Symposium on Indigenous Knowledge and Digital literacies

Author: Justin Parry

On November 10–11, CERCLL was sponsoring The Tucson Symposium on Indigenous Knowledge and Digital Literacies. This event was funded by the National Science Foundation’s “Cyberlearning: Transforming Education” program, and involved a partnership with the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI) and members of four southwest indigenous communities. The central goal of this symposium was to work with members from small communities as co-researchers investigating the viability of digital games, in this case using ARIS software, as a vehicle for learning both language and culture in a place-based approach. The indigenous communities involved shared a common language family: Yuman. These mutually intelligible, but highly endangered, languages are still spoken to varying degrees. Community language educators from the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation, Ft. Mojave, Hualapai and Maricopa attended as some of the teachers and high school students from Aha Macav Academy, a charter school which serves indigenous students. The presenters at the symposium included organizers, Drs. Jonathon Reinhardt (University of Arizona, specialist in second language learning through digital technologies), and Susan Penfield (former NSF Program Officer for Documenting Endangered Languages) along with Drs. Chris Holden (University of New Mexico, educational gaming), Steven Thorne (Portland State University, location-based language learning ), Sara Tolbert (University of Arizona, indigenous science education) and Ofelia Zepeda (Chair, University of Arizona Linguistics Department and member of the Tohono O’odham community, indigenous to Tucson).

Two concepts have guided the planning for this symposium/workshop: ‘think tank’ and ‘hands-on’. The schedule began with learning to play a previously constructed game, “Desert Chef Apprentice’ on the UA campus, which requires digitally ‘gathering’ the raw materials for desert-based foods and processing them. After a working lunch discussion, we visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to gather environmentally-based examples for use during Day 2, where participants were building their own games in a computer lab.

As co-researchers, all of the participants, presenters and visitors, were engaged in raising questions about the viability of such digital games for community-based language / culture education. We wanted to question how the game might be re-imagined to include more cultural/ecological knowledge, more game elements, more language, and more fun. The discussions introduced some concepts on game-mediated language pedagogy and location-based game design.

As a ‘think-tank’, the symposium built on the knowledge and experiences of all of the participants, and let things emerged naturally. To the extent possible, activities were participant-driven as the vision for this was that all attendees are equal partners in this effort. This two-day initial gathering was followed by a workshop offered at AILDI, 2014, by the symposium participants.  This workshop was an opportunity to share their experience, new games and new ideas about incorporating place-based content in language-learning situations.