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Aboriginal Story in Digital Media
by Cheryl L'Hirondelle
17.1 - September
âcimowin: a story, true story, account, report, news; what is being told.1
Let me tell you a story - not as it was literally told to me, but as it was lived by example by my mother and her mother before her, from the very beginning...
This issue of HorizonZero comes to you from minirpah (a placename which means "waterfall" in the Nakoda language), more commonly known as the town of Banff, in the land now called Canada. It was created on land where the Siksika Nations once hunted and gathered, near the place the Stoney Nation now resides.
Though produced on Stoney land, the creative direction for this issue comes from myself - a mixed-blood woman of Metis, Cree, German, and Polish ancestry - and my two most respected advisors, Maria Campbell and Joseph Naytowhow, in collaboration with the HorizonZero team (to whom I am most grateful for their excellence). The founding vision of TELL therefore resides in a predominantly Cree point of view (nêhiyawin), though we have sought to move from that starting point toward a position of inclusion, by seeking the participation of storytellers and worldviews originating from communities scattered across Canada, North America, and beyond.
It pleases me to welcome you to TELL using a word from the Cree language: tawâw, meaning "welcome, there's room". In much of the northern hemisphere, where nêhiyawak ("cree people") and ayisi-iyiniwak (other indigenous beings) reside, it is approaching storytelling season. During the last warm(ish) days of Autumn, we prepare for the long winter nights and impending cold to come: gathering food and supplies, and arranging shelter and warmth. This is an important time when food and medicines from mother earth are harvested to keep us fed and healthy throughout the cold, dark times and into the next year. The winter season is important in our life cycle, because it is the time when we tell stories; when we invoke metaphors encoded with truths, histories, and magic in order to understand our roles and responsibilities on the planet, seeking always to move toward balance and harmony. Over time, through the ongoing repetition of hearing and telling, we breathe and live these storied truths. They provide us with strength during hard times, and with a sense of deeper understanding, allowing us to continue to survive, adapt, and flourish.
It seems appropriate, then, that I would take a moment to tell part of my own story - where I come from, and the passage that has brought me to this place - in order to introduce and contextualize my role as Guest Creative Director for this issue about Aboriginal storytelling in digital media. By doing so, I hope to engage my readers to experience TELL's many essays and interactives, which range from straightforward exercises in telling a good story, to advanced critical discussions covering topics like intellectual property, languages at risk, science and mythology, the use of narrative in new disciplines and technologies, and how modern tellers are translating their stories through virtual time and space to engage with contemporary listeners.
pê-âcimohk ("come and witness / hear a story")
Like me the land had changed, my peace I would have to search within myself. That is when I decided to write about my life. I am not very old, so perhaps some day, when I too am a grannie, I will write more. I write this for all of you, to tell you what it is like to be a halfbreed woman in our country. I want to tell you about the joys and sorrows, the oppressing poverty, the frustrations and dreams. (Maria Campbell, Halfbreed, 1973)
In early 1994, I was invited to participate in Drum Beats to Drum Bytes, a think tank held at The Banff Centre, produced by Sara Diamond, Loretta Todd, and Marjorie Beaucage (of the Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance), and coordinated by multimedia artist and writer Ahasiw Maskegon Iskwew. The meeting brought together many brilliant artists, technologists, and thinkers (including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Russell Wallace, Glenn Morrison, George Baldwin, Carla Roberts, Gary Trujillo, Alfred Lindlater, Rocky Paul-Wiseman, Joane Cardinal-Schubert) to brainstorm around the possibilities - and limitations - of the Internet as a medium for Aboriginal expression.
Not long after the think tank, I began working as an Aboriginal liaison with the consensus-building, cross-cultural curriculum initiative Kids from Kanata. [Link no longer active http://www.kidsfromkanata.org/~kfk/] I even lived in Toronto under the same roof as the server: a UNIX machine run by the project's founder, the musician and Internet visionary Jon Ord. It was fascinating to be physically located at an important node of the Internet amidst programmers, sysops, and ethernet cables, and so be provided with a unique view toward the future of communication. Under the project's mandate, I spent many an evening being an "Internet auntie" to young Metis boys in northern Manitoba, using the chat feature on the FirstClass software that the project was beta testing.
