New Tools Help Preserve Old Ways

Video recording and digital mapping tools are being used by many indigenous communities around the world - photo by Jon Corbett
Video recording and digital mapping tools are being used by many indigenous communities around the world – photo by Jon Corbett

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 12 | Dec. 7, 2006

Remote, marginalized peoples use high-tech to record and share culture and knowledge

By Bud Mortenson

In 1962, residents of remote Turner Island near the north end of Vancouver Island were relocated, ostensibly to provide them with better access to government services. The people of the Tlowitsis nation found themselves in Nanaimo, Victoria, the Lower Mainland and as far afield as Manitoba. Over time, relocation had a devastating impact on the community’s knowledge of their traditional territory.

“They needed to do something to re-engage in the relationship between themselves and the land,” says UBC Okanagan Geography Prof. Jon Corbett. He received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SHRCC) grant to work with the Tlowitsis community, providing them with cameras and training to video record elders as they revisited Turner Island more than four decades after leaving.

“We wanted to look at how technologies like these can be used from a cultural and participatory perspective — how they can contribute to nation-building,” he says. “It was amazing to see people in their 60s and 70s going back to Turner Island for the first time since they left in 1962. The elders were sharing wonderful stories with young people who really had no connection with this place. It was helping them build a sense of national identity.”

Community members developed a DVD of the nation’s culture and heritage and presented it at the Tlowistis annual general meeting. “Many in the audience had never been to Turner Island because it’s so hard to get to,” he recalls. “They were overwhelmed.”

His research has taken him to many remote indigenous communities — from Indonesia, the Philippines, the Australian outback, and more recently on Vancouver Island.

“One of the great joys of geography is the scope you have to explore things,” says Corbett, who once spent two years living in a Borneo longhouse as part of his research. “I engage in research with people in the community, and they are co-researchers. It’s all done collaboratively, the research process itself can become a form of emancipation.”

Every community uses and responds to the technology differently. In one Indonesian village, the women described where they drew their water and how they carried it home. “In another community, illegal logging was taking place on their land and using a camera they were able to record video to use as evidence.

“We went back to one community 18 months later and found that they had become so skilled with the video camera that other people came to them and asked, ‘Do you think you could make us a video?’ In another community we found them recording wedding ceremonies — their video camera had broken and they raised the $250 to fix it straight away. It had become an economic resource for them.”

Gathering histories on tape and connecting maps with information about people and culture is important, but it’s not the whole point, he cautions.

“This is a lot more complex than just creating a digital repository of information. The key is the process — it’s about young people learning new skills and learning from elders, and learning more about themselves.”

A larger project through the SHRCC-funded Community-University Research Alliance has Corbett working with several First Nations on Vancouver Island to record their languages. An interactive DVD with clickable maps allows viewers to choose from among Vancouver Island’s 14 long houses. Selecting a site on the map presents a video of elders speaking in their native language with English subtitles, and in English with the native language subtitles.

His work has the attention of the European Union-funded and French-administered Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). Corbett is now on the steering committee for a major international conference in Rome in September 2007 and is exploring several near-term research projects with CTA.

“They’re looking at how social computing — things like YouTube and virtual communities — can be used in a developing world context. I’m hoping this is something we’ll build on with projects at UBC Okanagan around the power of maps and the web, looking at how we manage information and whether the medium of a map can be an effective way to do that,” he says.

One of his next projects is to create a system using GoogleMaps technology to help people organize their car-pooling requirements. “It’s not necessarily the technology that will make car pooling work, but it would make car pooling much easier to organize.”

A car-pooling helper could take your postal code and quickly look at all the options, produce a map of the best routes and even reserve your spot in a car. Simplifying the task could make community programs more successful here at home and in developing countries.

“I really enjoy what I do,” Corbett says. “Ultimately, I’m fascinated with how we can use technology to benefit marginalized people in society — and bring about positive change.”