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Technology Helps Native Americans Preserve Heritage - 2001-11-25

Preserving language and tradition has often been a challenge for many American Indian tribes. Contemporary technologies sometimes make it harder to cultivate tribal heritage. Satellites broadcast television programming to the remotest of reservations, competing with the storytelling of elders. But now many tribes are looking to harness the power of technology to help maintain their cultures.

The Great Plains State of South Dakota is home to nine federally recognized tribes and as many reservations. Drive any one of the roads that bisect them and you could come across a pow wow, where tribes gather to dance, sing and drum.

A pow wow on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation looks just as it may have centuries ago, were it not for the public address system belting out announcements and drum groups hawking music CDs after their performances. Increasingly, tribes are embracing technology to showcase their cultures. They're also introducing technology to their children.

A workshop for Native American educators in Sioux Falls shows how to use technology in the classroom. But computers and other high-tech devices are doing more than channeling e-mail between teachers and students; they're helping preserve Indian traditions and history. For instance, the South Dakota-based Intertribal Bison Cooperative has produced a multimedia CD-ROM about the cultural and spiritual relationship between buffalo and Native Americans.

Many tribal languages are becoming endangered as English becomes the predominant language of young people on the reservations. Now Comanche students can learn their native tongue from tribal elders through an interactive dictionary.

The computer CD was produced by the New Mexico-based National Indian Telecommunications Institute. Chief Executive Officer Karen Buller, herself a Cherokee, says the company's goal is to improve the quality of life for Native Americans through the use of electronic communications from high speed Internet connections to a basic telephone. She says the biggest hurdle is the lack of access to telephone lines. They can cost a lot to bring into remote reservations, because the sparse population often can't support the expense. Mrs. Buller would like the federal government to have urban dwellers pick up some of the cost, like it did in bringing electricity to rural areas in the 1930s. Indeed, the government last year introduced a program to bring low cost telephone service to reservations. But Karen Buller thinks the effort is still not enough, and that it's taking too long. She says Internet access is critical for Native Americans, who'd like to share their culture and sell tribal goods online.

Yet she admits that many tribes, especially in remote areas, are skeptical of 21st century technology.

"Once I took some people from [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] up to Alaska and they were saying, 'we can do all this stuff with technology.' And the elders were saying, 'that will ruin our way of life, we don't really want that.' At the same time, the hotel I was staying in had 500 channels on cable TV. And I had to say, 'sorry, technology is already here.' And why don't you have us teach you how to control it, what you want to do with it. And that's a big issue for Native Americans," she says.

Today not even half of the nation's American Indian tribes have official Internet websites. But the number is growing steadily. For Karen Buller and an increasing number of Native Americans, a promising way to preserve the past is to capture the power of present and future technologies.