Ktunaxa's language and culture have been all but eradicated.

Now, innovative uses of cutting-edge broadband and digital recordings of tribal elders are enabling younger members to hear the sounds of the language, giving Ktunaxa leaders hope for its future.

Creating Virtual Elders in 3D

Leo Williams, 90, is the oldest of the 24 people in the world who still speak the Ktunaxa language fluently. The youngest is 72.

"Since November of 2007, we've lost six of our fluent-speaking elders," says Don Maki, director of traditional knowledge and language at the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

The passing of the elders serves as a constant reminder that Ktunaxa is a dying language, and that new ways must be devised to pass it on to younger generations.

"We try to be as forward-thinking as possible and record enough data while we still have elders who can fill in the gaps so that--when the technology is available--we can create a virtual elder who can sit around with the kids in the classroom," says Maki.

Many tribes possess written documentation of their traditional languages but lack an audio record. And anyone who has tried learning a language without hearing it knows how difficult that is. Without knowing how to pronounce the words, you have chance of getting it right--and you end up creating a completely different sound.

"When the elders are gone, we don't want to be in a position where we're saying 'I wish we had'," says Maki.

I Want to Change the Course of History

Don Maki, the Ktunaxa Nation's director of traditional knowledge and language, began documenting the Ktunaxa language in 1999.

"We knew right away, that we would have to come up with a solution to overcome the barrier of having Ktunaxa Nation communities so spread out that it made fact-to-face training difficult," he says.

The Ktunaxa have been digitally archiving their traditional language for the past six years, but their slow dial-up connections limited their ability to use the information for practical purposes.

"With no prospect of the infrastructure in our traditional territory improving, we took it upon ourselves to develop our own broadband network in order to make use of these important language-training resources," says Maki.

In March of 2007, the mission was accomplished. The Ktunaxa Nation now has North America's only native-owned open-fiber-to-the-home network, providing speeds of 100 megabits per second to each home.

"We're now wired like no other community in North America. Everything we do is based on connectivity. Not many people get a chance to change the course of predicted history, but with hard work and fiber, we will," Maki says.

Fiber to the Tipi

Marty Williams, is the son of tribal elder Leo Williams. Marty recently returned to the family home after working outside the reserve.

"I got back thinking I would have a place to sleep, but Leo had converted the second bedroom to a computer room and gave me a choice between the tipi and the floor," Marty says. "I chose the tipi."

The gray box on the wall shows the fiber going into the house. Using a standard office data cable to connect to the box, Marty can route data transmissions at fiber-optic speed to his tipi, making it probably the most connected tipi in the world.

Tribal Chief

Sophie Pierre is chief of the Ktunaxa tribe at St. Mary's Reserve. With about 400 members, St. Mary's is the largest of the four Ktunaxa bands in Canada (there are two other Ktunaxa communities in the United States--one in Idaho and one in Montana), which are separated by hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain in southeastern British Columbia, about 250 miles west of Calgary, Alberta.

Pierre recently participated in the annual charity golf tournament to raise money for the Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre. She is thrilled about the achievement of high-speed connectivity within the community and the potential it has to improve the quality of life for all age groups of her people.

Pierre sees online education as the most important benefit of broadband access, both for improving overall education and for introducing specific courses in the Ktunaxa language.

"Some of our four communities have more fluent speakers than others, and using online techniques can help us teach one another and bridge that gap," she says.

But of course the Nation Network provides many other benefits beyond language training, such as enhanced health-care options and new opportunities for economic development.

Down in the 'Res'

Nick Beaudry works as an embroidery technician at Legend Logos and lives on the reserve south of Creston, British Columbia. He thinks that having access to high-speed broadband has had an enormous impact on business.

"As long as you've got an avenue you can jump on, people will find you," Beaudry says.

Despite its remote location, the Ktunaxa reserve in Creston enjoys Internet speeds of up to 100 megabits per second. This speed comes in handy for sending large files (such as digitized embroidery images) back and forth with customers across the continent.

