The Arapaho Language Gets New Life In Place-Based App

Nov 2, 2018

The Northern Arapaho elders have long searched for ways to teach the Arapaho language. Now they've collaborated with doctoral candidate Phineas Kelly to create a game for the iPhone. This new way to teach Indigenous language was his Master's thesis. Wyoming Public Radio's Taylar Stagner gave the game a try.

Nihniistiiwuni' wonooyoo' hiinikotiit, heetih'iinikotiinee, heethinono'eitinee.

(We made a new game, if you play this game, you will speak Arapaho.)

I walk to the Native American Research Center on the University of Wyoming's campus. I'm meeting to meet Phineas Kelly, an anthropology doctoral student, who plans to show me this new game called the Arapaho Language App. This is a place-based app that uses geolocation to advance in the game. I'm looking forward to seeing it because, even though I'm Northern Arapaho and my grandma spoke our language fluently, I don't know how to speak it.

The game works something like Pokemon Go. He brings out his iPhone and opens up the app.

"The intent of the game is to give people the experience of the UW campus as actually being Arapaho land. Which it still is," said Kelly.

Then he reads to me off the screen.

"Welcome, this is Arapaho Land. The Earth, the plants, the animals and everything from to the breath of the wind to the warmth of the sun is alive…Go find badger. Where is badger? Badger is right over there."

We start walking, and I find out that Badger is an important animal because of his connection to the roots of the earth. Badger finds us and we are notified on the screen that we learned how to find badger.

"Woho'oo'… Woho'oo' is considered an especially powerful animal because of his command over space above the earth and the space below it. Woho'oo' is ceremonially important because of his digging ability and said to be the possessor of the medicinal roots that grow below the earth."

After we meet Badger and collect the medicine, we walk across campus to find Crow and learn about what respect means to the Arapaho people. Crow flies above Prexy's Pasture and Kelly reads out loud.

"Once you learn how to respect yourself then you can respect other people. And when your thoughts words and actions toward yourself and others show respect, then you will be respected. Do you hear? Do you understand?"

After learning about the Arapaho traditional value of respect from Crow, we find a Cottonwood tree to sit under to collect more medicine.

"I want to read this to you because it's really cool," said Kelly.

Then I learn how Stars come from the earth through the cottonwood trees. Because the spirit of the night sky asks the wind to shake branches to release the stars into the sky.

"So if you just take any Cottonwood branch and you break it, but the stars are actually right inside," said Kelly.

When he broke apart the cottonwood branch there was a star right in the center.

I'm flabbergasted, "Oh my god - that is amazing!"

After learning about different plants and animals, we collect our medicine and try to find Grandmother to complete this level of the game.

It's significant that the game ends by reaching an elder, said Robyn Lopez. She teaches Arapaho at the University of Wyoming. She and Kelly worked with the elders of the Arapaho tribe to make the application as precise as possible. She said that the elders have grown more accepting of using new technology to teach the language in recent years.

"So, the elders are super on board. They like the students having access to things. But now they are so excited about this that they want more. They want this same thing this place based app multiple places. They would like it to go with each school on the reservation. So that's like a potential future path for this," said Lopez.

She said that it's important to build spaces for the language to reside because there are only about 200 people who speak Arapaho fluently today. Language revitalization is an intergenerational task, and she's one of those 200 fluent Arapaho speakers. This is her introducing herself in Arapaho.

"Tous, neneeninoo Heeseisii Niibei, Robyn Lopez. Neeyei3eibeihiininoo touhooniniiteen tesco'ouutou3eino'oowuu'. Heentooni' Niitokooxeeetiinii', Hinono'eino' nih'iinetii3i' huutino."

(Hello I am Heeseisii Niibei, Robyn Lopez. I am a teacher at the University of Wyoming.)

Back out on the university campus with the app, we have finished the first stage. At the end of the first level, you find Grandmother and can give her all the medicine you've collected. Then you get to listen to her story.

Kelly holds the phone up to my ear so I can hear the Grandma on the app.

"At the beginning of Plymouth Rock of the Mayflower of the three ships and Columbus was the beginning of our demise. And I remember when I was in 9th grade and I was getting excited about being in high school. I opened my history book the first sentence, Native Americans were savages. What was I supposed to think of myself? I'm a savage? I don't think so. I didn't make good grades in history."

Language is a vital part of the Northern Arapaho culture. Through games and technology, a new generation is exposed to the values and language of the Arapaho.

Heetce'noohoobe3en …that means goodbye.