Red Cloud alum helps develop Lakota language iPhone app

posted on April 24, 2012

Arlo Iron Cloud, a 2000 graduate of Red Cloud High School, thinks about language a lot.

His father is a fluent Lakota speaker, his mother a native speaker of Diné (Navajo). He spent many of his formative years living in the Southwest, where he was exposed to the Navajo language a great deal. In more recent decades, he has lived in the community of Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Iron Cloud, like most of his contemporaries, is not a fluent Lakota speaker, but he would very much like to learn.

Iron Cloud has something that his Lakota ancestors did not possess – a broad knowledge of computer technology, particularly as it relates to social media. Furthermore, he sees how that technology can be put to helpful uses, including for the purpose of learning language. With that in mind, and seeing how widespread smartphone technology is becoming – even on the Rez – Iron Cloud has been working on a Lakota language iPhone application.

The Lakota Toddler app, now available for free in the iTunes store, is the second app by software developers Israel Shortman and Rusty Calder. Shortman, a member of the Navajo tribe, created his first app for the Navajo language when he realized his 11-year-old daughter did not know basic Navajo history. He thought teaching her the language would help her remember the culture as well. Shortman now plans to develop two more Native language apps and expand to other Native American languages people request.

Shortman began working on the Lakota app when Iron Cloud – an old friend of his – approached him about it. Iron Cloud said he had wanted to create a language app for about three years, but kept hitting brick walls with language programs. “People are always saying we live in a Third World country and we don’t have a lot here, but somehow a lot of us manage to have iPhones,” he said. “This is one area that has never been tapped into as far as language revitalization goes.”

Right now, the app contains vocabulary cards for 33 food, body and number words. The cards show a photo of the object or number, the Lakota word spelling and the English word spelling. When a user presses the object, a voice speaks the Lakota word. There is also a matching game where users match written Lakota words to objects. Iron Cloud used his audio mixing and recording ability to record a local woman, Dollie Red Elk, speaking the Lakota words for the program.

Since the debut of the initial application, with its few dozen cards, Iron Cloud has been collecting common words and phrases in order to expand the program’s scope. He would like to see it eventually contain hundreds if not thousands of vocabulary cards, and also be more interactive.

Apps and other products that use new technology are one way to reach younger Lakota speakers and keep the language alive, Iron Cloud said.

“It’s a tool we can use to restore Lakota language and culture,” he said. “I don’t honestly think that it’s in a position that it needs to be saved. It just needs to be restored in the home, school setting, everywhere else.”