Teaching Indigenous Youth to Imagine and Create their Own Futuristic 3D Digital Environments

Here at the Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF) and Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), we are dedicated to Indigenous perspectives and imaginings of the future. In my research as a Master of Design student, I examine interactive practices of Indigenous peoples, especially of my own Tuscarora Nation. By developing a better understanding of the principles behind cultural practices, such as wampum belts and traditional games, we can better understand how to utilize modern technology as a tool in which we can embed our contemporary culturally perspectives for future generations. What I have observed is that visions of the future imaginary and alternative realities can be realized through numerous forms of media.

I recently represented AbTeC/IIF as an assistant instructor during a mini workshop series led by Stéphane Nepton and Andrea Gonzalez, co-founders of Uhu labos nomades. Uhu labos nomades is a non-profit that supports the perseverance and academic success of Indigenous Youth through digital arts immersion workshops and conferences; hosted both in schools and in community. Uhu places great importance on issues related to low retention rates, loss of identity, and sustaining cultural health. They focus on the enhancement, dissemination, and transmission of Aboriginal culture through digital arts, which is for them an essential bridge between elders and the current generation.

Uhu collaborated with Native Montreal and Concordia’s Office of Community Engagement (OCE) to assemble a 4-part workshop series that introduced Indigenous Youth to the process of imagining and creating their own 3D environments, complete with visual effects such as weather. Uhu, with the help of the OCE, reached out to us about the workshops. There were eight Youth who participated in the workshops of varying backgrounds with little to no experience in digital media creation. Specials guests, Jason Edward Lewis and Skawennati, co-founders and co-directors of AbTeC and IIF, greeted the participants one day and provided a tour of IIF’s creative headquarters. This was an exciting opportunity for participants to see where we build our digital imaginings, experience one-on-one time to ask questions about our creative process, and gain some insight into the collaborative environment of Indigenous future-making. With Stéphane’s instruction, participants took a hands-on approach to creating a world of their own imagining with virtual 3D tools.

When the time came for the first workshop, Mother Nature had imagined her own visual effects and sent a radical blizzard to welcome each of us! However, the storm didn’t stop our dedicated participants! Eager to dive into some digital-3D fun, several participants arrived, including two who came all the way from Quebec City! Stéphane, a professional visual effects artist, demonstrated the creative and persuasive abilities that visual effects could have in a viewer’s experience with digital works of art. Visual effects are illusions and manipulated imagery that have been added to a videogame’s gameplay that give the gamer a more life-like or immersed experience. Examples of common visual effects in games are animated elements such as smoke, fire, rain, fog, or any kind particle emissions such as sparks and fireworks. Stéphane demonstrated that  visual effects can in fact be a self-standing work of art.

Participants learned how to use free gaming engines to create digital 3D worlds as a form of expressing oneself in a virtual environment. Using premade 3D models such as mountain faces, rocky terrains, and other earth textures—provided by Stéphane—students assembled landscapes of their own desire and imagining. Students who had next to no experience in using computer programs gained competencies; by the end of this series, they had no problem performing basic 3D building tasks and creating special effects.

Once the students had learned how to create a basic 3D environment, they were then introduced to how to simulate weather, fire, snow, rain, and wind. Stéphane walked participants through  customizing 3D effects tools to realize the designs they had in mind. The results resembled futuristic depictions of landscapes typically associated with Indigenous nations in the Great Plains such as teepee villages; these designs juxtaposed themes of old and new knowledge and practices within a single environment. Students shaped their landscapes to imagine environments with unique narratives, what feel like multiple visions of alternative realities.

In the end, participants had an exciting time expressing themselves through these 3D digital tools, and some even informed us that they had downloaded the software to carry on their work at home, developing their environment and imagining new ones! Native Montreal and Uhu labos nomades hosted a brief awards event to showcase the students’ work and to recognize the unique qualities each student displayed in the workshops. Attendees could experience the worlds through a virtual reality headset; this gave both the creators and audience an entirely new, life-like encounter with the artworks.

