Kakwitene VR

Virtual Reality Endangered Language Revival and Retention with Onkwehonwehneha A.I. (Ancient Intelligence)

MoniGarr is an Onkwehonwe woman from the Akwesasne Indian Reservation and founder of a small tech company in Akwesasne called ‘MoniGarr.com’. MoniGarr and her team can be reached on social media.More about the authorFollow the author on Twitter

Dominant societies expect instant access to every bit and byte of data from the past, present, and future to be defined, categorized and stamped with non-Indigenous values. As we decolonize, how do we teach and learn Kakwitene language in a way that can minimize colonial values placed in our language? Using Oculus Rift and Oculus Go, MoniGarr–a small tech company located in the Akwesasne Indian Reservation–develops XR and VR experiences for Indigenous language revival and retention projects. Using Onkwehonwehneha techniques, we created a series of Kakwitene prototypes for Endangered Language Revival and Retention Research projects in Akwesasne called Kakwitene VR.

In this project, we use tactics from Onkwehonwehneha Ancient Intelligence, going back to long before settlers and colonizers arrived and began their attempts to remove Indigenous languages and dialects. Ancient Intelligence (A.I.) teaches through stories, words, and phrases that come from our Onkwehonwe homelands. We want Kakwitene VR to promote friendly, respectful communications with Indigenous languages as a foundation of learning and practicing Respect for All of Creation. I believe that communicating with languages and dialects our ancestors speak in our own homelands is a healthy way to heal, to overcome negative bias, and share a strong respectful message to All of Creation about each of our identities, values, and connections to our ancestors and homelands since time immemorial.

This paper tracks the effectiveness of Endangered Language Learning through VR, observing how participants learn new Kanien’kéha words. To us, “effective” aims to increase memory retention, the speed of learning, and each learners’ confidence to speak Kanien’kéha outside of the VR experience in the physical world. But Kakwitene VR has no intention of assimilating Indigenous dialects into non-Indigenous definitions and languages. It will not translate over to world-views and experiences that are foreign to the specific Indigenous dialect presented. The base communications in Kakwitene VR includes audio and visuals that are experienced without providing non-Indigenous cultural interpretations and literal translations.

Through observing and documenting three brief VR sessions with our Kakwitene VR prototype, we saw new language learners speaking confidently within VR sessions of 3 to 7 minutes per session. In particular, with the hope that our Onkwehonwehneha tactics, our source code, and software templates can be re-used by anyone working on similar projects to empower their own communities to maintain their own Indigenous languages and Ancient Intelligences.

Ancient Intelligence and Artificial Intelligence

Enter Kakwitene VR as a “baby learner.” By removing dominant societies’ English, French, Colonial influences, such as definitions, text, values, and expectations, we begin to explore the VR experience freely, to look, see, move, think for ourselves without anyone suggesting or telling them what is expected. Each participant creates their own unique experience that is tailored for their own interests, life experiences, abilities, and goals. We come into a virtual environment and experience dimension where we can soak in sounds and visuals created with Onkwehonwehneha A.I. Not Artificial Intelligence, as might be expected through colonial values.

I have noticed since I was a child that my colonial peers put high value on Artificial Intelligence that is judged and measured based on colonial standards that typically define intelligence as another being’s ability to look, mimic and behave the same as colonial society. Their A.I. typically pretends to be a human with goals of convincing and tricking everyone to believe the machine and software is a human being.

Ancient Intelligence has taught me that we, as humans, are not the echelon of existence nor are we the center of existence. I see no reason for apologies or shame to exist as a human, or a rock, the wind, an insect, dust, water; to be whatever it is we come into existence as is just as meaningful.

When I make software, machines, robots, or chatbots, I do not have a goal of shaping them to convince everyone they are human, nor do I strive for them to be human beings.  Much of what I create comes from my dreams and the natural world influencing my thought processes, work schedules and project plans. If a snow storm makes it impossible to communicate with my team, I pay attention to what is going on in the Natural World and adapt our project based on the strength of the messages we receive. If a project is slowed down, stopped or moving much faster than the original plans, I adapt our project based on those organic natural occurrences, too. Switching my workflow to pay more attention to what is going on in the Natural World has helped my team produce more effective solutions that actually Respect All of Creation.

