Words Before All Else: Oral Traditions in the Digital Age

Programmed by Clint Enns & Jenny Western. Presented by Vector Festival and the Art Gallery of Ontario at the AGO in Toronto, Ontario on July 14, 2018. Presented by Vidéographe and Dazibao at Dazibao in Montréal, Québec on September 27, 2018. 

What happens when traditional stories are envisioned digitally? In an an era where the physical blends into the digital, what is the (a)/(e)ffect on oral transmissions of knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material from one generation to another? What is lost in a society that does not acknowledge specific types of histories? How have digital technologies transformed traditional storytelling? 

The works in this program makes use of experimental forms of computer animation in order to work through some of these questions. It all begins with Skawennati’s avatar, xox, reciting the first verse of the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen, the Haudenosaunee’s “Thanksgiving Address.” Traditionally, when one recites this text the natural world is thanked, an acknowledgment of the importance of living in harmony with the natural world; however, what happens when the text is recited in a digital space, a gesture which seemly extends the Address beyond the natural world, and acknowledges the importance of living in harmony with both the natural and digital worlds. Similarly, She Falls for Ages uses machinima to re-imagine the Haudenosaunee creation story, blending science fiction and traditional storytelling to create a future utopia which beautifully envisions the past. Mary Kunuk’s video Unikausiq (Stories), provides a story about storytelling, recording not only her grandmother’s stories, but creatively documenting the act of storytelling.

Trevino L. Brings Plenty’s trailer for the book Shedding Skins: Four Sioux Poets ((Shedding Skins: Four Sioux Poets, ed. by Adrian C. Louis (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2008).)) suggests poetry as an art form where urban Native Americans can express their own perspectives and struggles in their own voice while dispelling some common myths. Similarly, Elizabeth LaPensée’s Native Representations in Video Games explores some historical representations of Indigenous people in video games while ultimately arguing for Indigenous representation in the companies that produce them, providing both fair representation and another outlet for traditional storytelling.

Without language, Zacharias Kunuk’s Tungijuq and Doug Smarch Jr.’s Ignition both provide space for meditation. Evocative works with the former showing the importance of the seal-hunt to the traditional way of life for the Inuit through visual storytelling and the later using visual metaphor to examine the clash between civilization and nature. 

Finally, Zack Khalil and Adam Shingwak Khalil’s The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets, made in collaboration with artist Jackson Polys, investigate the recent court case that decided the fate of the remains of a prehistoric Paleoamerican man found in Kennewick, ultimately revealing centuries of colonial violence and systemic racism. 


Onkweshòn:’a: Words Before All Else Part 1 | Skawennati | 2017 | 1 min.
Unikausiq (Stories) | Mary Kunuk | 1996 | 6 min. | **French and Inuktitut, shown for the first time with English subtitles.**
She Falls For Ages | Skawennati | 2016| 21 min.
 Shedding Skins | Trevino L. Brings Plenty | 2008 | 4 min. 
“This is the best book trailer that has ever been made.” – Monica Storss
Native Representations in Video Games | Elizabeth LaPensée | 2011 | 8 min.
Tungijuq (What We Eat) | Zacharias Kunuk | 2009 | 8 min.
Ignition | Doug Smarch Jr. | 2009 | 3 min.
The Violence of a Civilization Without Secrets | Zack Khalil & Adam Shingwak Khalil [in collaboration with Jackson Polys] | 2017 | 10 min.