‘Crossing Boundaries’ a conversation with the The Blackfoot Language Resources and Digital Dictionary project team

Dr. Inge Genee; Rachel Hoof; Mahaliah Peddle; Russell Blaise; Myles Shirakawa; and Joerdis Weilandt

The Teaching Centre in a conversation with the The Blackfoot Language Resources and Digital Dictionary project Summer 2017 Team members on how their work contributes to the learning and teaching of the Blackfoot language and culture (August 2017).

The Blackfoot Language Resources and Digital Dictionary project[1] is a freely accessible learning resource for anyone with an interest in the Blackfoot language and culture. It has made great progress since its inception due to the help of a fantastic group of dedicated Blackfoot speakers, research assistants, students and volunteers. Although functional at this stage, the dictionary is a work-in-progress that is continuously being enhanced with multimedia items to support language learning and other content for more specific research interests. The Blackfoot project also feeds into a larger, nationwide research project studying Algonquin languages – the Algonquian Linguistic Atlas[2].

Picture taken in June 2017 Front row (left to right): Brittany Wichers, Don Frantz, Natalie Weber, Shelby Johnson Back row (left to right): Blaise Russell, Mahaliah Peddle, Inge Genee, Myles Shirakawa, Rachel Hoof

1. What is the intention behind the Blackfoot Dictionary Project and how did it get started?

Inge Genee: The idea for the project was conceived at a time when I was doing linguistic work with speakers of Blackfoot, some of whom would periodically mention the Blackfoot Dictionary by Donald Frantz, also saying that they hardly ever accessed it for some reason or other. The first few times, I ignored those comments until I realized what the actual reasons were that kept my work contacts from using this dictionary. That’s when I started to wonder whether a change in its formats could help the users overcome some of the challenges that they were facing. The most prominent of those challenges are the inconsistencies in the spelling system, multiple-morpheme-words with multiple meanings, or the large set of older words, which were gathered in the 60s and 70s but are now out of use and therefore no longer prepare learners for communication of contemporary matters. Overall, the print book format did not seem the best fit for the Blackfoot language and its primarily oral ways of transmission, which is why I decided to go digital.

Dictionaries clearly play a role in trying to revitalize and preserve languages for the future, and I thought that the simple act of digitizing the existing paper resource would inevitably improve its access and usability. Soon after the inception of our digital dictionary project, I learned that what we now do falls into a category referred to as ‘digital repatriation’, which intends to describe all those materials which undergo conversions from their original forms that can then be easily shared back to the community. While I was initially just going to digitize the written book to allow for easier searches, I soon also started to think about other enrichments like audio, video and stories. While I was writing the grant proposal, I started to look ahead by pondering the research question what steps we could take to make the resource even more useful to speakers, learners and teachers of Blackfoot in the future.

2. More than two years into the project, what have you accomplished so far and where do you see the Blackfoot Digital Dictionary headed?

Inge Genee: After we have put the basic things in place, which means digitize the corpus assembled by Don Frantz, members of the student teams started adding ever more details to the individual entries. Rachel Hoof, for instance, did what other contributors had started in the beginning and added more pictures to many of the words last summer. In the first year, we recorded micro-videos illustrating verbs and other actions words, but for lack of capacity we focused on audio additions this time instead and we now have a considerable collection of those.

Projecting the future, I am very interested to integrate even more historical sources into the digital database including entries from dictionaries that date back as far as the late 19th and 20th, which I think would complement the digital version beautifully. Another project for the future could include collaboration with schools across the province and beyond to create teaching and learning elements that could complement Blackfoot classes in a variety of settings. Now that the digital version of the dictionary exists, I really want to make it more practical for our users and that includes teachers – all based on what they tell us they need.

Rachel will be one of the first people who can provide us with such valuable feedback because she has gained experience learning Blackfoot in a special Mentor – Apprentice program (MAP)[3]. She has teamed up to work with a fluent speaker with whom she interacted in Blackfoot for 10 hours every week for the duration of several months. In preparation for this program, we created a set of ‘survival phrases’ that include audio recordings. It will be very interesting to tap into Rachel’s MAP experiences and see how her learner perspective helps us create more useful teaching materials in the future.

Sootaaki Rachel Hoof: I’m a fourth-year social works student at the UofC but at the UofL satellite campus.  When I was doing my diploma studies, an instructor had told us that in order better to understand ourselves and all the social issues that our First Nation people are going through we should reconnect with our Blackfoot culture and by reconnecting she also meant to learn the Blackfoot language. That encouragement was always at the back of my head and when Inge came into the NAS 1000 class I was taking I thought this Blackfoot dictionary project was the just the right opportunity for me to reconnect with my culture. As it turns out, it also led me to signing up for the MAP pilot project Inge just mentioned.  I am on an exciting journey and very grateful to be part of the Blackfoot digital dictionary project, which I think will help many speakers and non-speakers understand our way of life in a way that earlier linguists did not know or appreciate.

