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Preserving Cultural Inheritance Through Computing Technology

T he natural world is sacred to Native American Indians. "The land is our heaven and our wealth," says Jhon Goes In Center, a Lakota Indian who is president of Innovative GIS Solutions in Fort Collins, Colorado. For generations, a simple yet rich spiritual life centered on the soil, sky, mountains, plants, and animals has been passed down through prayer, ceremony, and art. But during this same time, Indian treasures central to cultural practices--including artifacts, art objects, and remains--have disappeared, retained by federal, state, and local governments, and by universities and museums. Peoples seeking to recover these items have often found it difficult to do so. To bridge the gap, SDSC and UC San Diego's Center for Humanities are helping tribal communities discover how computing technology can provide valuable tools in preserving cultural inheritance.

On May 12, 1999, the two centers sponsored "Tools for Preserving Native American Cultural Traditions," a conference on the UC San Diego campus. The brainchild of artist and UC San Diego Master of Fine Arts student Rosemarie McKeon, a Mescalero Apache Indian, the event brought together researchers, experts in computing technology, and tribal members from across the Southwest. Elementary, junior high, and high school students attended a parallel education track.

"San Diego is home to 17 tribal communities, the largest number in the nation," McKeon says. "But there has never been a collective effort to address cultural preservation and technology."




Artfully Blending Technology and Cultural InheritanceFigure 1: Artfully Blending Technology and Cultural Inheritance
Rosemarie McKeon created this image to serve as a logo for the "Tools for Preserving Native American Cultural Traditions" conference. She merged pictures of a Kumeyaay basket, a CD-ROM, and a hand to signify integration of traditional knowledge and technologies, and integrated an image of a young acorn to represent openness to new ideas and ways of preserving cultural heritage.


Last year McKeon and SDSC research scientist Richard Marciano completed a 3-D landscape portrait of the deforestation of the Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, incorporating the perspective of the island's native Haida and Tlingit Indians. They used geographic information systems (GIS) data and assembled the final piece on the Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) machine at SDSC. The experience sparked an interest in working with other native groups and in a conference on preserving cultural inheritance.

"The conference provided an important opportunity to begin applying computing technology to a demonstrated need within a community not traditionally identified with high-performance computing," said SDSC Executive Director Peter Arzberger. "That is one of SDSC and NPACI's foremost goals." With the initial endorsement of the Center of Humanities and the cooperation of SDSC, the roster of participants grew to include representatives from the highest levels of both campus and state administration. Founding UCSD Chancellor Herb York, Arts and Humanities Dean Frantisek Deak, SDSC's Arzberger, and Governor Gray Davis were all involved with the event.

The conference technical track, which focused on information technology, native landscapes and GIS, tribal archives, language renewal and technology, digital libraries, and ethno-botanical shared databases, drew on the experiences of several presenters who have worked on techno-cultural projects.

Goes In Center discussed applications of GIS in the wake of the November 1991 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act by Congress. The legislation provides a legal basis for the return of human remains, grave goods, and objects of cultural patrimony, but with strict guidelines for first establishing specific cultural affiliation. "This is a difficult task for both archaeologists and Indian people," Goes In Center says. "Archaeologists attempt to identify cultural affiliation based upon geographic location and the content of the archaeological record. Tribal people trace ancestry through oral information about occupancy and movement throughout a territory."

In his presentation he discussed how GIS can be used to overlay museum data about tribal territories--whose boundaries can vary depending on the source of the data--and burial grounds, to substantiate oral-history-based claims to particular remains. "When a tribal community receives map-formatted information about the geographic location of human remains, they have a valuable set of functional data to help place them in context," says Goes In Center. He also talked about ways that GIS can assist other community needs, from mediating delivery of emergency services to protecting cultural resources in connection to traditional histories and ancestral lands.

In another conference presentation, Beth Wenstrom, GIS coordinator for the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, illustrated "orthophotos," which overlay ownership rights onto aerial photos. The technique can be used to communicate details about a parcel of land, its features, and its boundaries.

