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Dakota State student creates computer game to help preserve Lakota language

 

Last updated 4/8/2020 at 2:26pm

Running Strong

Carl Petersen has used and award he won to help develop a Lakota language game.

MADISON, S.D.-Dakota State University student Carl Petersen has developed a computer game that he hopes will help people develop their ability to learn and speak the Lakota language. The senior computer game design and computer science major, who has a minor in mathematics, presented the game, "Tipi Kaga" at the imagineNATIVE film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto, Canada, in October. The imagineNATIVE Festival is the world's largest festival showcasing film, video, audio, and digital interactive media made by Indigenous screen-content creators.

"Tipi Kaga" is a 3D game about putting together a traditional Lakota Tipi using instructions in the Lakota language. "Tipi Kaga" means "to make a tipi" in the Lakota language, and in the game, the players listen to an elder speaking in the Lakota language and giving them instructions on how to build a tipi. Traditionally, tipis were a form of family housing that the nomadic Lakota people could build and take down in about 15 minutes as they trailed buffalo herds.

Petersen, an Oohe Numpa Lakota, grew up in the town of Eagle Butte, South Dakota on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. He received a $10,000 Dreamstarter grant offered through Running Strong for American Indian Youth last March to pursue his entrepreneurship idea. Each year, Running Strong, founded by Olympian Billy Mills, gives away ten $1000 Dreamstarter grants to help Native American youth achieve their dreams and improve their communities. The grant enabled Petersen to start Northern Plains Games, which employs Native Americans to create games for Native Americans. 

Carl received a vision of creating a video game specifically for Native American people when thinking about what he wanted to do with his life following graduation from high school.

"I played video games a lot throughout my life and I wanted to help bring those experiences to people," he said. Now, the 21-year-old hopes to use his passion for videogames and his Native American culture to provide future generations with a better way of learning Lakota. "I wanted to make something that would allow people to hear conversational Lakota in a way that it could be implemented into schools," said the DSU junior in game design and software development.

After enrolling in the game design program at Dakota State University, he was working one summer at the Crazy Horse Memorial when he started talking about his idea to build a video game that would incorporate Lakota culture history and language into a single experience.

Petersen has been building the game for more than a year, he said. He developed a prototype of it two years ago for a computer science project. After finishing the initial project, he decided to build out the game. Petersen said he interviewed three fluent elders from his tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, and used resources such as the New Lakota Dictionary from the Lakota Language Consortium to build the game. 

Eventually Petersen brought on two other students, Megan Zephier, a senior game design student from the Yankton Sioux Tribe, and James Sierra, a junior game design student from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, to help him code, design, write the narrative, interview elders and translate the language. Petersen recruited friend and mentor Carl Buffalo, a fluent Lakota speaker, to complete the voice acting in the game.

Another game Petersen contributed to as a writer was also featured at the October festival. "When Rivers were Trails" is an educational adventure game that follows the impact of allotment acts on Indigenous communities. Petersen worked on the game with Dr. Beth LaPensée, a member of a Canadian Indigenous tribe, assistant professor at Michigan State University, and game designer.

During the festival, Petersen was a speaker for Night of the Indigenous Devs, where he spoke about his experience with "When Rivers were Trails" and gave a presentation called "Indigenous Learning Goes Interactive," about his efforts to bring an educational game into Native K-12 schools.

Petersen will soon release "Tipi Kaga" for public use on STEAM, a game-buying site and hopes to make individual deals with schools.

In the future Petersen wants to make a sequel with deeper vocabulary and continue to develop other Native games.

Hearing and speaking Lakota, Petersen says, gives him a deep connection to the culture and history.

Petersen took Lakota language classes from kindergarten through high school and said he now has the fluency of a 5-year-old. He said he's hoping the game will allow people like him to be able to hear conversational Lakota and improve their fluency and vocabulary.

"For those who don't have access to fluent speakers and to formal Lakota classes, this is just another way to learn the language," Petersen said. "It's not meant to be a cure-all, but just that step in the right direction."

He hopes that at some stage, "the game would be a massively multiplayer online game able to bring together Native peoples from across the world to experience their cultures together to learn their languages in a conversational way and to form a new identity of what it means to be a tribal citizen in the 21st century."

It's different from other tradition model of software used for learning new languages, with a strong focus on interaction and engaging the user.

"I don't want (the language) to die," he said. "I don't want to be the last generation of kids who heard fluent speakers."

 
 

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