Inge Genee: This leads me to two more ideas that we have for the future development of the Digital Blackfoot Dictionary. One of them relates to modern word entries that I think are necessary to equip those learners who want to talk about the contemporary things that surround them. For many of those words, like ‘museum’, ‘computer’ or ‘paved highway’ just to state a few examples, we do not yet have words in the Blackfoot dictionary. Speaking of the word ‘museum’, I remember a day when a fluent elder called me up to ask whether there was an entry for it in our dictionary and I had to reply that there wasn’t one yet. I also told him that he could be the one creating it.  I would love to see more of those new word creations quickly become part of our dictionary too.

The second idea for future development was proposed by Blaise, who has been working on words relating to two-spirit culture. None of those are in the dictionary either, but we both are excited about the prospect of giving some LGBTQ+ words their own place in our digital Blackfoot dictionary soon.

3. How would one search for LGBTQ+ terms?

Inge Genee: Once it’s all public, there will be a theme called ‘two-spirit’ and there will be words that you can look for, so if you look for ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ or ‘transgender’ you will get those search results. Since this is very sensitive territory, we want to be thorough in our research and double or triple-check things before we make those words public. These words need to be validated by the right people before we publish them.

4. Who are your references and sources for the two-spirited terms that will included in the dictionary soon?

Iinoomaahkaa Blaise Russell (3rd year Anthropology student):

I am a third year Anthropology student at the University of Lethbridge. My biggest goal for my contribution to the dictionary is to ensure the safety and survival of all Blackfoot concepts. For instance, I want to include Blackfoot Two-Spirit paradigm into the dictionary. I began my research by reading a number books on the topic and I have also led interviews with researchers, Blackfoot elders and people who identify themselves as two-spirited. Through the research I have done and the personal conversations I have had along the way, I have compiled a set of words and phrases that I would like to include in the dictionary. I have also become aware how broad the range of interpretations and personal perspectives on two-spiritedness is. One of the people I have interviewed on the topic was Beverly Little Bear Hungry Wolf, a well-known elder of the Kainai Blood reserve. She pointed out to me that the differences in perception of gender in Western and Blackfoot cultures have shaped their different understandings of two-spiritedness. As it turns out, gender is not seen as something linear in Blackfoot, but considered to be rather fluid and cross-overs between the two are acknowledged. What motivates me in my research is my strong interest in word connotations and the ways in which colonialism has impacted attitudes and language change, such as modern Blackfoot language ‘Acts like a Woman’ (waakiihka’si) specifically regarding words denoting aspects of two-spiritedness. Talking about two-spiritedness cannot happen without stories that illustrate this fluidity in gender perception and thus I would like to give an example Beverly Little Bear Hungry Wolf cites in this context, which is the story of Running Eagle (Piitamaahka), also known as Brown Weasel Woman (Otakin), a Blackfoot woman warrior of the Piikani tribe who crossed gender lines throughout her life.[4]

Inge Genee:Speaking about storytelling, I want to point out that the theme of two-spiritedness is a good example for our attempt to remove the Western traditional distinction between a dictionary and an encyclopedia. Because the Blackfoot language is so intertwined with the Blackfoot culture, we deliberately integrate both in our Blackfoot Dictionary Project. The digital tool we use allows us to conveniently attach additional details in a multitude of formats to the regular dictionary information for a specific word. To illustrate what I mean I would like to mention our plant entries, which do not only contain translations and grammatical features, but also provide additional information as to how they can be prepared for ingestion, which plants should be regarded with caution and what properties in them can be harnessed for medicinal purposes.

Sootaaki Rachel Hoof:  Another good example for what additional pieces of information users can find in their searches is the word ‘moon’ ‘kaahksika’. The entry for this word in our dictionary will connect users to a book in which the ‘term severed leg’ is used as a metaphorical synonym. As with the case of ‘kaahksika’, we can easily provide additional information for any word in the dictionary that links back to original sources and thereby invites users to continue the research if they wish to learn more.

5. Have you at any point considered going the Wikipedia route and make the Blackfoot Dictionary an Open Source project to which anyone with an expertise in either Blackfoot language and culture could contribute?

Inge Genee: I am aware of a few dictionaries that allow people to contribute in some way or other like asking questions or making suggestions for corrections, albeit all not in the sense of Open Access like Wikipedia where everybody can edit, but through contact forms. At this point in the project, we are not ready to make the Dictionary Open Source because of the potential damage people could do to resource without appropriate moderation. However, I am considering it as another research question for the follow-up of the project.

