How PLATO introduces Chippewa young to Ojibwa

Green electronic dots zipping along a computer's video screen form eagle feathers. More dots create the profile of an Indian's head. Finally, ''Introduction to Ojibwa'' appears on the screen.

Ojibwa, the ancient Chippewa language, has been on the decline, but now is being revived, helped by the wizardry of computers.

When the Chippewa language program went into full operation this winter at the Lac Courte Oreille Reservation schools, it became the first time computers had been used to teach an Indian language in the United States, according to the program's developers.

After generations of missionaries, Anglo teachers, and Bureau of Indian Affairs agents penalizing Chippewas for speaking their native language, it nearly vanished.

For example, of the 2,000 Indians on this Wisconsin reservation, only 5 to 10 percent are fluent in the Ojibwa tongue, although most speak some words or phrases, said Michael Gross, the school system administrator.

Now, with the assistance of Control Data Corporation's PLATO computers, the language is finding a place in the modern world.

Since 1976, when the tribal school first opened here, the Chippewa language has been taught in kindergarten through grade 12. Computers are enhancing the program because they give ''instantaneous feedback,'' according to Rick St. Germaine, the tribe's director of education.

The one-hour programs are supplementing classroom work by introducing new words and phrases within their cultural and historical context.

During free periods students can feed their personal codes into the computers to activate the program. The language is taught through a story line that follows the typical events in an Indian's life.

''We interviewed four or five of the elders, and the story line is a composite of their lives,'' Mr. Gross explained.

In the first unit, the computer uses 60 basic vocabulary words to tell the story of ''The Birth of a Son.'' As each word appears on the screen, it is spoken through the audio component of the computer. The recordings were made by the reservation's elders.

The Ojibwa words are used without translations. A junior in the reservation's high school, William Perry, drew the graphics illustrating words that cannot be readily understood from the context.

The computer will teach more than just a literal translation of words. Culture and history will be taught, too.

Many words appear on the screen in italics or marked by an asterisk. These can be further explored by pushing a button. For example, ''the maple-sugar camp'' will appear on the screen with a notation. If a student wants additional information, he can press a key to call up about 10 pages of information on the subject, which will be presented in English.

Each unit is designed to take about an hour to review. Mr. Gross estimates it could take a week or two or more for a student to become proficient in a unit, depending on his ability. About 16 to 20 units are considered a year's work.

Design of the program started in November 1980, when the school received grants from the federal Justice and Education Departments. The Justice Department is participating because the language program is being used as an alternative education method for students having serious trouble in school.

Much of the material for the computer was developed by Roger Thomas, a tribe member who holds a doctorate in anthropology and teaches in the school system. Two of North America's foremost authorities on the Chippewa language also helped design the programs.

A panel of tribal members reviewed their program and had the final word.

The program is available without charge to schools who use the PLATO system.

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