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Preserving the Comanche language with computers

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MEDICINE PARK, Okla., (AP) -- Not far from the flowing, chilly waters of Medicine Creek, Comanche elders relax and converse in the thin shade of trees showing early leaves of spring.

Behind their backs, Mount Scott lends height to the southwest Oklahoma horizon. Their talk touches on many topics: animals, kinship, birds, trees, body parts.

It is all in the name of technology -- and bridging the "digital divide" that separates much of Native America from mainstream America.

Though seemingly casual, their scripted conversations aren't idle. Nearby, two representatives from the National Indian Telecommunications Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., diligently record every phrase, word, syllable and nuance.

In a matter of months, the conversations of this day will be subject to eavesdropping by anyone who has access to a computer with CD-ROM capability.

The elders are all fluent speakers of Comanche who are active in the Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee.

They are Ray Niedo, Lucille McClung, Theresa Saupitty, Margaret Poahway and Gloria Cable, all of Cahe; Dr Reaves Nahwooks and Edith Gordon, both of Indiahoma; Marie Haumpy, Apache; and Deloris Karty, Anadarko.

Assisting are fellow committee members Billie Kreger, Kenneth and Barbara Goodin and Jo Vickers.

"We are doing language preservation with a lot of tribes across the United States," NITI official Karen Buller said.

However, the Comanches are the first tribe outside of Alaska or Hawaii to embark on a CD-ROM program.

"There's a real feeling of urgency on this," Buller continued. "It's urgent we collect these things before our elders pass on. All (speakers) in this group are over 80 years old."

Similar language preservation programs are under way in Hawaii and Alaska, she added.

NITI is paying for the initial production with proceeds from a modest grant awarded by the Fund for Four Directions-- the one foundation in the United States that funds only American Indian language projects.

"Our grant is only for $15,000 (but) this is really a $100,000 project," Buller said.

The goal is to produce and turn over to the committee an interactive CD-ROM that can be copied and sold as the group continues its single-minded mission of preserving the Comanche language.

"We just make it for them," Buller said. "I don't thin kthere's a gigantic market for this, (but) they're have a good time."

The actual computer work for the prototype will fall to another NITI staff member. As it happens, James Kreger is also a Comanche with a strong familial tie to the committee. He is the son of Billie Kreger.

The finished product will speak volumes. It will be possible for someone to load the CD-ROM on a computer, click on a topic to see and hear the actual conversation. At the same time, subtitles in English and Comanche will appear on the screen.

In two days before Buller's digital video camera, the elders recorded 128 individual vocabulary words, as well as the five "vignettes."

Like many of her generation, Buller understands some Comanche and commands limited spoken vocabulary.

"For the most part, there's no one younger than 55 or 60 who's fluent any more," she said. "If they're younger than that, theymay understand it, but they're not fluent. I am Comanche; it's a pleasure and joy for me to be able to do this for my tribe."
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