Indigenous Youth Are Using Coding and AI to Save Native Language

A wide grin spread across Niesha Marshall’s face as she watched the purple go-kart zip across her computer screen. It worked. The game worked. “I was really proud of myself…I just couldn’t believe it, that I created this AI,” she said.

It was the summer of 2021 and Niesha, then 13, moved to campus just three weeks earlier knowing almost nothing about AI. She hadn’t been to school in over a year because of COVID and she just wanted to get out of the house, to see someone other than her family. But all she knew of coding was what she’d seen in movies: a geeky guy alone in the corner hacking into the government, or something like that, she recalled.

In less than a month, her view on AI and who could participate in building it radically shifted.

Niesha is one of the high school-aged students to complete the Lakota AI Code Camp — a three week summer intensive taught by four Indigenous AI experts from across the country. At Black Hills State University, about 220 miles northwest of the Rosebud Reservation, the camp trains Lakota students with little coding experience in Python, data science, machine learning, and app development in less than a month. It’s a foray into computer science for interested young people, but the camp is also about more than creating opportunities for individual students. It’s an attempt to build an Indigenous talent pool, to find and train future experts who can digitally protect and steward Indigenous culture — and keep endangered native languages alive.

Indigenous languages are at risk. According to the United Nations, at least half of all the world’s languages will disappear by the end of the century, the majority of which are Indigenous languages. In the U.S., assimilation policies rooted in centuries of racism play a large part in endangering native languages and culture. For generations, Native American children were punished for practicing their native language and customs. Without intervention, these languages — and the cultural knowledge embedded in them — could be lost within a generation.

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