Inside Mizzou Podcast:
Indigenous Cultures, Ep. 5
For centuries, art has been a tool to document and study culture. Today, art forms like animation, film and digital storytelling create dynamic opportunities for cultural study, including the study of indigenous cultures. Missouri has a particularly rich Native American history. Even our state’s name derives from the Missouria tribe and translates to “one who has dugout canoes.” So, how does contemporary art help reveal the rich culture of Native Americans?
Joining Chancellor Cartwright this week are Joseph Erb, assistant teaching professor in digital storytelling, and Ryder Jiron, a junior studying communications who is also the president of Four Directions. They discuss art, identity and how both of these enrich our understanding of indigenous cultures.
Moderator: [00:00:08] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou — real stories, real discoveries and real impact of the Mizzou community. Today’s episode is called “Indigenous Cultures.” Next Monday is Indigenous Peoples Day. Missouri has a particularly rich Native American history. Even our state’s name derives from the Missouria tribe, which translates to “one who has dugout canoes.” On this episode of Inside Mizzou, we are going to be learning more about how contemporary art plays an important role in delving into the history of Native Americans. Joining Chancellor Cartwright to talk more about this today are Joseph Erb, assistant teaching professor in digital storytelling, and Ryder Jiron, a junior studying communications who is also currently the president of Four Directions. Thank you all for being here today. We really appreciate it. Now, Joseph, I’m going to start off with you. How does art help us study indigenous cultures?
Joseph Erb: [00:01:21] Well, I think that art actually helps you study any culture. In fact, you can find people’s culture in any type of form of art. A lot of times when we have the lens of Western European art we don’t always think about how much we’re actually learning of the culture of that people, but you really understand that when you actually see work of other types of people. And indigenous people have distinct values that are different and colors and looks and imagery that’s distinctly theirs. And with over 500 tribal nations in the United States, you will find very distinct flares across the geographic regions. Even their language bases are different. The most diverse language base in the entire world is in Oklahoma because the amount of indigenous people that were removed to Indian Territory before Oklahoma had such distinctly different cultures. You’ll find that actually expressed in the art, culture and people.
Moderator: [00:02:20] Are there a few examples of that because I know you mentioned like colors and everything? I’m just very curious about that.
Joseph Erb: [00:02:28] Yeah. So, you’ll find that most of these cultures have a distinct value of different philosophies of color. So, you’ll have some cultures that are very colorful, so they’ll have regalia, clothing, effects, pottery that are very colorful. And then you’ll have tribal people that have low amount of color, depending on the region that they’re in. So, like Cherokee’s being a eastern/southeastern tribe, they don’t have a lot of colors in their pottery and stuff, but they have really neat iconography and beautiful stories that are depicted along basket designs and everything. But it’s distinctly different than what the Navajo have. And part of that’s region but also culture. So, some of the elements that they have in those areas are just the geographic location of rocks and minerals that are different. So, you have different purposes from holy mountain sites that are different. With that development thousands of years, you have distinctly different types of people across the United States.
Moderator: [00:03:34] Ryder, what are your thoughts about that?
Ryder Jiron: [00:03:36] I agree with Joseph on this point. He brought up like how art does kind of give you good insight into just any culture in general. But when talking about indigenous cultures, you kind of get — not quite a dichotomy per say — but just there’s a fine line between like Western depictions of indigenous people in Western art and then indigenous art in itself. Again, with like Western art, you see a lot of different noble-savage tropes and literary iterations and paintings and things of that nature. You kind of get a certain closed-in, boxed-in image of indigenous peoples — who we are, what we look like, kind of like a generalized conglomerate at certain points. But then, again like Joseph was saying, when you start looking at our individual people’s arts and our individual crafts, you start seeing just the sheer amount of individuality, for lack of a better term. Because I speak from a Pueblo perspective — there’s about 19 Pueblos along New Mexico. And we all have our own form of pottery — all different forms. You can have somebody in Isleta, which is where I’m from, have a certain way of making it, but then you can go up to San Felipe, and they have a very distinct style that’s only known to them. And it even goes down into the pot makers to at that point. They have a certain material they use, a certain way that they’ve been taught or they may even just experiment with. So, in that way, like, you can learn so much from — just again like what Joseph was saying — what we make things out of, what we use, why we use it, and you can really get into a deeper insight into how we view the world in that way.
Moderator: [00:05:17] You mentioned pottery and a lot of these traditional forms of art. So, how does contemporary art — especially within digital storytelling that you are teaching here — how does that play a special role in kind of figuring out this very complex but also incredibly rich history?