Around that same time, my mom also proved her ingenious adaptability and inventiveness by creating a shared virtual space for us, using the communication technologies that she was familiar with. For several years, she faxed me weekly letters and stories from a food fare located near her home in northwest Calgary - the same place where we had regularly met in person for several years prior to my move to Toronto, so that she could tell me family stories.
By late 1995, I was ready for an extreme change of locale, and accepted an invitation from writer/artist/programmer Lynn Acoose (of the now defunct Circle Vision Arts Corporation) to become an artist-in-residence at Wapimon, the first on-reserve artist run centre in the northern Saskatchewan bush. I had previously received a small grant from the Toronto Arts Council to compose a cycle of songs dealing with urban indigenous identity. My intent in accepting the placement was simply to help out where I could - writing grants and developing programming for the centre, composing some new songs about urban Aboriginal identity based on ceremonial and classical (ie, indian-style) song forms, and hopefully learning the language (nêhiyawêwin - "cree language") of my mother and my nohkompan ("grandmother") while residing on the same river system (the Beaver) originally occupied by my askiy ohci iyiniwak ("people of the land" aka Metis/Cree) ancestors.
Soon after arriving in northern Saskatchewan, I met, played music with, and very briefly dated (the entire courtship consisted of a piece of cherry pie consumed one early winter night at the local truck stop) newly appointed Meadow Lake Tribal Council (MLTC) storyteller-in-residence Joseph Naytowhow. [Link no longer active http://ndnnrkey.net/nikamok/josephbio.html] This talented and kind-hearted Woodlands Cree language speaker, singer/songwriter, storyteller, and oskâpêwis ("elder's helper; helper at ceremonies") had been contracted to work in a half-time position to promote storytelling and music projects within the nine MLTC First Nation communities.
Joseph and I soon moved in together, forming a partnership that, over a five-year period, found us making music and storytelling (largely as the singing/drumming/storytelling duo Nikamok), as well as producing the tours of other authors and musicians. We co-founded a fine arts festival and a local writing group named kikâyasiw ("industrious, hard working"). We also edited and distributed a monthly newsletter containing stories from kisêyiniwak ("elders, wise old people"), games, and other storytelling aids for teachers.
After two years, I found that I had developed a good rapport with the local Elders, and had acquired many stories. So Joseph and I became co-storytellers in residence with the MLTC. Together, we eventually produced two hands-on, youth based video projects, and a Web site archive of elders' stories called Dene/Cree Elderspeak. [http://collections.ic.gc.ca/tales/] Our ideas for new projects were always inspired by the needs expressed by local old people, youth, educators, and others from the MLTC First Nation community. These projects were produced with the generous support of the Chief and Council, as well as various other arts and culture funding programs to which we gained access.
Aboriginal Voices, Digital Media
We don't want to be roadkill on the information superhighway. (Randy Ross)2
To this day, my project-based collaborations with Joseph Naytowhow continue (though our romantic partnership does not). I have immense respect for his ability to think, create, and speak from the perspective of a Cree worldview. As one of the cultural advisors to TELL, he brings immense insight, clarity, and optimism, as well as a distinctive openness to any storytelling medium - digital or otherwise - which allows an indigenous point of view to be sounded and shared with all our relations.
Maria Campbell is TELL's other esteemed cultural advisor. Her work producing and directing videos of Metis stories has been extensive, and her book Halfbreed represents an historic document validating the existence and struggle of Metis people in Canada. Many years ago, it also provided me with the key to my own family stories. After reading her text (crying all the while), I began taking my mother for weekly lunches - I finally had the reference points which allowed me to ask her the questions that were previously too painful to articulate, or answer.
The dedication of both Maria and Joseph to the study of storytelling, kinship, the Cree language and worldview, and our relationships to the land, continue to inspire me and help to further my own personal and artistic explorations. Each of them were solicited at various stages during the creation of TELL, for their advice and opinion about how the content of the edition should be gathered and presented.
It now falls on me to introduce the exciting articles and interactives to be found within this, the September installment of TELL.
