New app preserves First Nations language through epic storytelling

Technology is helping to keep First Nations languages alive. A new app being launched this month will connect 17 Secwepemc communities in the Shuswap Nation through an interactive project that connects photos, illustrations, audio and text, along with lessons, in a collaborative story-telling project.

The new app features stories that took place 4,000 years ago involving the protagonist Tlli7sa and his brothers, initially commemorated by Secwepemc elders in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as told to ethnographers Franz Boas, George Dawson and James Teit, and still in part remembered by elders today.

Marianne Ignace, director of SFU's First Nations Language Centre, recorded the stories of Tlli7sa in the mid-1980s. From 2014-16 the stories were re-crafted as an elaborate and eloquent text by Skeetchestn elders under the direction of Ignace and her husband, Chief Ron Ignace, adjunct professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

The result is an interactive way to access the 18 episodes of the story built around Tlli7sa, a character whose special powers are used to reflect things people did thousands of years ago throughout Secwepemc (Shuswap) territory, and involving deep knowledge of land, landscape and ecology, as well as the emergence of technical skills and social relations.  

Tlli7sa Story, which has completed testing, is the first of several planned as part of a seven-year project, started in 2013, when Ignace secured a $2.5 million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, working with 12 different Indigenous languages in BC and Yukon.

She has worked with several First Nations groups to develop the first level of their apps, including the Secwepemc Story app and apps currently under development for Haida and Sm‘algyax (Coast Tsimshian) languages. 

Ignace says the apps will appeal to all ages, including youth, and will provide a unique opportunity for those no longer living in their communities to learn their ancestral languages.

The app was unveiled on August 21 at the Secwepemc Cultural Gathering in Skeetchestn (half-way between Kamloops and Cache Creek), which will featured language workshops as well as a host of traditional activities. 

[Above: From the Tlli7sa story text: 'He charged up to the beaver, he stabbed him with his harpoon, and he got dragged to the bottom of the water.' Illustrator Braden Hallett worked closely with elders to produce these images.]

By Marianne Meadahl