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American Indian Mythology and the Use of Computer

by Tracy E. Monteith, Ruth Littlejohn Foundation, Inc. (rlf [at] atlanta [dot] com)

I am sending this report to update you about the work of the Ruth Littlejohn Foundation, Inc. relative to Siggraph 97. I estimate that we are finished with about one-half of the research requested for Siggraph. We have broken our research into six geographical regions which follow the Federal mapping scheme. To date I have visited three of these regions and will detail some of the findings below. It is my intent to finish the travel part of this investigation by early summer. Because of the level of funding for this investigation, this will only be an overview and not be comprehensive of all Indian Nations. In addition there are some regions of the country that are using computers, but their remote nature will prohibit our research to visit these locations. The methods of information gathering at the sites that we do visit is comprehensive for each of the areas and has provided a database of resources that will be available to Siggraph 97.

The Ruth Littlejohn Foundation, Inc. has been using computers to teach mythology for the past three years. Because of experience and our ties in the Indian community we have a unique understanding of the challenge to teach without stepping on cultural "toes".

Because Indians are community based people, I felt it important to focus the research within Indian communities. This has allowed incite into the use of computers that educate and provide a platform for self expresion for Indian children. This focus has provided us with a rich tapestry of Indian life through visual art. Most of these efforts are grass root efforts rather than those programs that have extensive funds and modern technology.

We have also been focusing our efforts within the schools systems on reservations rather than the more commercial routes (there are 20 Navajo artists alone that sell their work on the Internet). We have certainly not ignored the commercial efforts and will include it in our findings. Another aspect of which we are aware involves non-Indian people using the computer to do Indian themes. This can be broken into two areas: that which educates and that which exploits. For obvious reasons we will also include those efforts which intend to teach, but not those involved with cultural piracy.

I also wanted to give an overview of the kinds of materials that the Ruth Littlejohn Foundation, Inc. is considering as mythology. There are very few people in Indian comunities that are telling stories begining to end on the computer. Rather, most school systems are allowing students the freedom of self expresion based on their local mythology. A good example of this is the work that is being done at the Crownpoint Institute of Technology, Crownpoint NM, where the Navajo children are being taught computer graphics. One of the first computer graphics project they complete is the design of a Navajo rug. Each student designs a rug; the design is printed and placed on the wall for all to see. Because most of the designs are traditional, we consider this an expresion of mythology because of the common, traditional, mythological themes that are showing up on computer screens. These children have the freedom to do "MTV" type themes as there is no shortage of cable TV in the area, yet for now they choose the more traditional themes. These themes are as old as the Navajo themselves and give us a look into the Navajo mythological explinations of life.

Another use of mythological themes in art is in the school system of the Arrapaho and Shoshone of WY. The children are using stories from their communities and showing "snapshots" of these stories. This program begins in the middle grades and peaks in the 8th grade with the work of the children being readied for a World Wide Web. These images and text are a collection of traditional stories although some are tinted by Catholic themes. It is a very interesting study of the modern American Indian child discovering their self-identity and displaying the process with the use of computers. These images show mythological themes in a modern setting and in some ways help to form the mythology of the future.

Mythology exists in all that Indian children create. It is the basis for the art and stories that are being perpetuted with and without the computer. Sometimes modern themes are combined with traditional ones and this combination serves as a wonderful example of the nature of storytelling. It is a combination of tradition and imagination, of what was and what is to be. For the past two centuries the stories of the Indian people have been restricted for various reasons. The computer is one of the first tools that will allow these restrictions to be lifted so that our children can express themselves without compromise. This level of expresion is what we hope to demonstrate to the global community.

If I can provide any more information about the project or if you have any questions please let me know. Thank you for your time.

Submitted 3 July 1996 by Tracy Monteith