These goals, projects, and this kind of workflow are all part of Onkwehonwehneha A.I., which is the most relevant phrase to describe the projects I’ve been working on for more than 25 years in the tech industry. English speakers roughly translate the phrase to mean “Native person’s way of doing stuff” and “Native person’s Artificial Intelligence.” But that’s not what it is. As an individual, I am Onkwehonwe and in the process of decolonizing myself, so I roughly translate the phrase to refer to ‘Respect for All of Creation’ as one of the core values learned from Ancient Intelligence. As a company, MoniGarr.com is in this process, too.

Onkwehonwehneha Communications

Kakwitene VR is a bright summer garden environment inspired by Iroquois Woodlands Raised Beadwork. Our prototypes put visitors into an interactive experience that fully immerses them with Kanien’kéha dialect audio and visuals.  Players can fly around, fly into, and touch 3D objects to hear Kanien’kéha dialects. The prototype features colorful pollen spheres on the ground and hidden inside flowers that speak the Kanien’kéha colors. The Oculus Rift version also includes Kanien’kéha Voice Recognition Commands to change the colors inside the VR experience.

Flowers and leaves inside the Kakwitene VR Prototype.

Flowers and leaves inside the Kakwitene VR Prototype.

This is one of many projects that are part of MoniGarr’s overall Endangered Language Revival work. Crucially, MoniGarr.com is researching how our Kakwitene VR prototypes can increase a user’s confidence to recognize and speak the featured Indigenous language as a key indicator of success. One of the biggest hurdles to learning and retaining any information is an individual’s belief in their own capabilities. One of the well-known tactics that Indian Residential Schools used to kill off Indigenous Language Dialects was to remove children’s safety, confidence and abilities to communicate with each other and their families. Confidence, in our research, is measured by each individual’s choice to speak out loud, to speak clearly without anyone asking them to do so, and without anyone suggesting or hinting that they do so.

To accomplish this, we observed several research groups. The first group that participated in our research was a small group of five individuals from and currently living in Akwesasne Indian Reservation. Our participants’ ages ranged from 49 to 73. Three identify as women and one identifies as a man. All participants have previously studied Kanien’kéha for more than 40 years through classroom reading, writing, speaking, random rare speaking with family and friends, all with many breaks in between instances of language use.

Kakwitene VR (level one) provided 5 basic Kanien’kéha colors to hear when flying into colored pollen spheres inside a woodland garden setting filled with many colors. These research sessions were conducted on an Oculus Go and then an Oculus Rift. Oculus Go is a mid level VR device best used for sitting and watching films passively or with very little interaction using only one available hand held controller. The Oculus Rift is a high end VR device that allows for standing and more movement. Each research participant was presented with a survey via a Google document. MoniGarr logged if they recognized the written and spoken Kanien’kéha colors (following the Mohawk Language Standardization Guidelines) both before and after each session inside Kakwitene VR. In following the Mohawk Language Standardization Guidelines, we do not promote placing values of what is “right,” “wrong,” or “better” on specific spellings and pronunciations: that practice does not respect the fluent first language speakers that exist since long before the new standardization guidelines were created for English and French first language speakers.

First Kakwitene VR Experience: Oculus Go

Zero research participants attempted to speak Kanien’kéha out loud in the first session. All offered to continue helping to verify the Kanien’kéha pronunciations were “correct” without prompting. I observed that each research participant was very uncomfortable and even agitated the first few seconds they entered the VR experience as they tried to figure out how to use the VR controller to navigate.

But when they felt comfortable using the hand controller to navigate, each research subject became happy, amused and even laughing while they flew around the Kakwitene VR environment. They each chose to spend a minimum of 5 minutes in the experience to look around, search for colored pollen spheres, and to listen to each color many times. Each participant stated they enjoyed the Kakwitene VR experience because it was interesting and unlike anything they had ever seen before. They appreciated hearing Kanien’kéha in VR and shared hopeful stories about being able to communicate better with their families and friends.

