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Training Lakota youth to be the future of AI Coding


July 10th through 30th on the campus of Black Hills State University in Spearfish, SD, an inaugural event has been happening in collaboration between Natives in Tech and Indigenous in AI sponsored by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and Meta AI (the entity that currently runs apps like Facebook and Instagram). Shipt made a donation to supply the students with backpacks, and individual supporters have continued to make donations through the camp website. Each student also received their own AI computer and cell phone. 

AI stands for Artificial Intelligence. It is the technology that drives things like the apps on your smart devices and tablets and chatbots that interact with you through websites to assist with customer service needs when there are no humans available to answer questions.

The Lakota AI Code Camp has been developed and organized by an all-Native American team of experts in their field. Dr. Ian Her Many Horses (Lakota), Mason Grimshaw (Lakota), Michael Running Wolf, Jr. (Northern Cheyenne/Lakota/Blackfeet), Dr. Shawn Tsosie (Navajo/Little Shell), Andrea Delgado-Olson (Miwok), and Caroline Running Wolf (Crow) have been working with the 7 Lakota high school students participating in the camp for this inaugural event. Plans are already underway to host the camp next summer and for years to come.

The West River Eagle directly spoke with Caroline Running Wolf, Andrea Delgado-Olson, and Michael Running Wolf, Jr., who shared that there are not enough First Nations people in technology fields at higher levels in college. The hope is that by encouraging young people now to have an interest in technology and showing them that they can accomplish these goals, they will become future researchers, data scientists, and professors and work towards achieving master’s and doctoral levels of education in technology sciences. 

Running Wolf shared that when he started working with Amazon, he found maybe 12 Indigenous persons working in the same field and therefore started networking within the global Indigenous community to connect to others working in tech, but also to encourage other Indigenous young people to pursue careers in these fields. 

Additionally, by giving these young people sovereignty over their own work, they will learn life skills that can be applied to their own interests. For example, during the first weekend, they worked on a project under the direction of ethnobotanist, Linda Black Elk to create a mobile app through the Jupyter program that will be able to recognize Indigenous Lakota medicinal plants and teach the users of the apps what they look like and how the plants have traditionally been used. The skills learned through this project will give them ways to apply this to their own interests like sports, animals, or food and beverages, for example. 

Antoine R., age 16, shared, “The coolest thing I did [in the first week] was the NBA thing [data analysis of NBA salaries] with Mason, and it was hard, but it was easy once I got the hang of it. I’ve never done anything like that before, and I know I needed some help with it, but I did it mostly by myself, so I was pretty proud of that.”

The camp started with the basics of Computer Science and has progressively taken deeper dives into the current technologies of app development, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML). Throughout the month, they will have worked on several small projects using industry-standard tools that will teach them skills such as data collection, image recognition, and coding in both Python and C#. The students have been applying these skills to build a mobile augmented reality (AR) app. With this app, users can quickly access the Lakota name of everyday objects with their phone’s camera, similar to the Hawaiian language version, Hua Ki’i. 

After an intense week of classes, the students and a phenomenal group of technologists had already trained their first models, analyzed datasets, and built their first games. They have been truly inquisitive and engaged in the entire process. Most importantly, they have been helping one another work through challenges and forming friendships that will continue as they support each other while learning and having fun together. 

Students have also been learning how to label collected data, train for new models using transfer learning, and deploy this model in their custom-built mobile AR application. Lakota language teacher Beverly Running Bear has been helping to identify Lakota terms and share some of her Lakota language and cultural knowledge with the students as well. 

By the end of camp on Saturday, students will demonstrate their final project, a custom language learning app powered by AI that can be used and shared within their communities. 

“The camp is a very fun experience, and there was a lot of activities (…). The coding was very difficult at first, but you just gotta stay strong and stick with it, you know. (…),” shared Niesha M., age 13.

Natives in Tech and Indigenous in AI have made it their respective missions to create a new narrative in which Lakota and Indigenous are included in and creating advanced technologies. By developing partnerships between Lakota communities, foundations, and industry sponsors, this will be a permanent annual program that will scale to more Indigenous Nations across North America. 

You can follow along with what the Lakota AI Code Camp has been doing and their future plans by following them on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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