Neskie Manuel passed away recently after going missing from his family's campsite on Niskonlith Lake in early May. He was my friend and sometime collaborator. He was also a radio broadcaster, film maker, open source software developer, cartographer, environmentalist, and avid cyclist (he cycled across Canada on a single-speed bike in 2007).
Last fall I spoke at an Indigenous Language Institute workshop on technology and terminology development in New Mexico and I invited Neskie to come down and take part. That was the first time we'd met face-to-face and he made quite an impression on me. He was a brilliant person. He knew an incredible amount about software development, open source, and web technologies. I learned a lot from him about the political situation of the First Nations in Canada and about the environmental causes he cared about. We even talked for a while about theoretical physics and mathematical graph theory. As I recall he was interested in graph-theoretical questions related to semantic networks but I'm sorry to say I forget the details now. In short, he was full of ideas -- they were pouring out so fast I could barely keep up!
The main reason he came down was so that we could discuss the prospects for doing a translation of Firefox into his language of Secwepemctsín. Mozilla has held their last two "Summits" in British Columbia and I loved the idea of having the first translation of Firefox into a native American or First Nation language come from that part of the world. Neskie was enthusiastic and optimistic about the possibility. As he saw it, most of the resources needed were in place and it would just be a matter of generating interest among a group of people with the language skills to do the actual translation work -- he and I would handle the technical aspects. I'm sorry now that we never progressed any further than those initial discussions.
Neskie and I were of one mind in a lot of ways. We both believed in the potential of technology, computing, and social media to help strengthen indigenous and minority languages. At the same time, we also discussed the fact that technology is just a small piece in a much bigger puzzle of language revitalization, and that our work needed to be informed and driven by broader issues: linguistic rights, political self-determination, freedom from corporate influence, cultural survival. Not so long ago we had an email exchange about a piece I'd read in the (excellent) book "Paradigm Wars", written by his father Arthur Manuel. I loved Neskie's response: "I've heard many of his arguments. I try to live and breathe them and apply them to other areas that I feel capable in, the main one being computing."
Neskie really liked the Indigenous Tweets project. I showed him a prototype of the site a few weeks before it was launched and he offered valuable suggestions for how it could be improved. He also did what is still the one and only tweet in Secwepemctsín, on March 12th: "ximulecw r tmicws r secwepemc" (the secwepemc have a big land). During the 53 days he was missing I found comfort in those words, certain that he must be out there somewhere on his own, and that it was just a matter of time before he would return to his friends and family. I was heartbroken to find out I was wrong when his remains were found on June 29th. I'll miss you and will always remember you Neskie. Suaimhneas síoraí duit a chara.