Though it is often good to start at the beginning, sometimes it is easier to retrace our footsteps, moving from the present moment backwards. Candice Hopkins' essay Making Things Our Own: The Indigenous Aesthetic in Digital Storytelling begins to do just that, by offering an excellent look at works created during the past ten years by Aboriginal digital artists: artists who (like myself) always seem to have their hands in many different disciplines, and who have been demonstrating how the multi-narrative interactivity of the Web can be used to introduce indigenous cosmologies within the dialogues of the contemporary art world, mass communications, and cultural discourse at large. Similarly, this month's edition of Sara Diamond's column Quintessence provides an overview of the landmark projects, summits, and conferences sponsored over recent years by the various departments at The Banff Centre (and especially the Banff New Media Institute) in order to facilitate this important discourse.
Moving our attention to the present page: alongside this 17.1 edition of Sub-rosa, you will find supporting media clips from two exemplary works by Aboriginal filmmakers. To start with, the work of Zacharias Kunuk and Igloolik-based Isuma Productions has already become legendary, and this outtake from the multi-part Isuma series Nunavut: Our Land shows how ingenious, flexible, and adaptable Aboriginal artists have become when using film and video technologies. This segment from Episode 10: Qaisut (an historical reenactment of life in a 1940s Inuit hunting camp) was originally scripted differently - but when a polar bear showed up on the set unexpectedly, the directors adapted, instructing the actors to stay in character and improvise as the cameras kept rolling: the actors instinctively grabbed their guns in order to capture it and prepare the meat. The result: a gripping piece of on-the-fly storytelling shot in digital video.
The other clip included with this present essay is an outtake from Stories from the Seventh Fire (The Four Seasons Series), an amazing four-part animated video series made by Cree/Metis filmmaker Greg Coyes of Storytellers Productions Inc. Intended for children of all ages, each episode corresponds to one of the four seasons, and presents animal stories and trickster legends told in 2D and 3D digital animation. The 2D portion of the series adapts a visual aesthetic inspired by the paintings of Aboriginal artist Norval Morriseau to tell stories about the Cree trickster wîsahkêcahk (or "Wesakechak") as s/he travels the earth, getting into trouble, learning important lessons, and passing them on to all the earth's creatures. Featured here is a segment from the Autumn episode, Wesakechak and the Medicine.
There are presently thousands of new media initiatives being envisioned by Aboriginal people all around the world. To sample just a few of the important storytelling, language, art, and cultural projects being created today using digital technologies, visit The Spider's Web, an online links section specially created for Issue 17. If you don't find what you are looking for there, then visit Google.com and enter the name of a specific First Nations group, followed by the word "story". The number of successful search results that emerge from such queries is staggering, and tells the tale of how quickly Aboriginal people in North America have embraced the Net to express our unique worldviews.
North America's Aboriginal people aren't the only indigenous persons embracing
digital media. Following from a Cree worldview that values inclusion and a sense
of relatedness ("cree", or nêhiyaw, refers to being "four bodied,
four directional and/or correct speaking"), The Four Directions
is a media sampler that pays homage to the oft-mentioned concept of "all our
relations", by profiling four unique works of storytelling by artists from Africa
(East), Vietnam (West), the UK (North)
and Aotearoa (South). No matter where we come from, we all use storytelling
to convey our unique yet interconnected points of view as we speak ourselves
into being each day, inspiring our selves and our communities to keep moving
forward like wîsahkêcahk, one foot in front of the other.
17.2 - October
My people will sleep for one hundred years. When they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back. (Louis Riel)
As Aboriginal people, we need to remember that our stories convey vital cultural and ceremonial information; they remind us about the laws of nature, how communities must work together, and that we are keepers of the land, songs, dances, narratives, and everything they inspire. It is our role and responsibility as artists to use, develop, and share this information appropriately, for the survival of all.
For Indigenous people around the world, this task is not as simple as it sounds, especially when it comes to embracing new media forms as a means of outreach. One limiting factor relates to concerns about intellectual property and cultural appropriation. Many Aboriginal communities are extremely sensitive and cautious about sharing cultural information too widely, thanks to a long history of intellectual and government infiltrations and abuses. Yet it is my belief that, as Aboriginal people, we should be investigating contemporary open source philosophies and methodologies as an alternative to both time-honoured cultural protocols and binding corporate and governmental laws around intellectual property and copyright. I say this because I think that our abilities to share and adapt are essential to our continued survival.
