LAPWAI, Idaho – With just a few taps on a screen, the voice of a Nez Perce tribal member sounds out phrases like “good morning” and “it will be winter” in the tribe’s native tongue.
More than 1,000 words and phrases in the Nez Perce language are available to learn on an app developed by a few Nez Perce Language Program staff members. The app, which can be found by searching “Nez Perce” at Apple and Android stores, is free to download.
Thomas “Tatlo” Gregory, language coordinator for the program, created the app to make the language instantly available.
“Everybody’s got a phone on them nowadays,” he said. “Now they have a tool they can use on their own when they just want to find out a quick word.”
It’s largely tribal elders who are fluent in the Nez Perce language, Nimipuutimt, which makes the language unique, said fellow language coordinator Bessie Walker.
“We’re not like any other language. Take Spanish, for instance. You can go somewhere and become immersed in it. We can’t do that,” she said. “Luckily, we’re one of the very few tribes that has an actual dictionary and a lot of recordings.”
The language program, based in Lapwai, secured funding to develop the “pocket translator” app in its annual budget as approved by the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. After that, Gregory said, the new technology “came together pretty fast.”
Gregory – along with Walker and language technician Rich Ramsey Jr., who both helped create the app – then sought out a developer. They contacted Ogoki Learning Systems, a Winnipeg company that develops American Indian language apps.
Darrick Baxter, president of the company, met with the trio this past spring. With the recordings already completed, the group spent five days putting the app together.
Gregory, Walker and Ramsey divided the multifaceted work among themselves to complete the project. The app has 40 categories, ranging from weather to animals, and each category contains a slew of words and phrases.
“Each phrase that you have, each word, has to have a button. You gotta place it on there in its category,” Gregory said. “It gives you a blank screen and you put your (button) where your button’s going to be, and put what words are going to be in there. So, you had to do that for every single recording.”
The group wanted to develop the app to be intuitive and simple to use.
“People need simplicity or they’re not going to mess with it,” Gregory said. With the app, the language is “in the home. That’s where the transmission of the language really got damaged, is in the home. And trying to figure out ways to get it back in the home is really challenging for us.”
Baxter released the app to Android store in May for a cost between $4,500 and $5,000. The app was made available in the Apple store in September for a cost between $6,500 and $7,500, Baxter said.
The free app had been downloaded 560 times from the Android store and 152 times from the Apple store.
“(It’s) available to everybody now,” Ramsey said, noting not everyone has time to learn the language otherwise.
Each member of the trio said it was important to them to spread the Nez Perce language.
“We’re still here. We’re still alive in our language,” Walker said. “The heartbeat of our culture is our language.”