Indigenous Futures

Indigenous Futures: Decolonizing NYC—Documenting the Lenape Trail

by Jack Tchen and Noa Fuller
Spring 2018
(Teaching-with-Technology Grant Awardee)

Decolonizing the Classroom: New Tech & Critical Pedagogy

Indigenous Futures is a class that addresses the ideas of regional and global colonization—and the myriad possibilities of decolonization—in the content and materials, but with special focus given to our pedagogical approach. We sought to have the structure of the class, the technology we used, and the experiences of the students challenge the traditional Western, “high senses” (sight & sound) text-heavy approach. Instead, we built the course around leaving the classroom to walk sites related to Indigenous histories, emphasizing the “lower/base sense” (touch, taste, smell), and building off of the personal experiences and ideas that the students carried with them.

“The core question wasn’t how do we fit the class into the tech, but how does the tech allow us to challenge linear approaches to storytelling.”

Technology played a vital role in the classroom, beginning with the opening up of the idea of technology to encompass a range of historical mediums for storytelling; from ancient cave painting as the original 360-degree experience, to oral traditions, to virtual reality (VR) headsets. The core question wasn’t how do we fit the class into the tech, but how does the tech allow us to challenge linear approaches to storytelling. By being in conversation with the medium of VR throughout the semester, we were able to imagine new possibilities for how the students could take their research and knowledge gleaned in the class and pass it on in unique and viscerally affective ways. At the end of the course the students developed three different immersive VR experiences tied to unique sites in the region.

The semester itself was divided into three sections. The first was spent on individual projects, called Mini-Artifact Projects, which focused on personal reflection, with each student beginning to understand and reckon with their connection to colonization. This work, which involved the students triangulating between themselves, their artifact, and Lenapehoking (Land of the Lenape), gave the class a chance to ground themselves in the material and understand the ways we are all colonized subjects. The students then developed creative non-fiction projects tied to this self-reflection using any form they felt best reflected their approach. Projects included timelapse GIFs, sculptural pieces, digital collage, maps, and VR.

Early in the semester we also initiated a series of walks that would continue throughout the Spring, as well as visits with Indigenous knowledge bearers. On our various trips, the students used Ricoh cameras to learn how to shoot in 360-degrees, and knowledge bearers offered feedback and reflection on how we could develop our VR projects. We did extensive work and collaboration with interdisciplinary new tech artist and thinker Alexandre Girardeau, who led five sessions exploring VR as a storytelling medium.

In the second part of the course, the students divided into groups focusing on three key Lenape sites in the region: Inwood Hill Park, Collect Pond/Werepoes Village (modern day Foley Square area), and the Passaic Eel Weir near Paterson, NJ. Each group of 5-7 students was responsible for doing a deep research dive into their area, examining the Indigenous history over the past 400 years and modern connections to issues of climate justice and dispossession. Interdisciplinary ecologist, author, and researcher Kerry Hardy helped the students create multi-layered maps of their sites, which became the foundation of their VR projects.

The final section of the class was the production period for the collaborative VR experiences. Working in their site groups and building off of their individual projects, intensive research, walks, readings, and knowledge bearer visits, the students scripted, designed, filmed, edited, and produced three VR pieces. Over five weeks the groups, working closely with us, refined their ideas, played with the headsets, and pushed themselves to produce final works.

Each project was deeply unique: the Passaic group imagined the experience of an eel traveling on the river in both past and present; the Collect Pond group had the viewer go down a drain into the hidden water below the street where they explored a collage of words and images; and the Inwood group created constellation-like figures of humans and animals that once inhabited the area and reacted to the viewers gaze. At our final class, several knowledge bearers joined us for food, presentations, in-depth conversation & feedback, and a chance to try out the VR experiences in the headsets.

A core lesson from teaching Indigenous Futures is the critical role of integrating new technologies across the University. These don’t need to be specialist tools for only those interested in coding or computer design. Instead, they offer wonderful promise for getting outside the traditional pedagogical approaches and placing students directly in conversation with the materials and subjects they are learning about. Our goal was not to create flawless VR experiences ready for public consumption, but to understand how the process of developing these kinds of projects can bring out new, unique ways of encountering challenging ideas and immediately putting them into practice.

Finally, a special thanks are in order to Jenny Kijowski and the Curricular Development Challenge Fund Grant for giving us the tools and the funds to explore an unfamiliar medium.