Listening to Inuvialuit voices forms basis of digital storytelling project

Ali Shiri and his research team spent four years getting to know the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) of the far northwestern Arctic in order to help create a digital library platform that reflected residents’ information needs and respected the cultural heritage information the library was intended to preserve.

Shiri, a professor in the School of Library and Information Studies, will be returning to the region to help develop a real-time seamless audio recording system that will support digital storytelling by Indigenous communities. And once again, he says, the first step will be to listen.

“The first year, there’s no system design, it’s just learning how storytelling happens as a process, then seeing how we can model that in a digital environment to make it something that is meaningful and relevant,” Shiri said. “That means involving community members and elders. So it’s not a simple audio-recording device, it’s more leveraging technology in a way that is culturally appropriate and could be adopted as part of regular storytelling.”

The project, entitled “Inuvialuit Voices: cultural preservation and access through digital storytelling,” builds on the Digital Library North project Shiri and his team undertook with community members from 2014-18, which resulted in the creation of the Inuvialuit Digital Library.

“The cultural heritage library has more than 5,000 objects, oral histories, images from the community, as well as children’s books, drawings, videos, you name it,” Shiri said. “The idea is to provide a platform for preserving memories, languages, the actual culture, in a way that’s using the actual culture to preserve it.”

The community of Uluhaktok in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region
The community of Uluhaktok in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (supplied).

‘Engagement with community is the project’

Shiri says this is why it’s so important to build relationships of trust with community members through interviews, focus groups, open houses, workshops and being present in the communities.

“You have to show you’re willing to learn and understand what it means to the western Arctic, the lifestyle, the way of life, the culture, the language and dialects they use,” Shiri said. “That kind of engagement to community is foundational; it’s not just a small part of the project you have to fulfill, it is the project.”

Thus, before the development of system to support digital storytelling can take place, Shiri and his team—which includes SLIS PhD candidates Sharon Farnel and Robyn Stobbs—need to understand what storytelling means in the context of the ISR.

“Storytelling seems like a self-explanatory term, but really storytelling is an important technique for sharing information. It’s powerful, it involves human interaction and it’s very effective,” Shiri said. “In an Indigenous community context, you have leadership and all these different elements, what it means for an elder to tell a story, and how you capture that to ensure that those elements remain intact.”

Building in sustainability

The practical challenges of conducting research in the far north are manifest in the ISR, which comprises six communities—Paulatuk, Uluhaktok, Sachs Harbour, Tuktoyaktuk, Inuvik and Aklavik—in a 91,000-square-kilometre area. Travel is expensive and dependent on favourable weather; accommodations and board also come at a premium. Technological and connectivity limitations take time to overcome. And the relative isolation of the ISR’s communities means some linguistic and cultural variance between settlements that need to be accounted for.

Shiri says devoting time and effort to building relationships in the community not only contributes to the success of the research, but ensures its continuing value and sustainability.

“What we’ve found is that if you’ve engaged those communities properly and there’s enough support and belief that this project is worthwhile, the content becomes the property of the community and they will adopt and benefit from these technologies.”

This research is funded by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Feature image: SLIS professor Ali Shiri takes a break from research on the Digital Library North project to experience dog-sledding in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (supplied).