6. How do you prioritize the goals of the project and the steps you need to take to achieve the goals you set?

Inge Genee: Luckily, we did not have to start from scratch, but could rely on Don Frantz’s database. Thus in the beginning, our priority was the digitization of that material. Since we have accomplished that, I have  set only a few other priorities due to the fact that I let the people who work with me take the project into directions that align with their skill sets and interests. Before Blaise started to work with us here in the summer of 2017, for instance, I did not know that we would be creating a theme for word entries relating to two-spirits. Mahaliah has helped in her way to make the dictionary more useful and accessible through setting up and managing our presence on social media. Through the Facebook account she created we can now communicate the progress of our work on the dictionary in frequent intervals.

Mahaliah Peddle: It is indeed very rewarding to see the progress that we have made every day. Our cooperative efforts have given the dictionary its current shape, appearance and use. As far as the Facebook account is concerned, we try to regularly post updates relating our dictionary or other events and activities that are of interest to learners of the Blackfoot in some way.

7. How did you coordinate your cooperative team efforts?

Sootaaki Rachel Hoof: For one, our regular weekly meetings have been crucial to our work.

Mahaliah Peddle: We also all worked in the same back end interface of the dictionary, where we could leave detailed notes that tracked our changes and provided instructions to the others who were picking up the work at a later point.

Inge Genee: People in the team here also helped each other as problems or questions arose. Sitting in the same space was conducive to addressing challenges as they came up. What I like about summer 2017 team, but similarly appreciated in the team I worked with in the summer of 2016 was that each member came with an individual set of strengths that contributed to the successful completion of our core tasks.

8. Will you tell us a bit more about the individual contributions to the project?

Mahaliah Peddle: Besides managing the social media, I have also been involved in the audio production and website work. My job here has been very diverse, which I really enjoyed. My project for the last week of the summer position was to create a section with guiding information in the form of video tutorials that help answer the most prominent questions visitors to the site might have. We wanted to improve the user-friendliness and we thought that those tutorials could be the key to enhanced user navigation.

Myles Shirakawa: I have worked here both summers, and in 2017 I focused to a large part on the linguistic analyses of Blackfoot words and example sentences. Having taken a range of general and more specific linguistic courses as part of my French Major program, has provided me with that expertise. In addition to linguistic analyses, I have done a substantial chunk of technical work too that included audio processing of record files and HTML editing on our WordPress site.

Iinoomaahkaa Blaise Russell: In addition to my research on two-spirited terminology and language change, I have also contributed to the processing of audio files, I transcribed Blackfoot words and recordings, I added pictures to certain entries, and I strove to contribute to the theme of Blackfoot Traditional values. I am honored to have had the opportunity to work towards language protection, acquisition and repatriation in such a welcoming and hard-working team.

Sootaaki Rachel Hoof:  Working in our team on our manifold tasks has provided me with many learning opportunities. Not only have I enhanced my technological skills, but through my interaction with fluent Blackfoot speakers I have also had my motivation ignited to re-learn my Blackfoot language.

9.  Who is your intended audience?

Inge Genee: Anyone with an interest in Blackfoot is welcome to use our dictionary and access it freely from anywhere, be it informal learners, students or teachers of Blackfoot. Since this project is paid entirely by the taxpayer, I don’t see why we would want to impose any kind of restrictions or costs on our users. What I want everyone to be aware of are the limits an online resource has on the preservation of indigenous languages. Web applications like our dictionary or classroom language instruction are all icing on the cake, but the actual cake is people speaking the language with each other at home or in ceremony or in all kinds of everyday contexts where there is no role for electronics. In the end, the best dictionary is still a fluent speaker and even the most versatile tech tool or most comprehensive language resource does not beat talking to a Blackfoot person.

10. What does the dictionary look like? How is it structured and what kind of information can visitors access?

Mahaliah Peddle:On the top of our homepage, you can select the language you wish to search from – either from Blackfoot to English or vice versa. There are also advanced options that will give even more specific results. Typing in the word you want to translate will prompt a bunch of keywords, among which you can then locate the one that most closely matches your search. Clicking on the word or phrase of your choice will direct you to a page that includes the translation and grammatical information. If you see a picture icon on that page, you know that a visual is available. A little headphone icon next to the word indicates the existence of a recording from a fluent Blackfoot speaker. In some instances, you can access a video too when you see a camera icon next to the word. There will always be microcredit icons stating the ways in which people have contributed to that word entry.

From the homepage of the dictionary you can also get to other places outside of it like the story archive, the grammar pages or other resources by simply clicking on the home icon on the top left.

Inge Genee: At this point it might be worthwhile to explain what a relaxed search is and how it helps overcome inconsistencies in the spelling of Blackfoot.

Mahaliah Peddle: Relaxed here means that your spelling of a Blackfoot word doesn’t have to be too exact to still yield correct results. This design was one of Inge’s priorities and therefore it got implemented into the dictionary early in the project already, so that misspellings of words like one vowel instead of two or the lack of accents are being ignored in favor for correct search results.