Besides this, other factors related to rural and remote location, modernization, and connectivity continue to place us on the "have not" side of the digital divide. Although many language-based projects have been carried out by individuals and organizations in North America over the past ten years, very few of these projects have looked at how our languages - the very systems that sound our unique worldviews - may actually be the key to eliminating this divide. In fact, they could have the potential to propel us to the forefront of innovation.
My own interest in this area stems from two notions. To background the first, I'll draw upon an example from some of my own research collecting nêhiyawêwin technological terms in Saskatchewan. When asked to describe what computers do, nêhiyawak Elder Harry Blackbird proposed a term that describes both the hardware component and its inherent process: akihcikê wikamikos, which translates to "little counting shack". My first thought, as illustrated by Blackbird's linguistic adaptability, is that the current lack of attention being paid by programmers to Indigenous communities around the world represents a missed opportunity, because our languages are eloquent, concept and process-based, and fully capable of describing various complicated technological dynamics. If computer code could be redefined to reflect Aboriginal languages from the foundations up, then Aboriginals could potentially become some of the world's leading innovators - indeed, certain processes and concepts inherent to the nêhiyawêwin worldview might be regarded as revolutionary by other programmers.
Secondly, not only do Aboriginal languages generally embody the worldviews of their respective communities within their syntax and structure, many of them (specifically Algonkian languages) are also verb-based: words are built by starting with a root concept, and then adding prefixes and suffixes to infer time, place, and relationship. Because of this, these languages actually function in certain ways that are similar to many programming languages. One can only dream about how digital tools founded in Aboriginal concepts could be used in ways relevant for our collective survival. Certainly, if Aboriginal languages were used as a basis for technological creation, then we would not forget the earth and all her beings, the laws of nature and interconnection, along the way.
In a related vein, Cheryl Bartlett's essay How the Rabbit Got its Long Ears explains how Mi'kmaq cosmology is shaping the University College of Cape Breton's Integrative Science program. The program exists to facilitate collaborations between scientific institutions and Aboriginal communities. By combining objective methodologies with more holistic Indigenous thinking embedded within Mi'kmaq stories, the program's adult and youth participants are introducing new metaphors based on interconnectedness into science's normally reductionist language for explaining the world.
Also among this month's essays is Stories Have Their Way With Us, a wonderful piece from master Tutchone storyteller Louise Profeit-Leblanc. Louise offers up important insights concerning the relationship between teller, audience, and ancestral voices in Aboriginal story, and speaks of the fluidity with which many Aboriginal people accept new technologies as a conduit for spiritual transmissions. Alongside this article, we also feature an evocative audio recording of Louise practicing her craft at the Yukon International Storytelling Festival.
In From Ossossane to Wendake, Guy Sioui Durand discusses the importance of orality within the contemporary practice of notable artists, musicians, and writers from the Huron-Wendat world. Durand explains how their works (including the performances of Yves Sioui Durand, who we've referenced here in video form) are helping to revive a culture almost completely annihilated since the destruction of Huronia in 1649. Durand's article recognizes the talent with which Aboriginal people have been adopting contemporary art forms, digital and otherwise, for expressing Indigenous points of view.
In Summer 2004, The Banff Centre's Aboriginal Arts Program produced a series of storied songs and dances from the Kwakwaka'wakw people of coastal British Columbia. This performance illustrated how ceremonial forms can adapt themselves to less restricted social spheres, and even further into the contemporary art world. In Symphony of Dance, the Aboriginal Arts Program's resident Artistic Director Lou-ann Neel describes how narrative performances such as these are breaking ground in a variety of areas, from the development of new dance vocabularies, to experimentation with new choreographic technologies.
Next, I am pleased to announce this month's bounty of multimedia additions: Firstly, we are thrilled to be featuring the sound work of Haudenosaunee musician and composer Jackson 2Bears [link no longer active www.liminalprojects.org/] throughout this issue. 2Bears has created the evocative and haunting audio tracks that you will hear while exploring the Flash pages of TELL.