Joseph Erb: [00:05:41] Yeah, you know, one of the things that’s intriguing about indigenous knowledge or people is that a lot of people, although we do have fantastic potters and basket makers still to this day, the inherent knowledge that’s in that can be transferred into other things. For example, they have stories in them. And so, the pottery represents a story. And those stories can be put into film and put in our language and have the understanding of that at a greater realm where we can actually share that story across different communities, different tribal people and the world. And so, a lot of my work has been taking indigenous knowledge from home and turning it into computer animations and films and being able to actually do that next step. Because most people don’t realize that indigenous people develop just like the rest of the world. There’s a misconception because of a lack of education that the indigenous people are not really who they are unless they’re doing very traditional modes of agriculture or land acquisition, hunting and all that stuff. But if you look at it today, and it’s been this way since all development, you know, we have cars, we have electricity, we can be very strong culturally and still use iPhones. And so, we have this ability to actually still be like we are. One example is, you know, you don’t think of Japanese being less Japanese because they have animations or stories. Those stories make them more Japanese, and we’re not less indigenous because we make films. We’re more indigenous. And so, we have — even from the start of the United States a lot of indigenous people went to Ivy League schools, and we think of education being something that maybe indigenous people have had a rough time of it through boarding school stuff. But when you look back throughout a lot of the Ivy Leagues, some of the best students were indigenous people — in Princeton and all of the east coast schools. Dartmouth was started as an Indian school, and so our first editor of our newspaper was a Dartmouth graduate. Throughout that, indigenous people always make giant strides through technology and through storytelling of film. We’ve been a part of all of those developments through history, but because we’re a small population we’re not always thought of in that way, especially due to the fact that a lot of our stories are told by outside people.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:08:13] Ryder, you know in your experience — right now you’re a communications major — I mean, what do you think of what Joseph was just saying and your view of that?
Ryder Jiron: [00:08:24] Pretty much, I really agree with what Joseph was saying. We kind of take — or the term that I like to throw around is indigenuity, which is a combination of indigenous and ingenuity. And just kind of like taking something, which in this case can be a Western form of art, and kind of molding it for our own ways, or just even using it like Joseph was saying, like putting a traditional story in film or animation in that form. And, for the most part, I would say I really agree with that.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:08:56] You know, it strikes me that one of the things you’re talking about, and I’d like your opinion on this, I mean you’re really making a lot of these concepts more accessible, too, with some of the things you’re doing with digital storytelling. And I think it’s putting it in a format that people are more able to understand, and, like you were saying and that Joseph was saying, the storytelling part of it and how what story might have been and putting that all together I find that fascinating.
Joseph Erb: [00:09:24] You know, I always thought like — I started doing computer animation early on in the 90s, when I would do stuff in the language and traditional stories. I was young, and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m new at this!” And then when you learn what happened before you, that, you know, Sequoia came up with our writing system, and it quickly became news in the first Native American newspaper. And every development — the first telephone west of the Mississippi Cherokees owned. When you think of, like, the telephone, the radio — Will Rogers was Cherokee. He was born in an Indian hospital to an Indian mom, and he was very famous worldwide, and he had his own radio show and dealt with politics and all of that stuff, but he was from an indigenous community. And throughout history, people who have adopted these technologies are great storytellers and very amazing at an amount of stuff. But one of the things that we have to do in every generation isn’t that — when I first realized that I was not new in the world, I had to like lower myself to realize it. But then I realized that the good part of it is that there will be someone after me, there will be a bunch of people after me telling stories in whatever new media is coming out there. There will be other indigenous people continuing to tell the stories, and that’s what’s really nice about here and the University of Missouri being supportive of some of our efforts with indigenous cultures and storytelling and seeing that as valid of a story as any other. And so, it’s kind of been a really nice program to be a part of.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:11:11] You know, what strikes me, too, is we were — I’m a scientist, an engineer — and one of the things that we’ve really been, that a lot of people have been struggling with is how do you communicate science? And one of the recent workshops that I was at what it was talking about is the best way you can communicate the science is actually through stories, and making the stories identifiable and making them about people, so that then they start to understand what the science really is about. So, I think it’s really interesting how you learn from other people, what techniques they’ve used, how you can then apply those to other completely different topics.
Joseph Erb: [00:11:48] Yeah, and one of the things that people sometimes use for indigenous peoples’ stories is this myth. But if you look at the stories, they actually have a lot of science in them. And so, for example, when these stories happened at a certain location, you would find that, for example, when a certain animal got a certain attribute, you’d find that there were certain minerals in that area. But you didn’t realize that that story actually meant that this is where you find the minerals, of that color or whatever you needed for some other element, until you put these kind of pieces together. These stories were told — you know, when a lot of people see this giant frog eating the moon for our eclipse, it’s like, “It’s just a fantasy.” But our people had scientists in their community where they knew when this was going to happen, too. And so this wasn’t some bizarre happening that we also didn’t know when these cycles would happen. We used our stories to remember when they happened. And so, scientifically, we used the arts to build in our science.
Moderator: [00:12:53] You know, it’s so interesting that you were talking about how you thought that you were new and that you were like starting this whole entire thing out of scratch. But I just want to say that I was reading up about you, and you actually created this first animation project in the Cherokee language. I think that’s really incredible. Can you kind of go a little bit more into detail about that project and kind of the impact of that project as well?
