Indigenous Digital Development Day Presentation

What follows is the copy from my artist keynote for the Indigenous Digital Development Day 2021, on October 20th. I’ll also post a link to the video recording when it becomes available. The main page of it all can be found here. Thank you to the folks at imagineNATIVE who invited me to talk and to publish the talk here as well.

Hau Mitakuyapi! Anpetu Waste yelo!

My name is Allen Turner. I’m Black, Lakota, and Irish and a multi-disciplinary creator from Chicago on the other side of the Michigami. I’m a storyteller, writer, and performer but primarily I’ve been active in the game industry for many, many years and have had my hands in many games (both AAA and indie), but most of you are probably more familiar with a tabletop game called Ehdrigohr: The Roleplaying Game. It’s important because it is the first game that I wrote and published that comes directly from my voice and my experience as mixed indigenous person.

I was delighted and nervous when Melissa John’s and the folks at Imaginative invited me to come speak with you all. I wasn’t sure what to say, but given the trying times that we find ourselves navigating I felt that if I could offer words, or some sort of emotional support, to any of you to help you push through and get your creation out in the world, then that was my duty as a relative.

There is so much to talk about that it’s dizzying.

We live in strange times and wonderful times. It is a great time to be a creator.

There are so many platforms to get your ideas seen and heard, but also there is also a glut of products on the market, so much that it is really difficult sometimes (depending on your field) to get seen and stand out. And when I say glut, I’m not drawing any conclusions about the quality of the products available, just the overall quantity.

That glut is a good sign. It is evidence that the access that we have to tools is unprecedented.

When I first got into the business, back in 1995, it was really hard to get access to resources. I was the only Native and/or Black person at Bungie Software at the time of my hire. In those days there were very few 3rd party game engines to work with (Quake and Lithtech, I think, were pretty much it for straight off the shelf). Everything else was home grown and proprietary. Eventually Unreal came along and also there was Gamebryo, Torque, and a number of frameworks that presumed you were a hardcore programmer. Getting access to any of these was cost prohibitive and (except Quake/Doom) there was not a lot of info out there on how to use the engines. You had to pull docs from source or have someone on your team who was familiar with the tools. For some engines support amounted to a whole other cost prohibitive barrier. Heck, I seem to recall when we were first working with Unreal 3 (prior to the UDK) there was a cost in the realm of $300k to $500k (that may have been per seat and depending on the support level it went upwards of $750k) to use the engine and there were royalties.

On the side of doing film/video work with animation there were tons of tools available but all of them were severely expensive. There were the SGI Workstations, Lightwave3D, Softimage, 3D Studio Max, and a bunch more. If you were poor and wanted to use these systems your options were (1) to hope they had access to them at school or (2) find a crack online. Now some have switched to more affordable subscription models and we have the freely available, and very powerful, Blender3D. So again, the cost of accessing tools have come down and made them actually accessible which increases (at least potentially) the number of marginalized voices we see appearing in the industry.

Having had to navigate some of these industry changes myself I’m always happy to champion other’s use of whatever tools you can get your hands on to begin the process of making your ideas manifest.

So, on that note, the first thing I want to say is something that I feel should be the obvious, though I’ve found that on occasion it’s good to state and punctuate the obvious. That obvious things is: if you have something in you, a story, a dance, a game, a film, and animation, whatever it may be; Just find a way to start making it. 

That is both the easiest and hardest thing to do. Get access to tools and resources and just make it. It is our duty to those who came before to do this work and it’s the duty, I feel, for those of us who have been doing the work to make room for those who come after us. 

So, even if you only make one thing. Even if you never release it to the world beyond yourself, or your family. Even if you aren’t as knowledgeable of your people and your traditions, even if you are super knowledgeable but aren’t sure if something is ok. I say find a way to do it. Solve the problem of who gets to see it, what protocols need to be addressed, and what edits need to be made. But you should probably start with some form of making enough of the thing to ensure that the people you need to talk to are able to understand your goal and guide you. You can always refine something that exists, but if it’s never made, then there is nothing to work with.

Things have changed so much. Compared to then, we are now living in a golden age of democratized tools and opportunities. Tools have been greatly democratized such that, even if you have no money, you can still get your hands on tools that will allow you to create robustly.

If you’re a film person there are tools for you, animation? There are tools for you. Graphic design, music, whatever, there are tools for you. If you have money to work with, your options continue to increase.

So while things begin in the making, it doesn’t end there. The making is where you show people that you are capable of doing the work and the depth of your vision. As a creator you must be prepared for a lot of things as you move along this journey. As a creator of color and an Indigenous creative the things you must navigate increase by a lot. That’s not to say that it gets harder but the responsibilities that we carry to our peoples are also included in that process and it’s important to recognize them and engage them. They’ll be things that the mainstream world doesn’t understand but they are necessary. Sometimes they’ll mean you don’t profit as much monetarily but you will profit in care and kinship that will keep you in motion long after the mainstream world has turned it’s eye to the next shiny thing.

One way or another, the stories we put out into the world are bolstered by those people who lifted us up to get to this point. 