Elsewhere, the publication's regular Horizontal gallery features Neal Macleod and Gabriel Yahyahkeekoot's multimedia work wîhtikow city. Originally created in 2003 as a gallery installation for the Mackenzie Art Gallery [link no longer active www.mackenzieartgallery.sk.ca/calendar/view.cgi?cmd=view&event_id=397] in Regina, the piece has been freshly readapted for the digital screen by HorizonZero. Making use of both painted canvas and video, wîhtikow city conveys a terse visual narrative about the continued presence of spiritual forces in the contemporary urban landscape.
Many Indigenous languages are struggling today not to be buried under the weight of the two official tongues of this place now known as Canada. In response, various cultural preservation and research projects, formal and informal, have been combating the problem on a community-by-community basis. Îktomnî and the Mice Pow-wow is just one of the incredible stories that Stoney/Nakoda artist, musician, and cultural coordinator Duane J. Mark has gathered from relatives and community members in and around the vicinity of Morley, Alberta during recent decades. Now rendered as a Web interactive based on Mark's original pen and ink drawings, this trickster tale represents the tip of an inexhaustible mountain of cultural data waiting to be shared by tellers like Mark, whose stated passion is to pass such stories on wherever possible, in order to keep his culture strong.
As mentioned earlier, one of the key projects that I worked on with Joseph Naytowhow during our residency in northern Saskatchewan was Dene / Cree Elderspeak, an online archive of Elder's stories elucidating Dene and Cree cultural values. The Web site that we created in 1999 was state of the art, yet even then online technology wasn't quite ready to do justice to the narrative content, and by 2004 the site was in danger of design obsolescence. The irony for me is that the stories themselves will always outlive technical innovations, whatever the era. That said, it gives me great pleasure to announce that the staff of HorizonZero has worked very hard to refurbish and redesign the original Dene / Cree Elderspeak site, ensuring that these stories will continue to be retold online for many years to come. Joseph recently asked Harry Blackbird, one of the original project Elders, how he felt about seeing his telling repeated in this new format. Harry replied by expressing his feeling that the stories need to be told again and again, to as many people as possible, lest we forget their importance as repositories of culture and knowledge.
TELL is our giveaway to you. It is our great pleasure to share these stories, languages, and worldviews from across the four directions: nêhiyawak, Dene, Haudenosaunee, Kwakwaka'wakw, Nakoda, Dakota, Tutchone, Huron-Wendat, Tlinget, Inuit, Mik'maq, Metis, Wolof, Vietnamese, Celtic, and Maori. Countless others would have found their place here too, if only there had been time and resources.
Internet and digital technologies are becoming conduits for sharing our uniqueness as Indigenous peoples with the whole wide world, so that they may witness our multiplicity of experience and voice, our relevance and resilience, and our talent for survival - in harmony and moving always toward a good life. And so we again say tawâw - welcome to our humble little counting shack. Stay as long as you like. Come back often. Enjoy the data it contains. Most importantly, stay warm, well fed, and in good company throughout the coming seasons!
Cheryl L'Hirondelle (waynohtêw) [www.ndnnrkey.net] is the Guest Creative Director for Issue 17: TELL. She is an Alberta-born interdisciplinary artist of mixed ancestry (Cree / Metis / German / Polish). Since the early 1980s, she has created, performed, and presented work in a variety of disciplines (music, storytelling, performance art, theatre, video, and net.art). Her new media projects have included artinjun, [http://www.artinjun.ca] A Question of Place, [http://askiy.banff.org] Dene/Cree Elderspeak, [http://collections.ic.gc.ca/tales/] and contributions to Ahasiw Maskegon Iskwew's landmark Internet project isi-pîkiskwêwin-ayapihkêsîsak ("Speaking the Language of Spiders"). [www.snacc.mb.ca/projects/spiderlanguage/] She has also worked as an arts programmer, cultural strategist/activist, arts consultant, producer, and director - independently and with various artist-run centres, tribal councils, and government agencies. Her latest project treatycard [http://treatycard.banff.org] will be part of the Walter Phillips Gallery's November, 2004 exhibition Database Imaginary.
1. Arok Wolvengrey, nêyhiyawêwin: itwêwina ("Cree: Words"); Volume 1: Cree - English, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2001.
2. Ahasiw Maskegon Iskwew, The Moccasin Telegraph Goes High-Tech, in: Talking Stick Magazine, Volume 1, Number 3, 1994.