AWS Public Sector Blog

Preserving the history and language of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation using AWS

Oregon and Washington are home to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR)—a union of the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla tribes. Currently only four elders (and seven people total) speak their language, Sahaptian, fluently. Sahaptian is classified as a severely endangered language by UNESCO. CTUIR was searching for a way to preserve legacy knowledge in a way that can be passed down to future generations and strengthen its community. To do this, CTUIR worked with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and AWS Partner Dan Ryan to build an online dictionary of the Sahaptian language, powered by the cloud.

Built on cloud technology

The CTUIR Language Program first began work on capturing the language in 1996. The Sahaptian dictionary first published a written dictionary with contributions from 97 tribe elders in 2014. But changing technology and software upgrades rendered much of the written content unreadable, and in danger of complete loss. On the AWS Fix This podcast, Lisa Minthorn, Sahaptian language technology specialist for CTUIR and the technical lead for the project, said, “Older fonts degrade over time…and cannot be recovered…We didn’t understand what we needed to do or how to do it—but we knew going forward needed Unicode font.” Lisa recognized that a different solution was necessary to preserve their language before it was too late—as well as a solution that explained the correct pronunciation of each word, given the declining population that speaks the language in conversation.

Over the course of 3 months, the CTUIR tech team worked with Dan Ryan and AWS to build out the Umatilla Language Online Dictionary. The dictionary contains translations and will soon have audio recordings from a native speaker of more than 6,000 Sahaptian words—and growing. Included in the website is a built-in keyboard for the Sahaptian alphabet and characters, as well as several other related languages. “The keyboard and the font are displayed, and users can search in English or Umatilla. This is awesome,” said Lisa. “The entire alphabet is displayed to help learn.”

Running on WordPress, the dictionary uses Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) for storage, Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) for compute power, Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) for the database, as well as Amazon CloudFront, AWS Auto Scaling, and Elastic Load Balancing (ELB). CTUIR’s tech team is also learning how to use the cloud technologies so they can take over maintenance and growth of the website.

Since the website’s launch earlier this year, it’s had more than 1,600 users. CTUIR hopes the dictionary will be standard in classrooms. “This is a gift to the youth,” said Noel Rude, the dictionary’s author and a former tribal linguist at the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, in a statement. “No matter where they find themselves, they will have access to the beautiful words of their elders. May this kindle their curiosity! And may their elders’ legacy never fade.”

Learn more

Listen to the latest episode of the AWS Fix This podcast to hear more from Lisa about this project and its impact. Check out more on the cloud for nonprofits.

Subscribe to the AWS Public Sector Blog newsletter to get the latest in AWS tools, solutions, and innovations from the public sector delivered to your inbox, or contact us.

Leo Zhadanovsky

Leo Zhadanovsky

Leo Zhadanovsky, the chief technologist for education at Amazon Web Services (AWS), has spent nearly a decade sharing guidance on the best ways to leverage AWS services. As a speaker, Leo has delivered talks at conferences around the world, including re:Invent, OmniTI Surge, and PuppetConf. Behind the scenes, he helps customers build highly-available, scalable, and elastic architectures to fulfill their business needs. Leo first demonstrated his expertise in AWS as the director of systems engineering at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), where he ran the on-premise and cloud infrastructure for the DNC, in use by the Obama campaign, as well as the Democratic Party. In his free time, he enjoys cycling, traveling, and perfecting the crema on his espresso.