Fusing Tradition and Tech: Haudenosaunee Tales Come Alive at MIT

In a remarkable convergence of ancient tradition and modern innovation, Jackson 2bears, a Kanien’kehà:ka artist also known as Tékeniyáhsen Ohkwá:ri, is transforming the narration of Haudenosaunee creation stories. As the 2022–24 Ida Ely Rubin Artist in Residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology, 2bears is spearheading a project that intertwines traditional narratives with state-of-the-art virtual reality technology. Titled “Ne:Kahwistará:ken Kanónhsa’kówa í:se Onkwehonwe,” this immersive experience breathes new life into the Haudenosaunee creation story, turning age-old myths into vivid, interactive experiences.

“A lot of what drives my work is finding new ways to keep Haudenosaunee teachings and stories alive in our communities,” 2bears explains. “It’s about discovering new methods to tell these stories while also aiding in their transmission and transformation as living elements of our cultural practice.” The Haudenosaunee creation story serves as the backbone of this innovative undertaking. According to the myth, Sky Woman descends from the heavens, aided by animals, and lands on a turtle’s back. Together, she and the animals lift land from the ocean’s depths, creating the earth. This rich narrative inspired 2bears to craft an immersive experience that initially aimed to recreate a traditional longhouse in virtual reality—a central structure in Haudenosaunee culture that serves both as a dwelling and as a spiritual and cultural hub for sharing creation myths.

The project, however, faced significant challenges. Midway through, the actual longhouse in 2bears’ community tragically burned down. Despite this setback, the team had already created 3D scans of the structure, enabling them to proceed. “With no building to project onto, we used ingenuity and creativity to pivot to the project’s current iteration,” says 2bears. The invaluable support from Co-Creation Studio at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab was crucial in this transition. Documentarian Kat Cizek, the artistic director and co-founder of the studio, lauds 2bears for his collaborative approach. “We think of co-creation as a dance, a working method that challenges the notion of the singular author,” she remarks. “And Jackson embodies this within the Six Nations community and with other Indigenous artists.”

2bears emphasizes community involvement over individual authorship. “Our goal was to develop a story collaboratively, rather than having a single writer or director,” he says. “We wanted to avoid using headsets and instead create something that fosters togetherness, which aligns with the longhouse mentality.” Initially, 2bears anticipated his residency at MIT to focus on technical aspects. However, he found a rich community and an opportunity to delve into broader philosophical questions. “We often think about not only human intelligence but also the intelligence of animals, the spirit of the sky, the trees, and the living earth,” he notes. “This philosophy is reflected here at the school.”

In 2023, 2bears participated in the Co-Creation Studio Indigenous Immersive Incubator at MIT, a historic gathering of 10 Indigenous artists. During the summit, he presented “Ne:Kahwistará:ken Kanónhsa’kówa í:se Onkwehonwe” as a work in progress. His innovative storytelling method resonated deeply with the MIT community. Nicole McGaa, Oglala Lakota and co-president of MIT’s Native American Indigenous Association, observes, “His experimental storytelling and communication method truly conveys the power of what it means to be a community as an Indigenous person and the unique beauty of our people.”

The final immersive experience was extraordinary. Featuring 8-foot-tall images displayed on a 34-foot-diameter canvas screen, the installation utilized video mapping with multiple projectors and 14-channel surround sound. The story of Sky Woman’s descent to Turtle Island was presented in an immense and awe-inspiring form. It premiered at the 2RO MEDIA Festival and received enthusiastic acclaim. “It was so beautiful. You could look in any direction and see something happening,” says Gary Joseph, director of Thru the RedDoor. “It affects you in a way you didn’t expect because you’re witnessing sacred elements expressed in an unimaginable way.”

2bears envisions making the installation more interactive, allowing participants to engage with the experience in their unique ways, creating multiple versions of the creation story. “I’ve been thinking of it as creating a living installation,” he says. “This project was truly a community effort, and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. I’m excited about the future possibilities.”

The “Ne:Kahwistará:ken Kanónhsa’kówa í:se Onkwehonwe” project underscores the power of collaboration and community in preserving cultural narratives. By integrating modern technology with ancient storytelling, 2bears has built a bridge between the past and the present, ensuring that Haudenosaunee teachings remain a vibrant part of their cultural practice. This endeavor also highlights the importance of adaptability and resilience. The team’s ability to pivot following the longhouse fire demonstrates the strength and resourcefulness inherent in Indigenous cultures. Moreover, the support from institutions like MIT’s Co-Creation Studio showcases the significance of interdisciplinary collaboration in bringing such projects to fruition.

Looking ahead, the project’s potential to evolve remains vast. 2bears’ vision of a more interactive installation could foster new forms of engagement, allowing participants to contribute their interpretations and experiences to the creation story. This approach could deepen connections to the narrative and ensure its continued relevance. Furthermore, the project’s success may inspire other Indigenous communities to explore similar initiatives, using technology to preserve and transform their cultural stories. As more institutions recognize the value of supporting such endeavors, a growing trend of interdisciplinary collaborations celebrating and sustaining Indigenous knowledge and practices may emerge.

Ultimately, the “Ne:Kahwistará:ken Kanónhsa’kówa í:se Onkwehonwe” project exemplifies a powerful blend of tradition and innovation, offering a glimpse into a future where cultural heritage and technological advancement coexist harmoniously. Through the vision and dedication of Jackson 2bears and his collaborators, the rich stories of the Haudenosaunee people continue to inspire future generations, showcasing the enduring power of cultural resilience and creativity.

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