It was three years in the making and finally, on Thursday morning, a collaborative project led by Blackfoot Elders was launched with researchers from the University of Lethbridge and the U.K. as well as artists and British museums.
The website is called Mootookakio’ssin, which translates to “distant awareness.” It was named by Elder Dr. Leroy Little Bear and aims to connect people living in traditional Blackfoot territory with some non-sacred, historical Blackfoot belongings that can now be found in British museums.
“It started just by recognizing the lack of access to this important cultural material that’s been tucked away in museum stores super far away,” said Christine Clark, assistant professor of New Media in the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Lethbridge.
“Some people have been able to go and visit it, but a lot of times that experience isn’t necessarily able to be shared beyond those individuals.”
Blackfoot elders were approached to see if there would be interest and what protocols would need to be followed if it were to go ahead.
“There was a keen interest in being able to share these models and share them with others and for that to contribute to all the hard work that many elders and knowledge keepers are doing in trying to revitalize culture.”
A group of researchers and elders went to the U.K. in 2019 to visit these items and select a few to be shown on the interactive website. Hundreds of photos were taken from different angles and different light sources. These were later used to create the 3D models and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI).
Those 3D images and RTI models make up Mootookakio’ssin.
“We went and looked at material that comes from the late 1700s to the early 1800s,” said Elder advisor from Piikani Nation, Jerry Potts. “Some of this stuff was made before contact with white people.”
“It was such a great opportunity to be able to capture some of the art and how things were made.”
The interactive website allows people who might not typically have access to the Blackfoot belongings take a closer, more engaging, look at history.
“So when you bring that into the digital format you have an interactive image where you can pass the light across the surface and it reveals details that are actually hard to see with the naked eye,” said Clark.
Clark added that a lot of time was spent on the design and development phase. They didn’t want the new site to feel like the items were on display in a museum. They wanted to feel like they were coming home to Blackfoot territory.
“The website allows individuals to understand colonization and the impact colonization has had on Indigenous People as a whole in removing items that are deeply connected to individuals,” said Melissa Shouting, a graduate student at the University of Lethbridge who worked as a consultant and researcher.
Shouting is from Kainai Nation, which is part of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
“It just feels amazing to be able to show people and kind of invite them into our world and teach people a little bit, but also to allow artisans to use the website so they can create items as well.”
Potts believes that this is a step in the right direction when it comes to truth and reconciliation.
“If somebody wants to change or make a difference, they need to learn about the culture and the other people and how they live and what they do.”
He believes this collaborative website highlights the university’s efforts to reach out to another culture and give them the same credibility and knowledge.
“We do come from a very high-value standard of living in the way we were before contact. And that’s what’s going to take us into the future to save who we are, our language, our culture and our process.”