Indigenous virtual reality: An experiment in 'Indigenization of cyberspace'

Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, a research network and computer lab, is determined to ensure Indigenous presence in cyberspace. So they bought an island ... a cyber island in the online multiplayer virtual world of Second Life.
Maize Longboat, AbTeC research assistant and Mohawk graduate student. AbTeC is telling Indigenous stories in new ways. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)
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This story was originally published May 13, 2018

Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace, or AbTeC, is a research network and computer lab at Montreal's Concordia University, determined to ensure Indigenous presence in cyberspace. So, they bought an island ... a cyber island in the online multiplayer virtual world of Second Life.

"I want there to be an Indigenization of cyberspace," said Skawennati, a Mohawk new media artist and the co-founder and co-director of AbTeC.

Skawennati in AbTeC's lab at Concordia University. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

For Skawennati and her team, AbTeC Island is one way to achieve this goal. Their virtual island is dotted with trees and includes a digital Haudenosaunee longhouse.

"They have smoke holes for several fires and there's literally smoke coming out of these virtual longhouses," described AbTeC research assistant and Mohawk graduate student, Maize Longboat.

Inside the digital longhouse are baskets and dried tobacco.

The island is open to the public, and once a week AbTeC staff actively greet the public's avatars to their island. The AbTeC team calls the initiative "Activating AbTeC Island."

"Activating AbTeC Island is an experiment in what does it mean to have an Indigenously-determined cyberspace."  

Telling Indigenous stories in new ways 

AbTeC is involved in a variety of new media projects; among them is its Skins digital-media workshops which teach Indigenous youth how to tell stories in new ways, using things like game design and 3D modelling and animation.

In addition to being open to the public, AbTeC is also a place that past workshop participants can visit and ask questions.

AbTeC hopes that their workshops can support participants to tell Indigenous stories in new mediums. 

AbTeC avatar talking with visiting cat avatar, Alma. 'Activating AbTeC Island is an experiment in what does it mean to have an Indigenously determined cyberspace,' said Skawennati. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

"Our stories are beautiful and we think it's really important that they're told. We also think that it's important that they're told in as many different ways as they can be," said Skawennati.

"No one's saying to stop telling them orally, but they can also be written, they can be painted. And where we can help people make them is in these digital media."

"It doesn't just have to be our traditional or ancient stories. It can also be stories about who we are today. It can also be stories about who we want to be in the future. But what's important is that it's our stories. And we realized that we need to teach people how to use the tools in cyberspace," she said.

AbTeC's work is also about recognizing the past damage that's been done through media, and about providing a corrective lens. 

"In the past, when the camera was invented, who had that camera? It was generally white European men who came here. They came, they took our pictures and then they told stories about us that were their version of who we are. And it took a long time before we started taking our own pictures. And by that point the damage had been done. The stereotypes had been created," explained Skawennati. 

"Now, with the Internet or with the web or with all these digital technologies, we're all in the same boat. We're all learning at the same time. And now we can tell our own stories."

'What would it mean if code was written in Indigenous languages?'

"There is something exciting about meeting people together in a digital space especially when those people are spread out across Turtle Island. I also think it's so rare to have an Indigenously-determined space," said Skawennati.  

For Skawennati and the AbTeC team, cyberspace is a place of possibility and for imagining otherwise.

"What does it mean to be Indigenous in that space? How do we recognize each other? Does it matter if we recognize each other? Who do we want to be? Who can we be?"

"AbTeC is even thinking about Native computer code. So what would it mean if code was written in Indigenous languages or with Indigenous thoughts and knowledge is put into it?"