"It's saved us a ton of money and also enables us to outsource our more complicated embroideries," says Beaudry.

The fiber optics system also allows Beaudry to stay tuned with the rest of the world and to keep in contact with family members who no longer live on the reserve. The morning that this photograph was taken, Beaudry used his connection to look at paintings made by his father in Montana.

Sometimes I'm Tempted to Give Up

The goals of the Ktunaxa Nation Council--besides preservating the Ktunaxa people's traditional knowledge, language, and culture--include promoting social development and wellness, land and resource development, economic investment, and self-government.

Pauline Eugene works as an administrative assistant at the traditional knowledge and language sector of the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

"It's hard work, but whenever I'm tempted to give up something seems to happen that reminds me of why I'm doing this. A sparkle in the eye of one of the elders when hearing a child speak Ktunaxa is enough to make it all worthwhile", she says.

Demystifying the Box

An important part of getting people to use the new technology has been the creation of community learning centers in each of the four Ktunaxa communities in British Columbia. Each learning centers has high-speed Internet and videoconferencing equipment.

Here, people can come to familiarize themselves with the technology, take educational classes online, or receive technical assistance from learning center staff--in this case, Nigel Warden, technical lead at the center in St. Mary's.

Training in the Ktunaxa language is also provided through the online language application FirstVoices--a free database that hosts interactive community-built dictionaries, story and song libraries, phrase collections, and online language games. People can use FirstVoices to look up words or phrases and to hear how they are pronounced.

So far, members of the Ktunaxa Nation have entered 2487 words and 849 phrases into the database, making it a wonderful resource for learning their language.

With the cooperation of the College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, British Columbia, online language courses for credit will be available starting this fall.

Ktunaxa (Pronounced k-too-nah-ha) for Dummies

Though the Ktunaxa language has its own alphabet, a few words can be written on a standard keyboard. Below are a few examples. To hear the words pronounced, or to see more examples go to FirstVoices and choose Ktunaxa in the top drop-down menu.

hak: for there to be water or any liquid

hakqapxamik: to be eating while lying down

hakunkak: to have a snout

hakyaxamik: to tell one's life story

ka kwisin: my left-over food

kasnawi: two-year-old beaver

ktunwakanmituk: river flowing out

kyanukxu: mountain goat

matxaxnisni: he refused a meal from you

saxa: fish-eating duck

Ages 13 to 50 Are the Lost Years

When the Canadian government contacts indigenous people to survey them on their use of native language, many say that they are fluent even if they only know a few words. It becomes a matter of pride, since the language is so closely tied to the people's nationhood and identity.

Don Maki, the Ktunaxa Nation's director of traditional knowledge and language, noticed this tendency. In 2002, he arranged to have the language skills of people who claimed to be fluent in Ktunaxa tested. It turned out that only 38 of the more than 600 people who described themselves as fluent in the language actually were.

Since then, 14 of the fluent speakers have died. The decline in the number of fluent Ktunaxa speakers demonstrates how critically endangered the language is.

One of 11 language families in Canada, Ktunaxa is a cultural isolate, meaning that no other language in the world is closely related to it. Consequently, when it's gone, it's gone forever.

Because resources are limited, the Ktunaxa have decided to focus their efforts on children between the ages of newborn and 12 years, starting by putting baby tapes in the cradle.

"Thirteen to 50 are the lost years," says Maki. "During those years, people tend to be less interested in their heritage."

Language Is the Key to History

When Annanete Eugene, resident of the St. Mary's Reserve, started using computers, she couldn't find the power button on a PC. Now she has three desktop PCs and three laptops in her house and uses them daily to educate and empower herself.

"Knowledge is crucial for confidence. My daughter works with telecom and has taught me how to use the computers," Eugene says. "It's great for people who don't have the opportunity to leave the reserve to be able to get an education remotely."

Parts of her studies are devoted to the Ktunaxa language. She remembers being able to understand it as a child but was discouraged from speaking it at home, since it wasn't allowed at school.