Second Kakwitene VR Experience: Oculus Go

To begin the second session, all participants recognized about half of the Kanien’kéha colors written on the intake survey. Two research participants enjoyed discussing how different dialects sound from each other and how to recognize different dialects. But one participant questioned the “correctness” of the pronunciations and became angry about the idea the pronunciation might be a dialect she was not expecting. It’s important to note that the Mohawk Language Standardization Guidelines are relatively new, from the mid 1990s, and some fluent speakers choose to not follow, acknowledge nor appreciate it, whereas many who are non-fluent appreciate it because it helps them to learn when they are coming from a dominantly English or French first language speaking background.

Kanien’kéha has eastern, central and western dialects plus other varying accents. I remember hearing certain families and individuals with very distinct speaking accents in specific areas of Akwesasne: Snye accent, FrogTown accent, The Island accent, and each community has their distinct accents in specific areas of their communities. The Frogtown accent I heard in the 1970s is rarely heard today and attempting to spell or pronounce it is an extreme challenge today. English phonetics, phonemes and voice recognition foundations do not exist for all the Kanien’kéha dialect sounds, creating technical difficulties during software architecture and development work. These issues have a very strong influence on our decision to not push what English and French speakers call “proper” spelling, writing and pronunciations based on dominant societies’ current expectations and rules.

Third Kakwitene VR Experience: Oculus Rift

For our third session, one research subject went into Kakwitene VR on Oculus Rift) that includes two hand controllers and allows standing. She chose to sit because she has knee injuries. She appeared to enjoy Kakwitene VR and chose to stay inside for 15 minutes and would have stayed inside longer without the constraints of a research experience. I observed that she enjoyed the experience and was a noticeably confident speaker during this session. She flew around and into every color pollen sphere she could find and verbally repeated everything she heard over and over again–very clearly and with strong confidence.

Findings: Kakwitene VR increases Confidence to Speak and Recognize Indigenous Language?

Based on our initial sessions, it appears the Kakwitene VR experience helped to dramatically increase each research participant’s confidence to speak out loud without being asked nor being provided with any suggestions to do so. Each participant strongly believed they were not “good,” “experienced” or “knowledgeable” enough to speak out loud during the first research session. During the  second and subsequent sessions, each participant strongly believed they were knowledgeable, good, experienced enough and were confident to speak loud and clear without being asked to. The dramatic change was fast and very noticeable. MoniGarr was very careful to not make suggestions nor provide any clues about what this research project is looking at regarding the research participants’ behavior, beliefs and actions with their own Indigenous language dialects.

For example, the participant in session three who stayed in the VR experience the longest indicated that she believed she is a “slow learner” or unable to learn during past sessions. It’s been observed that this is a common belief in Akwesasne with language revivalists that have failed with retaining their dialects in the past and have to keep repeating basic language classes with traditional reading, writing and memorization for 40 years or longer. But with this new VR method, she appeared much more confident in her abilities to learn and speak.

Kakwitene VR visuals were drawn with Tilt Brush and the research subjects all commented on how it reminded them of the doodles that many people draw as children in Akwesasne – especially when learning how to make beadwork designs or sewing Kanien’kéhake regalia. Those that are fortunate to hike and play in the Adirondack forests recognize the connection between woodlands, Kanien’kéhake beadwork designs, regalia, the Natural World during the spring season in Kanien’kéhake homelands and Kakwitene VR. All of those visuals in the mind, from the Natural World brings Kakwitene VR experience around full circle to what one might see in their mind when hearing someone say ’Kakwitene’ pronounced ’gah gwih deh neh.’

A close-up of a purple flower inside the game, created with Tilt Brush to resemble early-learning level beadwork designs or sketches.

A close-up of a purple flower inside the game, created with Tilt Brush to resemble early-learning level beadwork designs or sketches.

The next phase of research hopes to bring in more experienced researchers to help remove potential personal biases from this Indigenous language revival and retention research project. Being the developer of Kakwitene VR solution can set up MoniGarr.com with strong conscious and unconscious biases to want this research to show specific results. Future activities have a goal of removing bias as much as possible, so that future language revival and retention projects using XR technologies (virtual reality, augmented reality, spatial computing) can be re-usable and help any community or individual working on Indigenous Language Revival and Retention projects.


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Copyright MoniGarr, monigarr@MoniGarr.com.  This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License (http://creativecommons.org/license/by-nc/3.0), permitting all non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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