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Can mobile tech kits help ‘recover’ indigenous culture and knowledge?

Submitted on Wednesday, July 07, 2021

Researchers at the Faculty of Information have begun assembling mobile research kits designed especially for Indigenous communities in the Great Lakes region looking to recover and rejuvenate Indigenous cultural knowledge, artistic practices and languages.

The 20 identical backpack kits – which include “rugged laptops” equipped for mobile broadband, audio and video recording equipment, and virtual and augmented reality headsets and 360゚cameras – mean that community participants “can do digital cultural heritage work on the land,” says Cara Krmpotich, Associate Professor of Museum Studies at the Faculty of Information, and a Primary Investigator on this research project.

“The idea is that the same technologies we might use in an urban setting should also be available to our research partners in their communities. They don’t have to come to Toronto to have access to the equipment and to do the work they want to do.”

Associate Professor Cara Krmpotich

Professor Cara Krmpotich is co-director of the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures, which was an early innovator in “digital reunification”

According to Krmpotich, digital media already comprise an active, creative, frequented space for Indigenous social, linguistic, cultural, and political communication and knowledge-sharing. The Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures (GRASAC) – of which Krmpotich is co-director – was an early innovator in methods for “digital reunification.” It designed a database to reunite material heritage from the Great Lakes – dispersed globally among museums, archives and researchers’ collections – with Indigenous communities in the region.

The current goal to mobilize the next generation to create digital media and art and support creative practice in communities that moves beyond digital cataloguing. The self-contained kits have been designed to allow a variety of work from very basic activities such as scanning family photographs to more experimental VR work including doing a walkthrough of the bush while gathering birch bark.

“The idea of doing digital cultural work is to digitally reunite cultural belongings that are in museums with the lands, the water, the people and the animals and plants that they were originally connected with – those home places and home environments,” says Krmpotich.

Research partners in the mobile research kits project include students and professors from UofT, members of the Rama and Nipissing First Nations as well as Anishinaabeg artists and professors from Michigan State University. All are current members of GRASAC, whose active research relationships extend throughout the Great Lakes and globally. Associate Professor Heidi Bohaker in U of T’s Department of History, helped to create GRASAC and is currently its co-director as well as being a co-investigator on the mobile research kits project.

Anishinaabe birch bark container

Digital cultural work can digitally reunite items like this Anishinaabe birch bark container with their home environments. Photo courtesy of GRASAC.*

The kits are being put together this summer with an eye to delivering them and training users in the fall. The student research assistants currently building the kits will also assist in training community partners when the backpacks start being delivered in the fall. “Sharing digital capacity supports self-representation, self-determination, and creative expression, which are all essential components of cultural heritage work,” says Krmpotich.

Target audiences include Indigenous artists and language learners; primary, secondary and post-secondary teachers in Ontario; and curators and academic researchers stewarding Great Lakes cultural heritage and knowledge.

While Krmpotich emphasizes that digital practices are in no way intended to replace physical ones, she says, “The pandemic has really opened up communities to experiment with digital methods – that’s what these kits are all about. I think people will welcome the ability to not simply be doing Zoom but to create collectively with digital tools.”

What’s in the mobile kits

  • Digital SLR cameras
  • Raspberry pis
  • VR/AR headsets and 360゚cameras
  • Portable scanners
  • Audio recording equipment
  • “Rugged” laptops equipped for mobile broadband

*Anishinaabe birch bark container with lid, with geese and thistle motifs scraped into bark. Collected at Tamagami, Nipissing district, Ontario; made in 1914, purchased by museum in 1946. Current location: Peabody Essex Museum. Catalogue/Accession Number or Reference: E26284. (GKS Record ID: 45091)

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