Audio-Visual Media and Indigenous Communities

Videos are one of the most popular – and most powerful – ways of disseminating and discussing information. It has been used in some wonderful ways to showcase Indigenous communities for documentaries, re-mixing, and preservation.

The first video that comes to mind for me is a music video done for the song “Cups” (original in 2012 done by Lulu and the Lampshades, remade by Anna Kendricks). The song is performed by Berens River School in the Berens River First Nations community in Manitoba. The effect is beautiful, and it shows some of the issues with reservation life in Canada.

Open source video software is fairly common, with some breakdowns of different options available on various websites. This one, which is called “A Quick Guide to the 5 Best Open Source Video Editing Software” was one I found particularly helpful for beginners, as it runs through some format options as well.

Examples of indigenous conservation through videos is extensive, but an excellent place to start is the National Geographic “Enduring Voices” video and image section. As I sort through more options, I will update this page of the blog.

As a quick aside, I also wanted to bring up an article that was published in The New Yorker on November 17, 2014: “Could a Video Game Help to Preserve Inuit Culture?” The article is worth a read for the content alone, but if there is anyone interested in making their own video game, there is open source software for that too! “How to Make a Video Game (Experience Not Required)” looks at a few open-source and affordable options.



Indigenous Languages

Indigenous languages worldwide are suffering from the long-term effects of colonialism, assimilation, and population decimation. About 50% of the world’s languages are facing extinction because of these threats and more, and Indigenous communities are, by far, the biggest victims. National Geographic’s “Enduring Voices” project showcases the state of language extinction worldwide in this map, which serves to underscore how huge of an issue this is.

While I have been peripherally aware that this was an issue for a long time, this summer I had the opportunity to go to the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, Canada. They opened a new permanent exhibit called Our Living Languages. It focuses on First Nations populations in BC, their languages, and has an interactive map that shows you the population of each Nation, and an estimate of how many members can still speak their language. Very few of those estimates exceeded 5%. It also showed that British Columbia is home to over 203 First Nations communities and well over a dozen distinct languages – almost 60% of the Indigenous languages in Canada. The compounded cultural loss is unimaginable.

Language is a personal identifier, so much so that some, such as French, have had governmental bodies put in place to regulate additions to the language, in fear that it will be homogenized. The loss of Indigenous languages worldwide should be treated just as seriously.

After starting this blog, I wondered about open access software for First Nations languages that would help members of those communities maintain that cultural connection. There are several journals and studies that are available in parts of the world, such as the Language Conservation & Documentation Journal from Hawaii, and the Pangloss Collection based out of Noumea in New Caledonia. The Pangloss Collection is interesting as it is an archive of language examples from around the world which have been made accessible by the public. It focuses on Oceanic dialects, and only Acadian [French-dialect] and Inuktitut have been catalogued from Canada.

Which brings me to the “Living Tongues” project, started in Chile and Peru around 2010. This is the basis of the “Enduring Voices” project discussed earlier, and the project has been focusing on language conservation through technology for several years. Their “Adopt-A-Language” section allows you to donate a specific language group you would like to support. They have also had success with projects such as Chamacoco Talking Dictionary, an online resource that allows you to search for words in either English or Spanish and hear them spoken by a native speaker for that region.

Another project that doesn’t necessarily focus on language, but certainly could impact that goal is Indigitization, a University of British Columbia initiative that supplies First Nations communities with a toolkit for the digitization and preservation of audio recordings. While it doesn’t feature language preservation as an outright goal, it might be a great fringe benefit.

However, I could not find language-specific toolkits, which is a project that I would love to see come into play in Canada, as well as elsewhere around the world, as soon as possible. I think that toolkits offer a degree of control and empowerment that having a project like “Living Tongues” come into a community and do the documentation doesn’t allow. Moreover, when a community can take resources and use them themselves instead of relying on a third party, there is less risk of feeling obligated to make those materials available openly when they may not want to. Furthermore, with the “Living Tongues” program, I could not find any documentation that says whether those materials were archived with the organization or with the communities, where as a toolkit would leave no doubt as to the ownership of those materials.

Open or Appropriate?

This post is a bit of house-keeping I wanted to start off with, as anytime someone is talking about a cultural community they don’t belong to, there can be some tensions.

One of the biggest questions in any initiative for Indigenous communities that begins outside of that community is whether it is appropriate. Open access movements are no different, and in many cases the term “appropriate access” is far more suitable.

Why? Many indigenous cultures have suffered throughout centuries, being subjugated, disempowered, discriminated against, and more. In Canada, this is a huge topic of tension – as it should be – and it means that misappropriation is a constant issue that must be addressed. I know that this issue has been on the news recently in other countries as well, such as the open discussion around feathered headdresses worn by music festival attendees.

It can be easy to dismiss concerns about misappropriation, as it can be done without thinking, or even as a misdirected show of respect or admiration of another culture. An excellent article that I found explained the difference between showing your interest in, or admiration for, another culture without taking an image or ideology that does not belong to you can be found here:  “Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation” by Jarune Uwujaren.

Cultural exchange, or cultural preservation, is a much better goal for open access movements when dealing with indigenous groups. Ensuring that the communities involved are the ones creating, directing access to, and providing any information about themselves is the most important aspect of that.

Some excellent further reading on Cultural Exchange can be found at:

  • The Provincial Health Services Authority of British Columbia’s Indigenous Cultural Competency Training Program ***[please note: this is not open access, as all net proceeds go to support the program, including resources, conferences, workshops, etc.]***
  • The Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) Aboriginal Cultural Awareness Training resources. Intended to inform GNWT employees, their modules are available for public viewing and are an excellent basis.
  • The Aboriginal Construction Careers website offers a great deal of information on a variety of cultural tensions in Canada and how to work within them appropriately. Most of it is applicable to any industry. It also has a section on creating an Aboriginal Employment Initiatives. It was funded by the Government of Canada’s Aboriginal Skills and Training Strategic Investment Fund.


Some cultural exchange programs that focus both on inter-Indigenous and on Indigenous/non-Indigenous exchanges:

  • Canadian Roots – program works with both First Nations communities from throughout Canada, and with Universities and the YMCA to foster workshops, conferences, and exchanges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth.
  • University of Lethbridge [Calgary, AB, Canada], and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology [Melbourne, VIC, Australia] have a long-standing Artist in Resident exchange program that focuses on the artistic exchange of cultural influences from their respective Indigenous communities.

I’ll add more information as I come across it!