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Other conference presenters were interested in applying technology toward the preservation and teaching of ancient languages. Jennifer Reynolds, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology from UCLA; Margaret Field, a postdoc in American Indian studies at UCLA; and Ernie Silva of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians illustrated the use of interactive software to prevent the extinction of the Western Mono and Serrano languages. Their projects use video clips of tribe members performing stories, songs, and poetry that are linked to grammatical information and translations of the words being spoken on film. The intent is to help Western Mono and Serrano (Morongo) peoples learn their language and thus enhance cultural traditions, such as burial ceremonies, by performing them in their native tongue.

Margaret Field, a postdoc in American Indian studies at UCLA, showed several interactive "books" designed to help children practice the Navajo language. L. Frank Manriquez, an artist and tribal scholar of the Tongva/Ajachmem-Juaneño tribe, commented on the various projects in California to strengthen and preserve tribal communities.

The last conference panel brought together experts in the areas of fundraising and grant proposal writing. "An important aspect of the conference was to provide tribal communities with the resources to pursue their own technology and cultural programs," McKeon says. Darlene Suarez, chair of San Diego State University's American Indian Community Education Advisory Council; Patricia Sinay, program officer at the San Diego Foundation; James Shea, director of Federal Research Policy at UC San Diego; and Lorenzo Clark, principal owner of K.L.C. & Associates consulting firm, shared their knowledge of funding opportunities and the technical aspects of proposal writing. Clark also discussed his experience as a grant writer and fundraiser for the Indian Human Resource Center, Inc., and his recent award to build a Native American cultural museum in San Diego's Balboa Park.

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Of very real concern to many Native Americans is whether, in the future, projects like those presented at the conference will continue. The origin of such work is often with a researcher or student of Indian descent, and the number of Indian students enrolling in four-year university programs is disproportionately low when compared to their presence in the population. Outreach to incorporate these youth into higher education is very important.

"Outreach activities for Native American children have to be different than other minority groups," says Ross Frank, a professor in the UC San Diego Department of Ethnic Studies who helped to organize to the conference. "Their parents are wary because of the way relations between tribes and the government have been in the past." Frank believes that one solution is to work much more closely with the educators on the reservations to identify individual educational needs and organize the resources that will increase Indian children's access to higher education. In keeping with this thought, McKeon, Frank, and Debbye Dozier, an educator with experience in Indian cultural preservation and outreach, worked with SDSC's educational outreach staff to create Tech Trek 99 at the conference. Students participated in hands-on computer labs at SDSC, learned about traditional Southern California Indian crafts from tribal elders, heard talks on college preparation resources from academic outreach representatives, and spent time on campus seeing what college life is like. Students also visited the Stephen Birch Aquarium and attended a Native American exhibit at the UC San Diego Cross-Cultural Center.

For adults at the conference interested in outreach issues, Evans Craig of the Albuquerque High Performance Computing Center at the University of New Mexico discussed the use of computers in K-12 curriculum and how to maximize the effectiveness of the Internet and related distance-learning tools to reach children on rural reservations.

Several opportunities loom on the horizon for Native American groups interested in applying technology to traditional knowledge and practices. Goes In Center has started working with the United States Global Change and Research Project (USGCRP), sponsored by NASA, which began in 1998 to monitor global climate change. NASA hopes native groups can help them learn about tribal strategies for conservation and water retention.

Goes In Center thinks projects like USGCRP and the technology conference are important steps for Native American Indians, representing a willingness to meet with one another and share information. "We're brightening our collective future," he says.

Organizers hope the conference will become an annual event that signals a commitment from UC San Diego to make the university's resources available to the tribal communities of the region. Governor Gray Davis, in a letter of commendation, congratulated the campus for its "exemplary leadership in this new area."

But in many ways, the integrative approach--in this instance, integrating technology and culture--is not new to Native Americans. "We have always lived by holistic and integrative philosophies," says Goes In Center. "My hope for the future is that our projects will not only help us include technology into our culture, but will help other cultures learn from the experiences of Native Americans." --EN *

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