Telling Indigenous Stories through Digital Media

 

My mother is from the Amis (or Amei, 阿美, in Chinese) tribe of the coastal plains in southeastern Taiwan. Her people are one of the 13 officially recognized indigenous groups on the island (though there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of "unofficial" tribal communities that have existed throughout Taiwan's history.) To me, my Amis family represents a culture of dancing, eating, fishing and, of course, singing. (In the world's consciousness, the Amis people were made famous by Enigma's 1994 hit single, "Return to Innocence," which featured a traditional Amis drinking song.) My strongest memories of my Amis upbringing consist of eavesdropping on my mother's long-distance phone calls back home to her family, when she would speak in her mother tongue, drawing out vowels in words that I couldn't understand for emphasis about how faaaar or how diiiificult or how fuuunny something was. There were no letter or emails. The only way of communicating, in her culture, is through the spoken word. Sadly, I never learned the language, save for a few words and phrases like "I love you" and "beautiful" and "fart" (there are actually two different kinds!)

Like many aboriginal societies, the Amis rely on a strong oral tradition to sustain their language, customs, traditions and beliefs. I've become increasingly curious about the role of digital media in preserving this history of indigenous storytelling.

In his review of the book, "Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics," author Michael Marker examines the role of "indigeneity" in a globalized, media-rich world.

In the early days of Indigenous participation in digital media, many elders and traditional people worried that sacred and protected knowledge would be degraded and stolen in media productions. Those concerns have not gone away, and for good reason: Indigenous peoples have a terrible history of being crushed under the machinery and tangled in the circuitry of modernity’s technological progress. The question of who controls the design, production, and distribution of Indigenous media remains.

While many elders, community leaders, and Indigenous scholars may still critique digital technology’s hegemonic properties, there is now an awareness among them that Indigenous communities must either represent themselves and create media that reflect their identities and desires or they will be misrepresented by a media industry that has processed and sold Indigenous knowledge as a commodity. Moreover, isolation can be dangerous for Indigenous groups in regions where military or paramilitary violence threatens their survival.

From my own experience with my aboriginal Taiwanese heritage, I've seen cultures turned into caricatures, natives turned into stereotypes, tribes turned into fads. A 2008 trip to Taiwan, for example, led me to the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village near Sun Moon Lake-a popular tourist destination. The outlandish theme park (complete with amusement rides and arcade games) is a confusing mix of tourism, entertainment and cultural education, including song-and-dance shows and prototypes of "traditional" houses, costumes and other artifacts. Visiting such a gaudy site made me wonder to what extent did the indigenous people the park is supposed to represent have a say in how their narrative was actually being told?

In his book review, Marker continues to say that "Indigenous filmmakers, animators, multimedia artists, and political activists have seized the moment to create works that validate Indigenous reality" and created "a united vision to decolonize Indigenous imaginations."

Under this assumption, here are a few digital media resources I've found that are dedicated to indigenous storytelling as a path to help revive or strengthen indigenous communities:

Indigenous Tweets http://indigenoustweets.com/

This online project, launched in March 2011, helps preserve indigenous languages through Twitter.  The site, created by St. Louis-based linguistics professor Kevin Patrick Scannell, collects tweets from more than 100 languages. "These range from better-known tongues such as Haitian Creole and Basque to the downright esoteric Gamilaraay, an Australian indigenous language with approximately three living speakers," according to this profile in Fast Company.

Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC) http://www.abtec.org/

This online network, based out of Concordia University in Montreal, shares tools that allow for the creation of new "Aboriginally-determined territories within the web-pages, online games, and virtual environments that we call cyberspace." Some of its projects include Skins, a video game workshop  "to empower Native youth to be more than just consumers of new technologies by showing them how to be producers of them"; and TimeTraveller, an interactive 3D game and cinematic production that tells the story of  "an angry young Mohawk man" named Hunter, coping with life in an "overcrowded, hyperinflated, technologized world of the 22nd century."

ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival http://www.imaginenative.org/index.php?y=99

This annual international festival in Toronto celebrates the latest creative and artistic work of indigenous people in film, video, radio and new media.

Sharing Stories http://www.sharingstories.com.au/

This digital online project teaches young people in remote indigenous communities in Australia, India and Peru how to produce and upload their own online content.

nDigiDreams http://www.ndigidreams.com

This woman-owned consulting and training company specializes in "instructional technology and digital storytelling with a focus on health, education, policy, and cultural preservation." The firm helps produce 3- to 5-minute personal narrative videos for indigenous individuals across the United States.

I know there are hundreds more projects worth mentioning! Please help me add to this list and share your resources in the comments below or send me an email: erica [at] benevolentmedia [dot] org.