Techno Moʻolelo: He Au Hou, Skins 5.0, and Digital Indigenous Community-Making

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF) is a partnership of universities and community organizations that develop multiple visions of Indigenous peoples in the future. Through its four main activities — residencies, symposia, archive, and workshops — IIF contributes to a thriving Indigenous futurist community. He Au Hou was the fifth edition of their acclaimed Skins Workshops in Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design.

The Skins workshop in Hawaiʻi demonstrated how digital media can contribute to transnational fourth-world community. It was the first major Skins workshop to take place outside of the territory now known as Quebec, creating coalitions between multiple Indigenous organizations working in community.

During Skins workshops, participants work with their own stories and knowledge; they then direct the creation of a video game that speaks back to representations of Indigenous peoples within larger culture. Skins addresses new generations of creators who are already active in cyberspace by providing instruction in the tools of the medium. Storytelling and cultural knowledge form the basis of Skins; in this way, digital image and sound design, 3D modeling, animation, and level design can be approached as ways to engage with culture.

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures works to challenge the ideas and assumptions that overdetermine Indigenous peoples’ relationships to technology and digital media. In video games as in film, photography, painting, and literature, Indigenous peoples have often been denied their humanity, seen through the frame of cowboys and Indians, as dying tribal hordes, human-animal hybrids, and objects of sexual conquest. (LaPensée, With this history and the popularity of video games among youth, this is a critical site for healing.

Amanda Roy, an Anishinaabe artist and filmmaker, considers Skins through Michelle Raheja’s concept of “virtual reservations.” Raheja parallels real-world experiences in the reserve system with the Indigenous experiences in film and new media; virtual reservations are also sites of repression and violence, insofar as the range and depth of Indigenous humanity and our ability to imagine ourselves is delimited through the multiple roles that structure our existence within the dominant culture’s imaginary. (Raheja 150 – 151, 153) Like their real-world counterparts, though, virtual reservations are places where Indigenous peoples create community and transmit cultural knowledge.

Skins “creates emancipatory space for Indigenous peoples,” where we can create our own wired communities and upload our own data. (Roy 52 – 53) We know that our experiences in the physical world are affected by a constellation of images and virtualities. Much like navigating the multilayered significations of physical space, so too do we transverse digital space as well.

There are parallels between the tools Skins brings to storytelling with Indigenous women’s writings on maps; Johnson identifies storytelling as a cartographical practice used by Indigenous women that highlights interrelationships on and through the land (116). This knowledge coalesces in “deeper maps”, which question the abstracted geographies put forward by Western maps.

He Ao Hou, the game produced during the workshop, produces a “deeper map” as a way to transmit kanaka maoli knowledges. Space travel figures heavily into He Ao Hou; the player character goes on a quest to different planets in search of their twin. The use of star navigation in He Au Hou is further in line with Johnson’s idea of a deeper map in that it embeds traditional knowledge, wayfinding by stars, into the game. In this way, new media technologies produce digital cartographies that plot Indigenous life in and through the virtual.

He Au Hou represents what the Skins Workshops in Aboriginal Storytelling and Video Game Design hopes to achieve. Youth become creators of Indigenous digital media and contribute their own knowledge and viewpoints into the virtual world. More than speaking back, this work happens in an Indigenous space for Indigenous people. Digital media are seen through the lens of traditional knowledge, the oral tradition, and community connection.

I thank Skawennati, Nancy Townsend, and Kathryn Jezer Morton for their help with editing and writing this piece.