"We had our history and culture beaten out of us at school. So much of our pain is tied to our lost history," Eugene says. "The language is the key to our history and to our healing."

The Pain of the Past

Now a casino and golf resort owned and operated by the Ktunaxa Nation, St. Eugene Mission Resort is a former residential school that brings back many painful memories for the Ktunaxa people.

Between 1910 and 1970, Ktunaxa children were sent to this Catholic school to learn religion, farming, and household chores. But--most important--they were pressured to learn "civilized ways." Children were forbidden to speak their own language and were punished when they did. Many were physically, sexually and mentally abused, too.

The era of compulsory residential school attendance had significant detrimental effects on the Ktunaxa language and culture. Since the children were punished for speaking their language, the elders refrained from teaching it to them, to help keep them out of trouble.

Native peoples' culture and history were treated as insignificant, potentially contributing to a pervasive sense of lost identity and purpose that may be responsible for social problems such as alcohol abuse that are common in the reservations.

Turning the old mission school into a resort represents an effort to turn the pain of the past into a positive symbol of strength and renewal for the Ktunaxa people.

People of the Land

The traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Nation is the Kootenay region of southeastern British Columbia in Canada, which starts about 250 miles west of Calgary. Indeed the word "Kootenay," which appears in British Columbia not only as a regional name but also as the name of a town and of a national park in the Canadian Rockies, is a transliterated version of the Ktunaxa people's name.

For more than 10,000 years, the Ktunaxa people occupied this territory, obtaining all of their food, medicine, and material for shelter and clothing from nature by hunting, fishing, and gathering across the Rocky Mountains and in the Great Plains of southern Canada and the northern United States. European settlement in the 1800s led to the creation of Indian reserves.

Today, Canafa's Ktunaxa Nation has a population of about 1500, living in four different native bands in the East Kootenay region.

The Ktunaxa believe that they were given the responsibility to care for their land and all of its creations. In turn the land would care for them. The spirit animals above would be the guiding spirits of the people. The Ktunaxa believe that they were given their language to communicate with nature and with the other creatures of the world. Therefore, as their language deteriorates from its original state, they believe that they are losing this ability--along with the traditional knowledge captured in the language.

The Legends of Our People Put Me to Sleep at Night

For the first six years of Dorothy Alpine's life, Ktunaxa was the only language she knew.

"I remember falling asleep listening to our legends, being told in our language," she says. "My dad always used to say that we didn't listen to him, but we did."

Despite not being able to practice her native language during much of her adult life, Alpine managed to retain it and eventually learned how to write it.

"My language is my passion. It's such an important part of who I am", she says.

Because Alpine worries that the language will be lost, she does what she can to share it with the youth on the reserve.

"I get very excited when I hear younger people speak Ktunaxa. It makes me think that my prayers have been answered," she says.

Never Forget Who You Are and Where You Came From

Anyone who speaks a foreign language knows that much of the beauty of the language is lost in translation. When the language is one created in a specific context to describe a completely different world--and way of looking at the world--this becomes even more evident. This is certainly the case with the Ktunaxa language, which emerged in an environment where the people were keenly aware of being one with the land and used their language as much to talk to the animals as to one another.

Today there are 6500 indigenous languages in the world, many of which are on the verge of extinction. In fact, every two weeks a language dies. And with the death of each language dies much of the accumulated wisdom of the people who spoke it.

A 20-minute recording of the creation story available for students of the Ktunaxa language takes four days to tell when told by an elder. It includes the entire history of the Ktunaxa people and the purpose of all the things in the universe. How does one translate that without cheating it of some of its meaning?

The Ktunaxa elders tell their youth that who they are and where they came from is the core of their identity. They also remind them that their language has no word for "extinction."

Series author Kajsa Linnarsson is a visiting reporter covering global developments in broadband for PC World. A graduate of Stanford University's Innovation Journalism program, she lives in Hudiksvall, Sweden, in a region known as Fiber Optic Valleyfor its large number of cutting-edge communications technology companies.)

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