Debby Wilson Danard is holding a white hardcover book, has a simple pencil illustration and the title in a standard serif font reads “The Sacred Scrolls of South Ojibway.”
It seems modest, but the 1975 anthropology book contains a lot of teachings and insights, explains Danard, who is Anishinaabe and a member of Manitou Rapids, Rainy River First Nations.
“I have wanted this book for a long time. But it’s US $ 1,400, ”he says. She obtained a copy from the University of Toronto, where she is an instructor, and kept it.
Danard is a traditional teacher and since she was a teenager she has traveled around Ontario to meet with different communities. As a survivor of the 1960s and “a troubled teenager,” she says traditions and knowledge saved her life.
Now that she is older, she wanted to find a way to give back and make knowledge more accessible to First Nations people, especially. So she and some family members are working to create a new resource: Indigipedia.
Over the summer, she, her son, and daughter-in-law collectively funded about $ 6,000 and have been working on the design of a digital encyclopedia of indigenous teachings that will be edited by community members and consulted by a wise counselor. The site is scheduled to launch in January 2022.
“Our history has been shaped by the lens of anthropology for so long,” Danard said, and this will be a living document created by the community.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation it required prompted Danard to think of alternative ways to cope.
“Part of the concern was that if we couldn’t meet as a community, how could we share knowledge? How would these cultural transmissions occur? How could we connect through disconnection? “Danard said.
“This was a way to use available modern technology and provide another format,” he said. “I think it is important that we use all the technology that we have available.”
And increasingly, indigenous peoples have been using digital platforms to find community, amplify their voices, and educate in their own words.
Much of this is already happening on social media. And there, it is more than education, it is community.
The #NativeTikTok hashtag in the video-based app is packed with jokes, parodies, and humor; clothing and makeup displays; lessons in history, current affairs and information on indigenous culture.
Sherry McKay, an Anishinaabe TikTok creator, has humor in most of her videos. Sometimes there is not so much a punchline, as a quick myth to break. Like the idea that Indians don’t pay taxes in Canada, he holds up a handful of receipts to dispel any confusion.
McKay said the atmosphere online is very similar to that of real life in indigenous communities.
“A lot of our ceremonies … powwow, for example, is where we meet,” McKay said. “It’s almost like a great powwow at times, like you have your dancers, your singers, your comedians, your MCs… it’s literally like a digital Gathering of Nations,” one of the biggest powwows on Turtle Island.
“I feel like with the pandemic … because we couldn’t meet in person … with the community, we found a really cool place on TikTok to do those things,” he said.
And then for non-indigenous people, McKay has the feeling that the allies “have been waiting for a moment like that where they can really learn from the people themselves instead of whitewashed history books.”
Accessible learning was the goal when Shanese Steele, an Afro-indigenous educator, created her Instagram account @learnwithshanese, where she amplifies the stories of blacks and indigenous people in the Canadian context.
“I honestly believe that social media and these online platforms have really created a space for indigenous voices that were not necessarily heard or sought out in the past,” he said.
For Devon Saulis, he has been able to use social media as a language tool. Saulis is Wolastoqew, a community in what is now New Brunswick and Maine, which has very few fluent speakers. Today, your nation has fewer than 100 Wolastoqey speakers.
For Saulis, his father was sent to day school, which robbed him of his language skills, so he was unable to convey it beyond a few words and phrases.
As he grew older, it became more important for Saulis to regain the language. “If you want to learn about culture, you have to learn the language because the culture exists in the language,” he said.
Along with online lessons, walks with his dad to practice identifying animals and trees, and a group of weekly video calls with other Wolastoqiyik, Saulis started @ wolastoq.wed Wednesday on Instagram.
Listen: Wolastoqey speaker Devon Saulis asks, “How is your spirit?”
With the help of a community elder and language carrier, Allan Tremblay, Saulis creates graphs of words and phrases, their phonetic pronunciations and literal meanings, such as the greeting “Tan kahk olu kil?” which means “How is your spirit?”
“I created this page, because I thought that people like me, who are especially disconnected from their language and have no resources, may at least have something to expose to it,” Saulis said.
For those who are not Wolastoqew, it is a way of learning parts of the culture that are appropriate. And instead of the information being leaked through outsiders, indigenous peoples can write it down and submit it online, on their own terms.