For my part, it was exciting to be part of the students’ digital environments and the environment of the classroom and maker-setting. The collaborative makerspace that we shared as learners and media makers reflected how AbTeC and IIF create camaraderie and support in imagining futures together as Indigenous peoples. Being part of this experience, sharing these digital tools while empowering each other to imagine and create futuristic digital environments, serves as a good reminder  to imagine and create our own Indigenous futures here in the real world.

Leveling Up! with Waylon Wilson

Waylon Wilson, Tuscarora Nation

MDes Student, Master of Design Program

Department of Design and Computation Arts

Waylon Wilson at Concordia University, 2018

It was in the last few years of my Bachelor of Arts at the University at Buffalo (UB) that I really began exploring interactive forms of media. I discovered the digital world of 3D environments, video games, mobile applications, 3D printing, and even dabbled in wearable electronics. I come from a vast digital media background, but before UB I mainly focused on digital video and audio production. Now that I’m entering my second semester as a Master of Design student here at Concordia University, I’ve really begun to  focus on experimental game development and to explore the outcomes of designing for this technology as Indigenous people.

Gameplay Screenshot of Cawak, 2016

My work aims to embed critical Indigenous thought into interactive media by exploring various realms of technology and what these tools have to offer us as Indigenous media makers and consumers. The digital flood of technology immerses us daily in wave after wave of new gadgets and applications and it is up to us whether we want to embrace this technology or not. Indigenous people often have stigmas associated with using digital technology, especially when it comes to our more traditional knowledge and practices. I’m exploring how these technologies can enhance our ways of thinking as Indigenous people. My goal is to find useful ways to integrate this technology into our lives to as an ongoing practice of our traditional knowledge rather than have it act as an intrusion or hindrance to these ways of knowing.

Character Design for Ekwehewe The Real People, 2017

Gameplay Screenshot of Ekwehewe The Real People, 2017

In order to better understand where Indigenous-determined uses of technology can take us, I look to the ways Indigenous peoples have always engaged with media and technology. As a citizen of the Tuscarora Nation, I draw on the visual and interactive designs in our Haudenosaunee beadwork, wampum, carvings, and other objects used to embed our stories and teachings. The media we use to document our teachings are never only media objects, but are used on a daily basis and meant to be interacted with. Some of these designs are kept with us on a daily basis such as the beadwork we wear or etchings carved into pottery. Other media forms such as wampum belts include more complicated interactive designs and can be interacted with in different ways; they can be read from the front, the back, upside down, and even looped around to connect back to itself in an infinite cycle.

Gameplay Screenshot of Nuya! NuYa! A Tuscarora Exploratory Game, 2018

Our grandmothers and grandfathers were intuitive visual and interactive designers. I often find myself referencing their complex work and the ongoing critical thinking and practices of our Indigenous peoples to ground myself and inspire my thinking as well. Working as a Research Assistant for the Initiative for Indigenous Futures has been a big help in directing my recent work. I hope that all of us as Indigenous media makers across Turtle Island can begin to level up this digital era we live in together.

Find more information on Waylon and his practice at www.waylonwilson.com

Waylon Wilson at Meaningful Play Conference, Michigan State University, 2018

Introducing Graduate Research Assistant Waylon Wilson!

Waylon Wilson is from the Tuscarora Nation, Deer clan. Raised in the Nyučirhę’e (Tuscarora Nation Territory), Waylon’s culture and nationhood are a critical influence to his research as an experimental game developer, artist, designer, and scholar; to that end, he utilizes his lens as a Tuscarora man to address critical Indigenous and environmental issues.

He is a Master of Design student at Concordia University and recently graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies from University at Buffalo, majoring in production and Game Studies. He is a Co-coordinator and Media Instructor for the Indigenous youth program, Skarùrę’ Awękwehstá:θe:’.

Waylon’s media work centers on encoding critical Indigneous thought and perspectives into interactive forms of media towards education, both on- and off-screen.

You can find more information on Waylon and his portfolio here.