Saturday, September 08, 2007

NAT: Coushatta Language Games

An Indian Nation Preserves Its Heritage With a Magic Joystick
BY ROB CAPRICCIOSO - Special to the Sun, September 4, 2007

Like many 8-year-old boys, Eli Langley loves video games. The ins and outs of Nintendo and PlayStation characters, puzzles, and role-playing adventures are much more accessible to him than, say, the oral traditions or hunting techniques of his Coushatta Tribe's ancestors. His latest
obsession is trying to restore the powers and magic of a character named Sora in the "Kingdom Hearts" game for Nintendo DS.

"If I sleep on it, I think I'll beat it," Eli said one night after school and football practice. "I'm not modest, I know I'll do it."

Eli's love of gaming got his mother, Linda, and several of her tribe's leaders thinking: Could the tribe harness the power of video games and their mighty influence over today's young people to promote cultural learning? Could a game about American Indian culture and language be of interest to a plugged-in child like her son?

"We wanted to find something new, something fun, to engage our younger members," the tribe's chairman, Kevin Sickey, said. "We need to draw strength from our past, while doing everything we can to preserve our future."

After months of working with a high-tech gaming development firm and investing thousands of dollars, that mission is becoming a reality with the creation of a state-of-the-art museum called the Coushatta Heritage Center, soon to be built in Elton, La.

In fact, Eli recently helped test a prototype 3-D video game for the museum, in which players are able to explore a virtual world in order to experience how members of the Coushatta Tribe traditionally interacted with their environment and used handmade tools to survive.

Where a typical video game might feature a European-looking spaceman running around on an alien planet with a laser gun, this game prototype featured a Coushatta hero with darker skin and a build more like a traditional member of the tribe, with a sinewy and slightly muscular upper body and legs. True to tribal history, the character carried a bow and arrow, as well as a
blowgun to hunt small animals. His game-play environment was modeled after the traditional Coushatta forests, and he received instructions in the game from a computerized elder who asked him to collect firewood for warmth and pine needles to weave baskets.

Eli was able to manipulate the character via a game controller, just as he would make Super Mario jump and run in a Nintendo game. If his character picked up wood that was too close to a pond, the guiding elder would tell him that the wood bundles were too wet to be used.

"It's kind of boring right now because it's only a prototype," Eli explained. "It'll get better."

Eli's mother couldn't be happier about this modern-day video game creation story, which she has played a large role in promoting through her role as an anthropologist at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. "We saw that the first day of testing," she recalled. "I couldn't get him to get off it. He sat and he played, and he made the character run through the landscapes."

Ms. Langley is as pumped as a video game fanatic to have her son join other Native kids from her community as guinea pigs for this mission. "They were so hooked," she recalled of one demo day. "We knew we were on to something."

But there is an educational method behind the fun. "What we're really trying to do is use modern learning technology to help educate about the tribe and to help preserve the language and the culture for future generations," said John Purdy, president of Red Knight Learning Systems of Dallas, the firm the Coushatta Tribe has contracted with to help develop its digital learning center. "Young people have not always been able to pick up much on their language and their tribe's history."

The Coushatta partnership with Red Night, which began early this year, will make the tribe one of a handful in the nation with a museum that features modern immersive, multimedia learning exhibits designed to preserve tribal language and heritage.

Indian leaders say that as the concept of tribal self-determination has taken steam since the 1960s, more tribes have taken ownership over their representation in museums. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., which has received funding from dozens of tribes, is but one symbol of the movement. Since its opening in 2004, it has featured many "living history" video exhibits with tribal cultures being explained by contemporary American Indians via film and other electronic means.

Ms. Langley prefers to call the Coushatta museum a digital center because museums have often held negative connotations for Native people, she said. Many non-Indian museums, like the Smithsonian Institution, host exhibits featuring Indian bones and sacred artifacts, a practice that fundamentally violates the cultural ideologies of many tribes.

By most accounts, the Coushatta Heritage Center will take tribal museums to an even higher playing field. Ground has already been broken for the nearly 10,000-foot facility that will house the unique technological learning experiment, and leaders are tentatively expecting the museum to open in the fall of 2008.

Video games won't be the only unique aspect of the museum. Red Knight is also designing an immersive theater, which will feature computerized sound effects and "smell cartridges" that will allow visitors to sense and feel like they've walked into the Coushatta woods in the evening. A timeline wall will allow visitors to "interact with history" -- by sliding a display monitor along the wall, they will able to see and hear the tribe's history. Several Koasati language programs will be available, and basket-making games also will allow visitors to make their own virtual Coushatta basket.

The center, according to Ms. Langley, will also include interactive and physical exhibits exploring the tribe's prophecies and stories from their more than 500-year history. The Kosati language will be integrated into all exhibits, and the Heritage Center will also function as a tribal library, archive, and language learning center for Coushatta tribal members.

Ms. Langley insists that those who are resistant to or reluctant to use technology will still find much to enjoy at the museum. "You will not have to be a video game expert to get a lot out of it," she said.

Mr. Purdy of Red Knight said tribal leaders were adamant that they didn't want this project to turn out like any old museum. After researching the current field of tribal museums, he believes that the Coushatta Heritage Center "will be one of the more high-tech and unique buildings and heritage centers among American Indian tribes in the nation."

Technology, of course, does not come cheaply. No one interviewed for this story would give exact numbers, but some say the video-game aspects of the heritage museum alone will cost upwards of six figures. The Coushatta Tribe is paying for the project via tribal casino profits and other fund raising, as well as from grant money from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and from the Smithsonian.

"The amount of resources that are being poured into this initiative are unprecedented," the tribe's vice chairman, David Sickey, said. "It serves a dual purpose: serving the generations that are coming up and educating our non-Indian friends as well."It's crucial for tribal councils to endorse these types of forward-thinking initiatives, Mr. Sickey said.

"That's one thing I've really noticed about the tribe," Mr. Purdy said. "They do seem to spend a lot of their money and energy into helping out their own people."

With a kid like Eli at the controls, that mindset may be prove to be useful. "He likes complicated games," Ms. Langley said.

"Yeah, they can't be boring," Eli chimed in over his mom. "They're not going to be fun unless they mess me up a little."

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