Joseph Erb: [00:13:22] Yeah, you know, I was a mixed kid growing up there. And being in Cherokee Nation, my grandfather sold land so I could get educated. I was always going to just move off. So, I went to school and then I went to grad school, and I ended up taking an animation class and then some film classes, and I had no idea when I first got into those classes what kind of story to even make. I even went and met with a professor, which everybody should do during their classes.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:13:59] (Laughing) That’s right.
Joseph Erb: [00:13:59] I sit there and wait for you students. Please, show up.
Chancellor Cartwright: [00:14:04] (Laughing) Yes, they do.
Joseph Erb: [00:14:04] And so, I went in there, and I was like, “I don’t even know what types of story to tell.” And then he started telling me a story, and in the midst of that, I started thinking about some of the stories I learned growing up. It’s not like I knew a million of them, but I knew some. And I thought, “I could tell a Cherokee story.” And I never thought about it until then. I never related that as being a possibility. And after I was done, I actually decided — well, first in the midst of the process I decided to put it in Cherokee because I thought, “I’m not going to tell it in English — it’s better in the language.” So, I flew home. We did recordings, we got people to record and get the different voices, I flew back and I finished it, and all this time I was going to school — I was going to go teach and all of that. And I thought, “I have to move home.” And so, I decided to move home. And it was such an exciting adventure teaching people, working on trying to make sure that — at the beginning our language didn’t work on computers, even to do subtitling, so I started working with Apple and Microsoft and Google. And then I realized that all of these cultures that are out there have different times in their period where people like letters from a community go out and work and do the next iteration. But we’re not taught about, you know, Pueblo stories or Navajo history, and to see the advancements of them, it really is nice to have this kind of education so that you know that all of these cultures have had people going in and doing completely new stuff. For example, we’ve had people that worked on people going to the moon. So, we had Cherokee’s involved in that. And you have Navajos out working at Google right now — so all the advancements that we deal with in technology — and people at Apple. So, there are indigenous people quietly working out there, and they’re not always noticed, but all of these advancements happened within the system of history, and we have people involved in it across the population. It’s just we’re not always taught about them.
Moderator: [00:16:14] Ryder, as a student here at the university, and being so far away from home — one, how do you connect or still stay connected to your culture so far away; and then also how do you kind of like communicate that out to people who don’t necessarily know you? So, how do you express your identity to others as being a president of Four Directions? I feel like that’s definitely key — it’s a key thing, yeah, to get students involved and organized.
Ryder Jiron: [00:16:46] Let’s see. So, I guess to answer your first part: I’ve lived away or outside of New Mexico since I was probably one or two, but we’ve always visited pretty often, pretty yearly. So, I’ve always had that connection to my family there and my culture. Not exactly everything, just because, you know, there’s only certain things you can pick up by living there or just being there for more than a week, honestly. So, in that way, I guess, kind of my family has kept me grounded in that way, learning. I always learn something new every time. Like I was saying before the recording, I spent the summer there, and I learned a lot — a lot a lot — more than probably I’ve learned in a long time. But, yeah, that’s kind of how I stay connected in that way. I stay connected to my family. I talk to my dad and my Chi — my grandma — about just things of that nature a lot and trying to connect in that way and just continuing to use it. There’s a saying: You use it or you lose it. And it’s that way for the culture, for your language, anything. So, I kind of think of it in that way. Just kind of keep it present. As far as portraying my identity outside, it’s a little rough at times just because I’m white passing. I appear white. And so, a lot of people just kind of write me off as being white. So, then at that point, like, kind of I have to try harder in that way, I guess, to say I’m a native person at this university in that way. The way I kind of express it is through my stickers I have on my laptop I have. I have a couple of stickers that are just native pop culture things on them. I have a couple of t-shirts that I love that have just things that, if you’re native you know what they are, or you’re indigenous you know what they are. And if not you may kind of look at it, and you can probably connect the dots in that way. And it is kind of an important part for Four Directions, too, because, like I say, usually I can’t express it visually because I don’t appear to the or cohere to the generalized image of what natives are. So, it’s difficult in that way, I guess, to answer your question.
Moderator: [00:18:57] Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you all again for being here today. We really appreciate the time that you took out to talk to us about this particular topic. One thing before we leave is: Why did the chicken cross the playground?
Ryder Jiron: [00:19:17] Alright, why?
Moderator: [00:19:17] To get to the other slide! Oh my gosh, nothing! I got laid out.
Everyone: [00:19:28] (Laughter)
Moderator: [00:19:28] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is “Forest Park Rhapsody,” composed by MU undergraduate and music composition major, Ben Colagiovanni. You can find more information about Ben and his piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time, and keep an eye out for the chancellor’s newsletter to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Inside Mizzou. See you around the columns!