Using canoes and virtual reality, local project explores Indigenous traditions

A project funded by the provost’s Grand Challenges Research brings Indigenous communities together while advancing science and technology.

Ganebik Johnson wears a virtual reality headset and attempts to steer a canoe at the “Navigating Indigenous Futures” event on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.

Jack Rodgers

Ganebik Johnson wears a virtual reality headset and attempts to steer a canoe at the “Navigating Indigenous Futures” event on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019.

by Joe Kelly

Researchers at the University of Minnesota developed a virtual reality canoe simulator as part of a larger project that aims to revitalize cultural Indigenous traditions. 

Professors Vicente Diaz and Daniel Keefe, among others, have led a team to bring Dakota, Micronesian and Ojibwe communities together in a project called “Back to Indigenous Futures.” The project — shown during President Joan Gabel’s inauguration week — is part of the University provost’s Grand Challenges research. 

“Here are communities that have suffered deeply from colonization and exploitation,” Keefe said. “This is a situation where you want to approach …  it in a way that is really engaging with the communities.”

The virtual reality canoe simulator involves a headset, a stool and a makeshift tiller and rudder to control the canoe’s direction, while the participant can pull a rope to move the mainsail to adjust speed. The virtual reality transports the user to Chuuk Lagoon in Micronesia — a cluster of islands located in Oceania — where constellations are marked as directions to the surrounding islands.

“We’ve tried to be accurate in recreating what would the stars look like from this point on Earth at this latitude and longitude,” Keefe said.

Keefe said that they used satellite imagery along with height fields to reconstruct the 3D terrain around Chuuk Lagoon in the simulator.

The simulator was displayed on Thursday during an event called “Navigating Indigenous Futures,” where members of Dakota, Ojibwe and Micronesian tribes came together for ceremonial prayer, songs and canoeing. 

Keefe said canoeing is an essential part in understanding traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK.

“It’s the entry point to everything,” Keefe said. “This is all about navigating, going large distances; this is about knowing where you are in the world, your literal orientation, and your figurative orientation. To learn about the canoe is really learning much more broadly.”

In order to navigate while sailing, one has to be knowledgeable about the weather, constellations, how they move and where they’re positioned compared to the moon. Mario Benito, a navigator from Micronesia who appeared at the event, described the importance of the moon and stars. 

“They are associated with each other,” Benito said. “The moon for us [is] a month, it’s always 30 days.”

However, the simulator is just a part of the project. There are two streams in the project: the first stream includes native scholars, while the second stream involves science, technology, engineering, art and math — or STEAM — researchers, which includes their work on the virtual reality simulator.

The first stream, headed by Diaz, brings together scholars from history, anthropology, women’s studies, astronomy education and more to research Dakota, Odawa and Pacific Islander communities.

“At every phase in research, we collaborate with our ‘subjects’ rather than simply study them top down like research objects,” Diaz said in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “Such methods — sensitive and attentive to indigenous communities’ interests, values, logics, temporalities — determine how research is to be defined and carried out.”

Water ways, rituals and how they relate to the land, sky and stars are important to Indigenous communities, Diaz said. Most Indigenous peoples have relations to components of nature and other things that aren’t necessarily human, Diaz said.

Professor Katie Johnston-Goodstar, who has a background in youth work, is one of the members of stream one that helped Diaz with the project.

“[We’re] coming together to recover and revitalize traditional water knowledges,” Johnston-Goodstar said. “[We] are mainly interested in youth work and education, so we’re interested in preserving that knowledge and developing … [curricula] with our community partners.”

By bringing the two streams together, Diaz said he hopes to combine TEK with modern engineering, math, art and architecture. 

“The design and engineering of these technologies will also loop back to inform yet new ways for native scholars to engage science and engage Indigenous peoples,” Diaz said. “They will also hopefully demonstrate to Indigenous communities the potential and power of engaging with STEAM.”

Diaz and Benito tried out the virtual reality canoe simulation for the first time in its current state at the event. Afterwards, they gave Keefe handshakes of approval.

“It’s amazing to see everything,” Benito said after he tried out the simulator. “You can see the island … you can see the stars.”

A modification that Keefe and his colleagues made recently included bumping up the frame rate, making the simulation feel more realistic so the user felt like they were transported to Chuuk Lagoon.

“In VR, we call that presence,” Keefe said. “You really feel that you’ve left this environment and you are now present in this other world. So it’s pretty special.”

Hana Ikramuddin contributed to this story.