Meet Don Thornton, Founder of Thornton Media and a Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs Honoree

The “Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs” list serves to elevate awareness of the innovation, professionalism, competence and tenacity demonstrated by Native entrepreneurs across Indian Country. Native Business is rolling out profiles of these 50 Native entrepreneurs online, in no particular hierarchy, to document and memorialize their innovation and self-determination. The inaugural class of the Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs recognizes leaders across 13 business sectors, demonstrating the diversity of industries where Natives are making an impact. Among the entrepreneurs recognized in our Graphic Design & Media sector is Don Thornton, Founder of Thornton Media, Inc.

Don Thornton’s career in Native language preservation began on his grandmother’s front porch in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. It was there during a visit in 1994 that he noticed voluminous lists of words in English that she was meticulously translating into Cherokee. As it turns out, she had been working on dictionaries, Bibles and other projects for a local non-Indian professor — who was passing her work off as his own.

“I asked her what she was doing with all these lists, and she told me she had been translating them for years for this guy,” says Thornton, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “But when I checked into it, I realized that not only had she never gotten paid for the enormous amount of work she put into these projects, she had also had never received any listed credit whatsoever or even given a copy of the books that she basically wrote. He was totally taking advantage of her.”

As Thornton dug deeper, however, he learned that this was not an isolated incident. He discovered that Tribal languages and other forms of cultural patrimony had been exploited by linguists, anthropologists and others seeking academic credit, career advancement and financial gain for decades. Moreover, these work products were usually copyrighted under someone else’s name, converting Native languages into a commodity with legal protections for their non-Indian owners. Across the country, Tribes were now confronting a tangled mess of intellectual property rights and legal jeopardy over ownership of their own languages.

“She was a master speaker and just a kind-hearted person who would have helped anyone, and that’s how most of the people in these communities are — which makes it that much more infuriating,” says Thornton. “But it got me to thinking about how Indian people are exploited, so we wanted to create tools for Tribes to take back their languages and the intellectual property rights that go with that.”

Shortly thereafter, he and his wife, Kara, founded Thornton Media, Inc., with a single mission: To build digital platforms for Tribes to preserve and teach their languages over which they retain sole control and ownership. 

“We don’t own anything, that is the founding principle of this company,” says Thornton. “We create apps and language learning software that the Tribes own with all proceeds going to teach the language.”

Starting with his own language, Thornton developed a program for Cherokee speakers with Nintendo’s DSi handheld game console. As technology advanced, however, Nintendo began dropping third-party developers, so Thornton Media began developing language apps for cell phones and tablets.

“We were the first Indigenous language app on both the Apple and Android operating systems,” says Thornton, who started his career as a filmmaker before switching to software development for language preservation. “We also host apps on our servers, but over two-thirds of our Tribal clients have their own developer accounts so they can host their own software and release the apps themselves.”

Before going into a community, Thornton’s team first does several months of intense pre-production so that when they arrive, the app is pre-built and ready for community input and completion. At the start of the week, the team works with community members to record audio and take pictures, which are then sent to a graphic artist for editing and upload to the app. 

“The community chooses 100 percent of the content,” says Thornton, “and we are able to provide different levels of learning, including Master-Apprentice, Total Physical Response (TPR), as well as quizzes for listening, speaking, reading and writing.”

By the end of the week, the app contains photos of community members and audio of their voices, which has become an important component of the company’s work, says Thornton, because it helps users take ownership of the app that they helped create. The team and the community then go over the entire app to check for errors and work out any technical issues, says Thornton. 

“We work with a lot of amazing elders and we are keenly aware of the fact that Native languages are dying off at a rapid rate,” says Thornton. “So we’re always very heartened to see all of the people working hard to save their languages.”

Today, Thornton Media has worked with over 250 Tribal communities throughout the United States and Canada to develop customized software that is helping to preserve ancient Indigenous languages from Alaska to Maine. 

“We’d like Indigenous communities to be stronger as a result of our work — that’s our guiding principle, because language and culture are so intertwined,” says Thornton. “So it’s wonderful to see everyone from 90-year-olds to children playing with these apps for hours, studying them over and over. That’s why we love what we do.”