Inge Genee: Let me quickly return to the story tab Mahalia just mentioned. In my view, that tab is representative of the beauty and convenience of our digital work. Originally, the story archive behind that tab on our homepage was the linguistic project of a colleague of mine who had recorded numerous stories as part of her work with speakers of the Siksika nation. When she admitted to me how sad she felt only very few people had access to those, I offered to integrate them into our project and publish them together with our dictionary. Both of us are now delighted about the immediate access by a broader and more diverse audience. As we are not tied to publishing rules, we can add stories to the collection or make necessary corrections anytime we want.

11. What are the copyright terms of the dictionary?

Inge Genee: As far as the content is concerned, we always make sure that we have permission to publish every single item of it. In the case of the stories, for instance, we first inquired with the individual speakers whether they approve of the digital publication. Our general rule is to emphatically avoid anything that is ceremonial or sacred to Blackfoot people. Everyone in our team will be attributed for his or her specific work on the project through the micro-credentials Mahaliah was mentioning earlier.

With regards to the copyright information for our users, it is stated on a separate section on our homepage and explicitly permits the free use for educational purposes and language revitalization. We had initially investigated Creative Commons licensing for the site but found it unsuitable because many of the materials that we have permission to publish remain the intellectual property of the individuals who granted us those permissions. To adhere to our copyright terms, I recommend our users to always stream audio or video through our site and connect any entries they want to use back to our site.

12. Do you have any pedagogical recommendations for school or university teachers who want to use the resources in your dictionary?

Inge Genee: This is the part I mentioned we are still working on. As an applied linguist I am relying on the input of school and university teachers of Blackfoot and other experts in the field of Blackfoot language instruction to feed back to me suggestions how we can make our resources more useful to them. In that sense I am very happy to work with people like Beverly and Rachel, who with their teaching and learning experience can provide me that kind of feedback.

Let me highlight once again how important all the individual contributions have been to our project. This work could not have been done without the efforts of all our members in the team and I would like to take the opportunity to thank them all for their contributions. This is also the reason why I wanted the summer 2017 team members to participate in this interview to demonstrate how our concerted team effort has made such a complex enterprise like our dictionary project possible.


References for Blaise Russel’s Research on Two-Spiritedness in Blackfoot Culture:

Dempsey, H. A. (2003). The Vengeful Wife and Other Blackfoot Stories. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Eli, S. K. (2013). Piikanaikiiks: A literary analysis of Blackfoot oral stories and the traditional roles of woman in leadership (Master’s thesis). University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.

Filice, M. (2015). Two-Spirit. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/two-spirit

Goodleaf, S. & Labelle, D. (2016). The Two-Spirit [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved fromhttp://www.colloquehomophobie.org/2016/files/2016/02/A-17_Two-Spirit-Diane_Labelle.pdf

Hungry Wolf, B. (1982). The Ways of My Grandmothers. New York: Quill.

Kulchyski, P.K., McCaskill, D.N., Newhouse, D., & Angmarlik, P. (1999;1998;2000). In the words of elders: Aboriginal cultures in transition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Lang, S. (1998). Men as Women, Women as Men: Change Gender in Native American Cultures (J. L. Vantine, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Shaeffer, C. E. (1987). Blackfoot Shaking Tent. Occasional paper (5):Glenbow Museum.  Retrieved fromhttps://www.glenbow.org/collections/search/findingAids/archhtm /extras/schaeffer/m-1100-149.pdf

[1] Through the homepage of the Blackfoot Language Resources and Digital Dictionary project (https://blackfoot.atlas-ling.ca ), you can access the Blackfoot dictionary and all other resources mentioned in the interview.

[2] The Algonquian Linguistic Atlas accessible at https://www.atlas-ling.ca/ is an online, multimedia linguistic atlas of Algonquian languages created by Canadian researchers whose “ultimate goal is to make sure that the beautiful Algonquian languages and the cultures they embody will be heard and spoken by many more generations to come.”

[3] The Mentor-Apprentice program is an approach to provide language learners with one-on-one language immersion. A “mentor” (a fluent speaker of a language) is paired with an “apprentice” (learner). Both spend a set number of hours together doing everyday activities using the target language all throughout, all with the intent to increase the fluency of participating learners. Proponents see value in this approach especially for endangered languages where only a couple of fluent speakers are left.

The Mentor-Apprentice Program (MAP) was first developed in California specifically for Native American languages. For more information on the program in California, see the website for the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival:https://aicls.org/master-apprentice-program-map/

[4] See end of article for references for Blaise Russel’s Research on Two-Spiritedness in Blackfoot Culture


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Digital Teaching and Learning at the UofL Copyright © by Dr. Inge Genee; Rachel Hoof; Mahaliah Peddle; Russell Blaise; Myles Shirakawa; and Joerdis Weilandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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