I want to encourage people to be worldbuilders. Think about stories that haven’t been told that come from your experience of the world and find a way to make that happen. Don’t make just the Native version of a colonizer idea. Be inspired but make the Native parallel that stands on its own.

If you want to do fantasy can you create in a way that speaks to your cultural ideas without putting the culture on display?

If you want to do sci-fi or speculative fiction, consider the problems of the world and look at them through a Native lens. Can you imagine what it looks like on the other side of that problem? Have things gotten better? Have they gotten worse? Are they getting worse as part of the transition to getting better? Why? What social, economic, political, and technological ecologies are in place for this to happen? Write those stories.

One of the beautiful things about Reservation Dogs is that it borrows so many tropes from so many things but makes it distinctly and noticeably indigenous in a way that if you’re from that space you get it. It even does this thing where it includes people from other ethnicities, but doesn’t center them. Instead, it adds them to the soup of a Native world and makes all of them affected by the Native experience. If you’re not from that Native space you’re still entertained.

While watching Reservation Dogs I was reminded of the Yakuza game series. These games are hugely popular but unrelentingly Japanese. There is no attempt to make it more pleasing to a Western sensibility. There are constant cultural in-jokes and things you have to participate in that you, as a player, just have to assume makes sense some how. It never, however stops being entertaining.

Similarly Deadlands the Maori TV show presents a fantastic world of spirits and warfare that comes specifically from the Maori experience. It is brutal and presents politics that don’t necessarily make sense to a Western eye but it continues to be engaging. The level of bloodshed on display may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it gets through its tale without having to center an external voice.

I want to see more and more such endeavors, whic do these kinds of things, making it to the big screen, TV screen, and the small screen in my pocket.

It lifts my heart to see indigenous peoples picking through the growing list of tools available and using them to make us all seen. I especially love seeing those stories that don’t get distracted being an angry retort to colonialism but instead center and attempt to reconstruct lost and stolen narrative constructs of indigeneity.

I want to call attention to an old friend of mine, Mike J. Marin (Navajo/Laguna Pueblo/Washo). Mike grew up in South Central LA and moved to Chicago where he eventually began to study film and animation. His passion was a steady flow of horror and sci-fi movies. When he got access to tools and began making his first movie, he leaned into his love of John Carpenter movies but approached it from an indigenous POV and particularly form a Dine/Laguna point of view. That allowed him to get his first film done. It allowed him to pull in his community for support, and allowed him to get his film into many festivals and build some word of mouth. His film, the Smudging, won some awards and he was able to get it into various streaming platforms. Was that first film perfect? No. I don’t think anyone’s freshman effort is. But it gave him the emotional experience of getting something done. Once he had something done he knew that he had the capacity to do this thing. Since then he’s made more small films independently. Each one getting just a bit better. I believe he’s currently working on his fifth film and enjoys great support from his community.

So I can hear some people thinking how does that work? How do you do that? How do you get started?

My answer to that is always to start with the smallest, tastiest aspect of the thing you want to create. Ask yourself how do I make this accessible? What is the experience of this thing and what do I need to have in place to make that experience accessible? We all have a big grandiose idea somewhere inside of us that we’d like to make into a reality, but the truth is that we don’t always have the skills and connections to make that happen.

So that takes me to my next thought. Make use of what is available to you and start small and scope up as opportunity allows.

As a developer I’m always a fan of the user story. User stories are when you approach an experience from the point of view of a participant and identify what is the experience that you want that participant to have. Then you write that down. You do this as many times as necessary to get a big view of the great idea. This leaves you with a bank of stories (called a backlog) that will lead you to the core discussions you need to have to begin your creating. Every user story ideally leads to a task (or more) that needs to be resolved. Get in the habit of planning like this because it makes it so much easier to get buy in from others.

I like to think of it like sculpting.

A sculptor has a couple big ways to start a sculpture. They can just get a big hunk of material (marble or wood) and just start chipping away at it. Pieces get broken off all over the material until something starts to show up. When the artist recognizes what has shown up they focus in on it and turn it into a masterpiece.

The other way requires a certain amount of planning. The sculptor maps out a grid for the material and plots pieces of the intended creation into the various squares of the grid. They then begin building and creating one grisd space at a time.

The benefit to the first process is that it’s easy to start and encourages a playful mindset. You don’t have to know what you’re making. You just begin feeling it out until you get an aha and then you can drill down. It does have the problems of nonone knows what you’re making (not even you). When you do know what you’re making, only you know. It wastes a lot of material trying to get to the aha moment.

When we’re coming from the space of limited resources and.or visibility, I feel like the second option is better. In that second option you actually have the idea and you’ve done the work to get it out of your head. Getting it out of your head means others can build a relationship with it. It also means that work can continue with or without you because the tasks and the direction have been outlined. The last point, I feel is the most important, and that is it is easier to build community around. That, in my opinion, is key. Building community creates a support structure and it creates appetite and it builds trust.

My process is typically to spend some time getting the big ideas out of my head. Then I examine and reexamine them and try to find the easily accessible pieces. I create as much info about them as I can and then I can start pulling in people with expertise that I don’t have.

