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Doing it right: Blending Indigenous oral histories with digital technology

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"When mischievous Lily sneaks out of bed, her Mooshum shares a cautionary tale filled with foreboding dark surprises."

So begins Rival Schools' first story, The Story of Kalkalilh, in their three part book series of digital story apps for kids inspired by Canadian Indigenous Peoples oral histories.

What is exciting and different about these reading apps is the focus on creating an accessible and interactive reading experience for children while incorporating the traditional oral histories of a few Indigenous cultures in Canada. Melding digital technology with oral histories -- yeah, that is a pretty cool idea.

But by and far, the hat tip must go to not only wanting to bring more exposure to Canadian Indigenous oral histories, but the way in which Rival Schools went about constructing this project.

As detailed in numerous progressive media outlets (and then subsequent comment sections), Canadian Indigenous cultures and peoples are still on the very harsh end of some systemic racism, cultural appropriation and out and out racist redface bullshit.

And, with halloween around the corner, well, you know how that goes.

Given the opportunity to chat with the team at Rival Schools to discuss why it was important to blend technology and storytelling and work collaboratively with other communities when accessing their culture seemed like an amazing chance to check one off in the win column.

After the initial conception of using Indigenous oral histories as digital reading apps, the questions of actual execution began to creep in on how to achieve this technically and execute it with respect to the stories.

"There was a fairly lengthy Discovery phase that was used to outline the creative goals of the project and establish the technical requirements," says the Rival team.

When looking for which stories to represent, Saulteaux writer Marilyn Thomas choose to contact and work with communities she had pre-existing relationships with as she, understandably, wanted to share the stories that had been shared with her.

"Marilyn decided early on to create characters to tell the stories rather than to do a direct recreation,"says the team. Much like adding technology to lore, it seems Thomas and Rival Schools wanted the stories to combine both what children are used to today and integrate the spirit of the culture through storytelling.

Rival School's collaborated with three Indigenous groups -- Skwxwú7mesh, Halq'eméylem, and Cree -- to inform the stories of their books ­The Story of Kalkalilh, The Great Sasquatch and The Little People.

The collaborative process between Rival Schools and the Indigenous groups the stories were inspired from was a rigorous and well thought out process, one entrenched in respect and passion.

"There are always special consideration when working with stories that are so intrinsic to a culture," says the Rival team.

Rival Schools not only sought permission for each Indigenous group first, but also brought on a consultant and collaborator from each group and incorporated details like the original languages both in key words and language for the story. Each Indigenous consultant read the stories and had input during the writing process and review of the stories after completion.

"Obviously we want to work with the consultants to ensure any protocol is followed and permissions are given if needed. If any detail needs to change for story purposes, then how that affects the community has to be considered."

In other words, while incorporating imagery and messages from another culture, the process made sure to ask and include those people; therefore, taking steps taken to get it right.

For example, the first story, released August 1, The Story of Kalkalilh, was developed between Thomas and this story's Indigenous consultant Chief Ian Campbell who also narrated and translated the original language.

"Chief Ian Campbell was actively involved in the entire process as our consultant and out translator. He's been excited throughout the entire process, which has really helped," says the rival team.

The Story of Kalkalilh follows characters Lily and Thomas as they hear the oral history being told to them by their Mooshum and Kooku, like the original stories that were passed from generation to generation.

This "story within the story" format allows the young audience to experience these stories in their original format and lend to an oral preservation as well. While maybe not the prime focus, the fringe benefit of digitizing not only the oral histories but the language is keeping a living record.

"Marilyn and the consultants were all too aware of that fact that many communities have 'sleeping' languages already and with speakers getting older and so many people still dealing with the repercussions of residential schools, it's imperative for communities to create ways to preserve the language."

The incorporation of the original languages of these stories is a fantastic element and reinforces the exposure for an audience not familiar with one of these languages.

"We felt that by offering the stories in multiple languages, the audience would have the opportunity to experience the story in their own language as well as the original Indigenous language." And the end result for The Story of Kalkalilh is one met with high praise from not only Chief Ian Campbell and the Skwxwu7mesh people, but other Indigenous readers.

"Readers are excited to hear the language, even if it’s not their own. It’s pretty amazing to listen to and to also give non-Indigenous readers a window into the differences within the Indigenous communities that spread across Canada."

By recognizing that a story inspired by Indigenous oral histories works best by seeking permission and input from the original makers of the story, Rival Schools has created a product that is inclusive and celebrates the people it was inspired by.

This process may seem obvious and simple, but with the plethora of examples out there, particularly clothing companies trotting out 'Navejo prints' and a ridiculous amount of plastic headdresses, it sends a wave of relief to know there are companies that take these steps initially or when something is called out.

So in other words, Rival Schools, you're doing it right.

Headquartered in Vancouver, with an affiliate office in Toronto, Rival Schools is an award winning all—in-one creative agency and studio. The company was founded by individuals with diverse creative backgrounds, ranging from film to web, with one common vision -- digital content is where it’s at.

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