PABLO – What Jonathon Richter and Erik Samsoe are doing at Salish Kootenai College – integrating the names Indian peoples gave to places in western Montana with Google Earth – is pretty cool.
Where they hope to take it is far beyond that.
Imagine, for instance, driving U.S. Highway 93 on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where many signs show the native language place names, and using a smartphone app to hear the correct pronunciation and watch a video that tells the story of that place from the perspective of a tribal elder.
Or strapping on a virtual reality headset and feeling like you’re standing at the Place of the Sleeping Baby, now known as Sleeping Child Hot Springs, in the Bitterroot Valley. Look at it from every direction while an elder explains the significance of the place to the Salish people.
“The three trends we’re experiencing in new media are social media, gaming and storytelling,” says Richter, chairman of SKC’s media design department. “The coming wave is an immersive type where you’re fully surrounded” by what you’re accessing.
Richter and Samsoe, an adjunct instructor at the tribal college, are excited about the possibilities of sharing ancient stories handed down through the centuries in ways no one dreamed possible not long ago.
“What I think is really cool,” Samsoe says, “is we’re not telling a new story. We’re telling the same story, but enriching the layers of how it can be told.”
It begins with the Salish Homelands Place Names Project.
Richter and Samsoe met with Alec Quequesah, a Salish language instructor at SKC and member of the Salish Cultural Council, to discuss the potential of using Salish place names in Google Earth as a platform for digital storytelling.
Now on a computer screen, Samsoe can bring up the Google Earth images of western Montana, and you can see what Native Americans called places, from “Waters of the Red Osier Dogwood” (the Bitterroot Valley) to the “Place of Big Bull Trout” (the old Milltown Dam site).
There’s Wide Cottonwoods (today’s Stevensville), Trail to the Nez Perce (now known as U.S. Highway 12), Waters of the Pocket Gopher (the Big Hole) and Two Valleys Coming Together to Make One Little Valley (Pattee Canyon).
What they want to do, with the help of SKC media design students, is create and embed media within the place names.
Users would be a click away from seeing or hearing the name spoken in Salish, or reading the history of it, or watching a YouTube video of a tribal elder telling the stories associated with the place that have been passed down through the generations.
“We’re not going anywhere without the full collaboration of tribal elders and leaders,” Richter says.
Samsoe and Richter are busy applying for grants – including one from Google Earth – that would help them take the place names project to greater heights, and interact with massive data bases.
“When we’re done, every place would have something to engage people,” Richter says. If your media is not already engaging users, he says, you’ll be left in the dust of rapidly changing technology.
Richter’s department already has an Oculus Rift, a head-mounted virtual reality display that has a consumer-oriented version in development.
With it, they see the day someone could take a virtual reality tour of the Salish peoples’ homelands, or even an augmented reality tour. The latter is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment, with the elements augmented by computer-generated sensory input (sound, video, graphics, etc.).
“Place-based technologies will explode in the next three years,” Richter says, “and augmented reality is projected to grow 300 percent in the next three years. It’s one technology wave it would behoove the entire state to catch, because it’s place-based, and Montana is all about place.”
Sound ambitious? It is.
“We’re poised to do the work, but we’ll definitely need some resources to be able to do this,” Richter says. We have an ambitious grants calendar we’re pursuing.”
What Richter and Samsoe have started, they envision spreading – to other tribes across the continent, and to indigenous peoples from Alaska to New Zealand.
“There’s no reason we can’t structure a global network,” says Samsoe, who also runs his own consulting firm, Organismic Partners. “It’s a resource that will continue to get developed over time.”
In addition to his SKC duties, meantime, Richter is also an adjunct assistant professor and research associate at the University of Montana, and is still affiliated with the Center for Advanced Technology in Education at the University of Oregon, where he was for five years before being recruited to SKC.
He is also talking with UM faculty about the possibility of an articulation agreement that would allow SKC students who obtain their associate degree to easily transfer to UM’s media arts program to pursue their bachelor’s.
Since arriving in Pablo in 2012, Richter has revised the tribal college’s media design program to include courses such as Digital Storytelling, Social Media and Game Development, and 3D Modeling.
Now, they want to put such classes to good use – engaging audiences using emerging technology and social media to tell stories, and teach languages and customs, that are thousands of years old.