Cover Image for How Technology Can Perpetuate Systemic Language Oppression of Indigenous Peoples and the Opportunity for Inclusive Modern Systems

How Technology Can Perpetuate Systemic Language Oppression of Indigenous Peoples and the Opportunity for Inclusive Modern Systems

Matthew Lehner

6 min read

This morning I heard about a woman's request to register a business in her Indigenous language denied by the B.C. government on the radio. Cheyenne Cunningham, a Katzie woman, tried to register a business name with BC Registry Services in her traditional language, Hən̓q̓əmín̓əm̓ but was told that she could only use characters from the Roman alphabet. The name Cheyenne chose was k̓ʷə́yecən, which means grizzly bear in English.

The characters that Cheyenne tried to register that you see here - k̓ʷə́yecən, that are not on your computer's keyboard, are part of the International Phonetic Alphabet. This alphabet is commonly used when writing the traditional names of First Nations and words from the traditional languages of Indigenous Peoples.

The BC Registry Services computer system only supports the Roman alphabet and is not capable of storing characters like k̓, ʷ, ə́. This limitation is the result of a technical process known as character encoding. Character encoding is the process of translating the digital bits a computer can understand into human-friendly characters.

Inclusive Modern Systems on the Rise

General standards around the character encoding specification used in modern technology have changed significantly in recent years. Modern systems can store all of the characters of the International Phonetic Alphabet, glyphs from other alphabets (Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, etc), as well as other symbols, like emojis. ✌️

Much of the discussion of this modern standard for character encoding has been from the lens of making technology more accessible to people from cultures where the Roman alphabet isn't used. It's critical in making technology available to all people everywhere on earth. Here in Canada, the traditional languages of Indigenous Peoples require this inclusive modern approach.

BC's Bill 41 Suggests Adoption of Inclusive Modern Systems

When the government of BC unanimously passed Bill 41, legislation to implement United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), on November 26, 2019, they indirectly agreed that all of its computer systems should be upgradedto support the distinct languages of First Nations and other Indigenous Peoples.

“...the government must consider the diversity of the Indigenous peoples in British Columbia, particularly the distinct languages, cultures, customs, practices, rights, legal traditions, institutions, governance structures, relationships to territories and knowledge systems...”
- Excerpt from Bill 41

We'd love to see a response from the government that acknowledges the BC Registry Services system's role in undermining Bill 41 and a clear plan of action that shows its commitment to honoring the legal obligations it has set for itself.

OneFeather's Technology Supports Traditional Languages

As a technology company working in this space, we at OneFeather have become acutely aware of the role that technology plays in impacting the language and identity of the Nations we serve. By design, our platform has supported traditional languages since its inception in 2013.

That said, there is still a significant distance for technology to progress before everyone is able to access it using their traditional or chosen languages. We're happy to be pushing this conversation forward.

Obstacles Facing Cultural Identity in the Digital World

When we started building OneFeather, one of the most interesting things that we discovered is how this technical limitation changes the way that Nations and their People refer to themselves in the digital world.

One of our first voting events was for Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ First Nations. When spelling Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ the 7 should be a ʔ character. ʔ is a 'guttural stop' (a sound originating 'of the throat'). However, there are two technological barriers in making this available:

  1. the keyboard on the device you're using probably doesn't have a ʔ key, and
  2. the programs you use on a daily basis likely don't include these characters. For example, Microsoft Word only recently stopped changing ʔ to a 7 when it is copied and pasted.

These examples are all tied into the same technological limitations that the BC Registry Services system is facing.

As a result, First Nations, like Ka:’yu:’k’t’h’/Che:k’tles7et’h’ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) decided to abandon the 'ʔ' character and use the 7, because it's easier to type on available technology. This is a clear example of the way that the limitations of technology affect the written spelling of traditional names. As a result, some of the expressiveness and nuance surrounding the name, and cultural identity, is lost.

Moving Towards the Future

I'm proud to be able to say that OneFeather is actively working to build accessible ways for all Indigenous Peoples in Canada to reconnect with their traditional languages through modern technology.

As a society, we need more inclusive modern technology with better ways of typing less common characters to fully decolonize the digital world, address perpetuation of unintentional systemic oppression, and make technology accessible to all people.