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Language is the very essence of our people: Lily Painter

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P’áu:gyá tóñ:áñ: (Brings Water from the Creek) also known as Lily Aliesse Painter, is a video/filmmaker, and storyteller. She is a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Lily is a UNITY 25 Under 25 honoree for the 2022-2023 year, a former inaugural Remembering Our Sisters Fellow with the Center for Native American Youth, and an active member of various youth programs. Lily is a passionate advocate for Native youth grassroots efforts to amplify their voices on a national level.  UNITY interviewed Lily to learn more about her efforts to cultivate community wellness, read more below. 

2022-23 UNITY 25 UNDER 25 AWARDEE 
Lilly Painter, 20, Winnebago/Kiowa Tribe, OK


UNITY: What are the top three issues of concern in your community?

Lily: Language revitalization is a huge goal we want to tackle within the Kiowa tribal communities. Even before we lost multiple speakers during the COVID pandemic, our language was suffering. I believe a great project for this would be to create a comprehensive app or curriculum for learning Kiowa on a mainstream language learning app, such as Duolingo. Duolingo specifically has courses for Navajo and for fictional languages, such as High Valyrian from Game of Thrones and Klingon from Star Trek— why not a real Native language that is in desperate need of ways to integrate it into mainstream technology?

My community struggles with a lack of creative outlets. As stated before, I want to create workshops and projects that tap into that innate creativity I believe all Native people have. A series of community workshops that allow Indigenous people to create different forms of art such as writing, painting, beadwork, or clothing, would not only benefit their creative spirit but encourage community bonding and a possible means of future export for Native individuals.

Lastly, my community lacks a space for Native youth to congregate and be in community with each other. As a teen, the only places available to me to hang out with my friends were parking lots or the park. As a Native woman this not only poses a threat to my well-being and safety, but as Native youth we often would encounter police who would make us leave for hanging out in these public spaces. There is no safe space, community building, student center, or meeting place for youth in my community. Building one is a gargantuan task, but one that I feel would reap more benefits than we could possibly imagine. 

UNITY: If you had unlimited resources, how would you address one of the above-mentioned community challenges?

Lily: I see a language learning app project, or incorporating an Indigenous language into an established app such as Duolingo, not only a viable source for language revitalization but a means to grant access to our language across regions that are unable to be reached with current Kiowa language programs. The factors for the timeline of a new course vary: Language similarity is important. Courses for similar languages (like Dutch for English speakers) will come together much faster than courses between more dissimilar languages (like Japanese for English speakers). Kiowa is its own unique language family within all linguistic systems. There will have to be a dialogue between Kiowa linguists and linguists with experience in creating apps to determine how to go about creating the curriculum. Next, staffing. Courses with full-time staff at Duolingo will generally move faster than courses created with our contributor community, who may have any number of other responsibilities. Some teams are able to contribute hundreds of hours a month, while others may progress more slowly when contributors have less availability. This is where I believe the budget will come in: I would urge money to be used as a sort of a means of compensation that would enable language keepers and Kiowa linguists to take the time to evaluate and compile the resources needed to develop a comprehensive course in Kiowa. No more than 6,000 for a team of two elders, two Kiowa linguists, and two Kiowa language teachers credentialed through the Kiowa tribe.

I believe this work can also be done in community settings and workshops, so that the broader Kiowa community can be present as language is discussed and the basics are re-established: 2,000 for a series of two community outreaches. At 1,000 each, that money would go to catering, and supplies such as printouts and worksheets. The length of first version of a course is an important factor as well. Typically, the first version of a course covers about half of the “A1” level, which is a minimum of 30 skills. The goal is to get learners new courses as soon as possible while providing a meaningful amount of material for them to work through. For Duolingo specifically, a course is never considered “finished,” so new content can be added on as a language adapts and changes to fit the times. All in all, for a new course teaching a relatively similar language, made by a contributor community (the Kiowa tribe) with about 30 skills, 2,000+ sentences are needed to teach the necessary words and grammar. Creating content for half the A1 skills takes most contributor teams more than 9 months. Over the course of this nearly year long project, I would personally take on the community outreach workshops and the seminars we would need to have to teach the older generation how to actually use a language learning app. I am currently working to be credentialed in the Kiowa language and think that this is a useful skill in showcasing the way in which technology can help us save our language to the Kiowa people as a whole. 

UNITY: How would this project improve the Wellness of your community?

Lily: Language is the very essence of our people. We are oral storytellers, up until a few hundred years ago, Kiowa people relied almost solely on passing stories by way of mouth. Our songs, which are sung in the Kiowa language, not only add to the creation and spread of these stories but often act as lessons for how to act in the world and as a good relative. Kiowa hymns are an integral part of the cultures Kiowa people have formed in the past hundred years: songs and poems that have been adapted or translated into the Kiowa language by our Chiefs. There are some words that are not able to be translated back into English- if we lose our language, we not only lose a large part of our cultural identity but aspects of ourselves together. If there is one thing I am worried about in the future of my tribe, it is that I might be the last generation to ever hear Kiowa in any form.

It is my wish that we are able to adapt once more, in resilience, and take our language learning to a new level by making it accessible via technology to Kiowas everywhere, but also by partnering with people who have a high success rate in teaching and retaining languages. The consequences of losing our language would be irreparable, but the benefits of saving it are worth any struggle, and any attempt, no matter how unique. 

Lily (left) with fellow 25 Under 25 Awardees at the 2022 National UNITY Conference in Minnesota


The UNITY 25 Under 25 is a national youth leadership recognition program. The awards program is designed to celebrate the achievements of Native American and Alaskan Native youth ages 14 to 24 who embody UNITY’s core mission and exude living a balanced life developing their spiritual, mental, physical, and social well-being. Honorees are recognized during the UNITY National Conference, with each receiving a hand-made beaded “25 Under 25” medallion. In addition to being recognized, each awardee will receive special training by UNITY over the period of one year that is designed to build on their individual achievements. The class is recognized as UNITY ambassadors, serving as stellar examples of Native youth leadership in Indian Country today.