Ancient Voices, Modern Tools

Organization Information:

Organization Name:
Indigenous Language Institute
City & State:
Santa Fe, 
New Mexico
Organization Website:
Organization's Mission Statement

The Indigenous Language Institute (ILI) provides vital language related services to native communities so that their individual identities, traditional wisdom and values are passed on to future generations in their original languages.The guiding philosophy is to "help create speakers" of endangered Indigenous languages while we still have speakers left so that indigenous languages become a vibrant component of everyday life in Indian communities.

Submission Information

Impact Essay

The Indigenous Language Institute’s Ancient Voices, Modern Tools project (AVMT) addresses the critical deficit of materials in Native American languages by empowering teachers, families and students with technology tools and skills to develop their own culturally appropriate materials. The program supports language learners in schools and homes so that the endangered heritage languages can once again become a vibrant component of everyday life.

Microsoft Office 2007, obtained through TechSoup, provides the software necessary for the program, along with Windows MovieMaker2 and Media Player. These tools have enabled the development of this new program to increase the range of clients served and impact our services through educational outreach. The workshops are offered twice a month at ILI’s Technology Learning Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico as well as at tribal venues in different regions of the country.


There are reasons for the decline of Native American languages. The federal policy enforced in the mid-1800s to remove Indian children from their homes to distant boarding schools accelerated the decline of Native languages. If caught speaking the Native languages in these boarding schools, children were punished severely, and this had detrimental effects on five generations that chose not to teach their children the language to avoid punishment and embarrassment. Today, the 175+ languages that survived have become second languages for the majority of the tribes. It is now a national grassroots movement where 80% of the 741 tribes in the US have language initiatives.

Approximately 80% of Native American tribes have language programs ranging from total immersion schools for pre-K to 12 to adult evening classes to individual initiatives. The challenge they face is how to bridge the classroom and the home, to ensure that language learning continues beyond classroom walls in everyday life. In most households, parents are products of the boarding school trauma and have not been taught their heritage languages. They are learning the language along with their children. The materials developed through our Ancient Voices Modern Tools program are essential learning/teaching tools that parents can use with their children.

Storytelling was a means to teach history and traditional knowledge about science, medicine, environment and philosophy. Traditional stories that have gone untold for generations can now be passed on to future generations using this new technology. Stories can now be shared through information and computer technology with multiple audiences across time and distance. The Microsoft tools help people help themselves to revive storytelling in new ways to make language visible, vital and valuable in daily life for individuals, families, communities and schools.


Microsoft Office 2007, obtained from the Microsoft Donation Program through TechSoup, drives the Ancient Voices, Modern Tools program. Publisher, Word, PowerPoint and Windows MovieMaker2 and Media Player are the main applications used for AVMT workshops, complemented by freeware such as Audacity and GIMPshop. The application tools are selected for their affordability and accessibility to ensure that work can continue after training. ILI’s Languagegeek© keyboard facilitates typing on existing computer keyboards in any Native language that have complicated diacritical marks. ILI teaches how to make copies onto CDs and DVDs and to transfer materials onto MP3 and iPods for portability, for wider sharing, and for self-study. Publisher and Word are used regularly by ILI staff to create brochures, flyers to promote the AVMT workshops.

The elders understand the value of technology in this race against time to preserve and perpetuate the languages in the critical timeframe. Recording and video technology can document last speakers, as archival resources for study by future generations. Rather than preserving, revitalizing the languages for today is the goal, achievable with these technology tools to 1) build a critical mass of materials that are in the Native languages, and 2) attract and engage the tech savvy young generation in this work as future carriers of the culture. In ILI’s workshops, parents and grandparents team up with tech-savvy youth, creating a symbiotic learning experience: elders learn technology and youth learn the language. We have had three-generation teams creating materials. A team of three high school students creating a digital story in their Tewa language were in constant communication by cell phone to their families to get coaching on proper pronunciations.

Technology training has helped break down many barriers, such as: 1) elders’ fear of using technology; 2) gap between knowledge source (elders) with need to know (youth); 3) distance between those who reside on the reservations and those in urban areas; 4) attitudes that ancient languages have little or no relevance to today’s life. Instructors provide one-on-one assistance to elders who lack motor skills required for computer work, for e.g. maneuvering the mouse, click and drag, among others. By building confidence and capacity, they continue using what they have learned once they leave the workshop.

Where there were none or very few materials in the Native languages, we now offer the possibilities of print and audiovisual materials created by community people to proliferate and be in homes, schools and the internet.

We have trained over 400 individuals from 140 tribes nationwide since our first workshop in 2002. The program has a multiplier effect as workshop participants share the materials they created as CDs, DVDs, as email attachments, and posts on YouTube ( ) and teach others what they learned. Our survey estimates that AVMT has directly and indirectly impacted over 2,500 individuals since 2002.

The AVMT program has an international outreach working with the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project which documents endangered indigenous languages worldwide. The project will collaborate with ILI to provide the AVMT technology training; the first workshop will occur in Spring 2010 in Santa Fe to teach 8 individuals from indigenous villages in India, Sumatra, Paraguay.

A participant at the Print Materials workshop stated: “My uncle left me boxes of traditional Oneida stories he handwrote. He asked me to one day publish these stories so we don’t forget them. It’s an awesome task, but now with the Languagegeek keyboard and the Storybook template that I learned at ILI’s workshop, I am ready to churn out these stories. Thank you so much for bringing the workshop to the Oneida Training Center!” - Curt Summers (Oneida) April 2006

TechSoup and Microsoft and other companies that work with TechSoup to make such powerful tools affordable for non-profits enable us to be effective change agents for our communities. THANK YOU!

Submission Category
Transformations to Maximize Impact