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High-tech media give voice to tribal youth, help teach language

To give voice to Spokane tribal youth and teach them traditional skills, Twa-le Abrahamson not only has started the Youth Media Project for the Spokane Tribe but also has connected with other indigenous young people around the globe.

Twa-le Abrahamson 2
Twa-le Abrahamson

The Youth Media Project gives youth avenues for expressing their voices and for learning their traditional heritage.

So, along with picking berries, hunting, gathering roots and tanning deer hides, Twa-le is into the high-tech world—seeking to merge with it as a means to help preserve her low-tech traditions.

“We are using media to give a voice that is not there.  It’s easy for young people to learn the technology, express their voices and be heard.  Something powerful is coming from them,” she said.

The project began when the SHAWL Society—Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land—received funds from Stevens County for cameras and computers, and for training youth to use video cameras and edit video.

Last summer, 10 students from 14 to 22 years old took a month of video training on the reservation and with Community Productions at Comcast in Spokane.  Thin Air Radio did a week of training.  Journalists and other guest speakers provide basic training through the Spokane Tribal College at Wellpinit.

“We introduced different types of media so young people can see the options,” she said.

In order to gain more skills for the project, Twa-le attended a 2004 training program of Third World Majority, an Oakland-based media organization. 

From that program, Twa-le became sensitive to how profound an effect the information society and global revolution in economics, technology and social development have on indigenous cultures and communities, most of whom live in poverty without basics of adequate food, water, shelter, electricity and infrastructure.

Twa-le Abrahamson
Twa-le seeks to empower youth.

Using resources from the program in Oakland, Twa-le helped teach a winter-quarter class at the Spokane Tribal College on “Native Americans and Film,” reviewing the portrayal of Native Americans in films and on TV. 

She taught how media depict ethnic communities and women, and how that affects young people.

“The program seeks to turn inner-city African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and women from self hate,” she said.  “On the reservation, while many have TV, few have satellites, so most have limited access other than viewing videos.

“Regardless, media, including videos, have power to mold who we think we are and what others think of us.  Will we accept what is presented?  Or will we stand up and change what is presented?

“If young people do not see people like themselves in media, they feel invisible.  Racism today is subtle.  Overt stereotypes may be gone against Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos,” Twa-le said. “Many feel racism does not exist if it does not target them.  Now it targets Muslims.  We need to be in solidarity with anyone who suffers.

“We need to be aware of majority-culture assumptions that are accepted as the norm,” she said.

Those assumptions influence through subtle censorship and the invasion of privacy.

Twa-le now realizes how daily war coverage is presented in a way that desensitizes people to the destruction and death of war. 

In addition, she has now knows that people receive internet ads geared to their interests, based on scanning of words they use in searches and emails.

Despite the potential negative impact of media, Twa-le is committed to the youth media project because she knows what a lack of knowledge means for people.

“Media used right provide us with new ways to learn about each other,” she said.

“Our people have been kept from information on issues,” Twa-le said.  “In my studies at the University of Washington, I gained access to many sources.  Most who stay on the reservation believe only what history books say.  They do not have full access to information about native history, our own tribal history or even effects of uranium mine contamination on the reservation.” 

Twa-le grew up on the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene reservations and in Tacoma as her mother, Deb Abrahamson, moved for 20 years with jobs in social work. 

After graduating in 1997 from Rogers High School in Spokane, Twa-le began studies at Spokane Community College, transferring in 1999 to the University of Washington, graduating in 2002.

She studied environmental research, focusing on reservation streams, developing skills to deal with cleaning up uranium mines on the reservation to assist with work her mother has been doing for 12 years, first through Dawn Watch and since 2002 through the SHAWL Society.

“Environmental and health research has been done for other mines, but we were off the radar of researchers,” she said.

Committed to that research and because her grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, her mother, sister, brother and father live on the reservation, she moved back to the reservation with her eight-year-old daughter, Maliah.

Even though both of her grandparents were fluent in their languages, Twa-le does not even know the Spokane language.

“They did not teach my mother, because of their experiences in boarding schools,” Twa-le said.  “They did not want their children to go through what they did. 

As a result, there are fewer than 15 fluent speakers left.  The tribe is scrambling to preserve the language.    Reduced life span from mining also contributed to the loss of elders and language. 

Media and  technology can preserve the speakers’ stories in formats young people can access, Twa-le said.

Three years ago, Washington signed an agreement with 10 tribes so native speakers could gain credentials to teach in high school and colleges.  Five in the Spokane tribe now have credentials,nd four are teaching from Headstart to college classes.

“There is intensive effort in our schools to teach the language.  In the second grade, my daughter studies Salish and Spanish three days a week,” she said.

Some want to teach only Salish—the common language from Montana into mid-Washington.  Despite speaking different dialects of Salish, Coeur d’Alenes, Spokanes and Colvilles can understand each other, Twa-le said.

The Spokane tribe is using software, CD’s and interactive computer programs to do that. 

Because people who know the language are not adept at computers, students in the tribal school language program are learning both technology and language, so they can develop software to preserve the language. 

 Twa-le found affirmation for the need to balance technology with traditions when contacts at the Third World Majority in Oakland led to her selection as one of 30 young leaders in the North American Media Justice delegation to the Indigenous Peoples Forum at the World Summit for the Information Society (WSIS) in November in Tunis, Tunisia.

Organizers of the forum included the WSIS International Indigenous Committee, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, UNESCO and other partners.

From sharing their experiences and challenges, the indigenous young people there realized the need to increase international indigenous connectivity. So they explored the viability of a portal, a web presence and other channels for exchanging information and resources on an ongoing basis.

“Some government leaders were open to the proposal for an international portal,” Twa-le said. “In Canada and Australia, the governments run such portals.

“In our report to the WSIS, we called for an international indigenous portal to close the information gap, urging use of technology to help indigenous communities revitalize languages and cultures, and to increase communication among indigenous peoples on human rights, education, health, social and economic development, governance, women’s issues, youth and elder services, disability issues, security and public safety, conflict resolution and peace building.

 “People need more say on content and more access,” Twa-le said. 

“Our reservation has good access, compared to others that still have areas without power.  Those who have phones have dial-up connections, and schools have high-speed internet,” she said.  “Alaskan tribes who have no phones use radio programs in their own languages.”

At a session on intellectual property rights, Twa-le realized the need for less copyright and more access to software. 

A technology expo showed high-tech security devices like retinal scanning and bicycle-powered computers to spread access to areas without electricity.

“Internet access determines access to markets and opportunities, but we must ask: What do we give up to gain access?  What if we have to go into debt to gain access?  What do we have to sacrifice to connect?” Twa-le asked.

“Technology tools are key to economic improvement, efficient communication, helping small organizations connect with people on the national and international levels.  We have to find ways to strengthen our organization with minimal funding,” she said. 

Some question the necessity and worth of access, because indigenous communities have to learn new languages unless the technologies can be adapted to their languages. 

“If it’s not in our languages, technology may take too much from our lives,” Twa-le said.  “For indigenous people worldwide, loss of language is the most pressing issue next to poverty.”

Technology can be a tool to preserve language, provide economic opportunities, record stories and traditions, and give people a voice.

Now Twa-le, who grew up Catholic, focuses on traditional spirituality to sustain her motivation to do the media project.

“I believe my ancestors, who fought for our right to be here, guide me to go where I need to be, so we can do the work even with inadequate funding,” she said.

Twa-le gives up material desires to do what needs to be done, trusting the project’s needs will be met because it is crucial.

 For information, call 258-4313 or email