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Tribal Youth Media Project yields movies that matter

The Bad River Ojibwe have a test called seven generations. When tribal elders need to make an important decision, they ask what that decision will do to their people seven generations down the road.

Hoping to spread Native American cultural practices such as this within tribes, between tribes and to the outside world, UW-Madison professors Patty Loew and Don Stanley co-founded the Tribal Youth Media Project. A sentence from the initiative’s website sums up the mission:

“Native teens learn to make environmental movies that matter to their community.”

Loew, Stanley and a team of graduate students are working to close the “digital divide” between Native Americans and their non-native peers by empowering native teens with the tools and skills to produce video stories about their tribes. The initiative involves annual week-long classes on digital media production.

“We feel good about this project for so many reasons,” says Loew, a professor of life sciences communication, affiliate with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and member of the Bad River Ojibwe Tribe. “We know it works – there have been native kids that have graduated from our program and gone on to make documentaries.”

Patty Loew
Patty Loew

Native children are often at a disadvantage, she explains. Mainstream schools may not teach them in a culturally relevant manner, and they are often encouraged to set their sights low in career prospects. Many native children are prone to self-doubt because the education system isn’t a good fit for them. The Tribal Youth Media Project is trying to turn that around.

“After this experience with us, they’ve seen themselves in a different light,” says Loew. “We’ve seen kids gain confidence in their knowledge levels, in their skill levels, and their self-esteem levels.”

Making videos also teaches the native teens about their own culture. Loew says many traditional Native American values have been compromised in the modern world, and the media landscape is dominated by white culture. She encourages native children to interview their elders while making the documentaries, perpetuating an important tradition that is being lost.

“Elders were traditionally the ones that transferred the knowledge to the younger generations, because the parents were always out hunting, fishing, gathering or working,” Loew explains. “With our Tribal Youth Media Project, we include elders at all phases.”

The elders are bearers of hard-earned wisdom about the intricate ecosystems in which they live. That wisdom is known as traditional ecological knowledge, and it has been passed down orally for generations. The Tribal Youth Media Project ensures that modern native children become another link in the chain. It also reinforces the importance of non-Western concepts of science.

“The elders may not know how greenhouse gas works,” says Loew. “But they know there have been changes, long-term changes they have noticed during their lifetime, and that is important and is a kind of science.”

Numbers and empirical data can’t explain everything, so the Tribal Youth Media Project seeks to connect practitioners of both standard science and tribal knowledge. Native children learn in part from scientists like fisheries biologists, water chemists, and foresters, and those scientists learn from traditional ecological knowledge. This type of collaboration is becoming essential to the Bad River Ojibwe as their wild rice – and thus their very livelihood – is being threatened.

“When we talk about our rice, we talk about ‘our relative’” says Loew. “We have impoverished ourselves for millennia to protect those rice beds. We know the role those rice beds play in that wetland ecosystem. We know that rice filters the water and feeds the fish, the ducks, the small mammals, and the people. We know that the rice is the lungs of Lake Superior.”

But wild rice is a sensitive plant, so threats like invasive species and climate change are especially alarming to the Bad River Ojibwe.

And there’s another, even more immediate and alarming threat to the wild rice: the Gogebic Taconite mine proposal. The Gogebic Taconite Company, based in Florida, owns the mineral rights to a 22-mile-long deposit of iron ore. The ore sits south of Bad River tribal lands and thus upstream from the rice beds, raising concerns about sulfide pollution and other potential effects of the proposed mine that pose risks to the rice beds.

The videos made for the Tribal Youth Media Project help document this chapter of Ojibwe history. For example, three Ojibwe teens created a film called “Protect Our Future.” It’s a 30-minute documentary that was screened to a capacity crowd at the Nelson Institute’s Tales from Planet Earth film festival last November.

“These stories are reaching non-native people, and we’ve found that we have allies,” says Loew. “There are plenty of non-native people who have strong feelings about the resources in our state. When we show this film, it really resonates. People come up and say, ‘What can we do? What do you need?’”

Loew says she hopes the Tribal Youth Media Project will continue to help Native Americans reach out to non-tribal audiences, and help them pass traditional ecological knowledge to their next generation. She wants to give Ojibwe teens the tools to ensure a culturally rich future for their successors, seven generations down the road.

This story was originally published on the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies news webpage.