Reconciling truth through story reclamation

Illustration from the Tlli7sa app. | Illustration by Braden Hallet

Simon Fraser University (SFU) linguistics and First Nations studies professor Marianne Ignace, her husband Chief Ronald Ignace, PhD and elders from their community – Skeetchestn in the Secwepemc Nation – took on a project to reclaim and teach their ancient stories in the Secwepemctsin language.

One of the many First Nations ‘stsptekwll’ or oral traditions that dates back thousands of years is “Tlli7sa”. It connects over a dozen Secwepemc communities and places while being preserved digitally in a new mobile app.

In an upcoming Aboriginal Speaker Series: Reclaiming Story with Digital Media presentation on March 21, Ignace will discuss this undertaking and its most recent outcome.

Reclaiming Indigenous language

Ignace has been working alongside the Secwepemc (Shuswap) people of the Plateau community for over 30 years. As an immigrant, who grew up in a small remote community in northern Germany, she recognizes the importance of growing up learning Indigenous culture and language from elders. Likewise, her husband Ronald was raised in Skeetchestn in the Secwepemc language, and he knew the importance of language as it relates to the land and the people. At the urging of a generation of elders, the couple recognized the importance of documenting the band’s stories into the language of their people.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, geologist George M. Dawson and ethnographers Franz Boas and James Teit documented stories in Victorian English from Secwepemc knowledge keepers. However, the translations didn’t account for the details of meaning, form and the historical context of the stories.

To rectify this deficiency, the Ignaces decided to complete the process within a digital format. Not only was the project about proper documentation of the historical record, but to also make the stories appeal to young people. With the animated images mixed with the Secwepemc language, there’s a desire to engage the current and future generation to proudly learn, speak and seek out their ancestors’ language.

Digital illustrations

From the Tlli7sa story text: ‘He charged up to the beaver, he stabbed
him with his harpoon, and he got dragged to the bottom of the water. | Illustration by Braden Hallet

As with most First Nations’ traditions, the act of production follows a collaborative and collective process. Ignace said they had Branden Hallett, a young self-taught artist, draw images based on the script that the elders produced. During creation, the elders would give feedback and recommendations to Hallett on these images in order to ground the story’s authenticity.

“Initially, I was given a script that had already been told through several points of view,” Hallett says. However, it was when he was physically present during some of the elders’ translation sessions that gave him a clearer understanding of the
visuals.

For instance, they would give their recommendations for the positioning of antlers or the tying of moccasins, which fine-tuned the cultural accuracy and the aesthetic of the images.

Ignace says that the entire process has been an adventure: while digital is harder to make than a printed book, digital versions can be continually updated with new content and corrections.

For more information on the upcoming presentation: www.sfu.ca/sfuwoodwards/events

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