There are so many big conversations these days about getting people to engage in your work and how do you raise money and/or get access to people with lots of capital to back you. With the advent of all of the social media spaces available to us what we forget is that so much of how the world works around us these days revolves around economies of attention. Every social media platform buys and sells attention. They are building heatmaps of your likes and interactions.

If you can build a reserve of attention, then other forces start gravitating to you. One of the best ways to build that attention is to give people enough information that they can see themselves in your creation.

This is huge for BIPOC creators because a large part of our urge to create is that we don’t see ourselves in any of the stuff out there. Creating enough that people can connect, gets their interest and makes them feel like they’re being a part of something. This is why crowdfunding campaigns are your best friends. Crowdfunding is all about generating attention. When you have enough information about a project you’re crowdfunding you’ve created an instance of culture being made. People are hungry for culture and want to be part of new things. Your success gives them stories they can share about how they were there when it began. Even if the crowdfunding campaign isn’t successful it still garners you supporters. Again, that culture is there and many people are upset that the thing you were doing didn’t get funded and they’re ready to follow you and do what they can to make it happen the next time.

Consider expanding that experience beyond strangers and using it to build actual economic structures in your own communities. Casino’s aren’t the only way to build big economic flow in a community. We can do that with all sorts of entertainment structures. We can do it with a movie studio, a game studio, or a sports arena. But for these to work requires a creative somewhere who has enough knowhow and is able to share sufficient information that others can be brought on board. And before we say that such things aren’t doable, consider how big Disney is, consider Studio Ghibli, consider Universal Studios, the list goes on. These are all things that entire communities have built up around and they have physical spaces that dwarf many reservations.

But here’s the thing. And it’s my own opinion, but don’t go at it with the intention of trying to take down the monolithic structures in existence in one fell swoop. That creates severely unrealistic expectations of success that can not only break what you’re trying to do, but it can unravel the community you’re building.

Be okay starting in small spaces and doing the thing to do the thing and engaging the communities that build up around it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about a new Massively Multiplayer Game coming up and watched the creators position themselves as the game that kills World of Warcraft. Everyone of them started really topheavy, focused on being big, but had no foundation or scaffolding to keep them sustainable and then they crashed and burned. Manywhile many small boutique MMO games (like Tales from the desert) continue despite being not so well known. They were so focused on the experience that they got a coterie of users who loved and supported their experience. The developers managed their growth so that they were never promising so much that it exhausted them, and the users stayed because they were getting something that they weren’t getting elsewhere.

On that note, I’d like to address the cultural economies of stories. I think we all know some old stories. The world of entertainment that surrounds us is spilling over with cultural affirmations of the dominant colonizer culture. They are not afraid to create more and more things that support their cultural lens. They’re not afraid to create play or narratives around the sacred and the profane, about their version of history, and their perception of gender and relationships, or their ideas of governance, control, and the value of an individual citizen. This is both good and bad. The good is obvious. It feeds into the needs of the ravenous capitalist system which is a core colonial cultural concept. The bad is that they rapidly become exploitative, follow no protocols for sharing sensitive information, and are dominated by hyper individualists that work really hard to erase ideas and cultures that can impede their growth. And of course that is a gross generalization and there are lots of nuances to be found.

Most of us, however, aren’t coming from cultures where that path is acceptable. We have to check with elders and relatives before making things visible to the broader world. We have languages that most of the mainstream have never heard. We have structures that lean into more of a collectivist social expectation. We see one person becoming grossly successful, while the rest struggle, as an unhealthy process. That perspective makes it difficult sometimes to be seen in the colonizer spaces. But if we focus our efforts around building up our own spaces that becomes less of an issue. 

It might feel like having to navigate all of these protocols can get in the way because it runs counter to the way the mainstream works. But if you look at it from the point of view of worldbuilding and scaffolding it begins to make more sense. If we spend more time building, creating, and speaking to our own cultural needs, then we’ll eventually have to build infrastructures to support that. This makes us the ones that control those narratives, and the outsiders must then find ways to come to us to get access. Which then allows us to have a profound impact on how the external media progresses. Consider how influential Hong Kong action movies were to the action industry. You can’t look at a fight scene these days without seeing the shadows of Yuen Wo Ping, and Tsui Hark and the like. So too can we have these profound effects and possibly even take over the narrative.

It’s important that we stay in control of the narratives of our culture. Our social narratives, our sacred narratives, our gender narratives, are all part of our sovereignty. 

The last thing I want to say is a return to something I mentioned earlier.

So many of us have survived the rigors of navigating all the obstacles that get in the way. If we are to be good ancestors we must use that to make way for those coming behind us. One of the greatest experiences I had recently was being invited to Convergence, a big Sci-fi and fantasy convention in Minneapolis. First let me start by saying it was a wonderful experience. I had never paid any attention to Convergence. I’m usually not a big fan of conventions and when big cons reach out to me I often turn it down because I’m particularly hypervigilant these days about tokenism. I almost backed out and when I made noises about having too much to do they told me how there was a big native presence and lots of Indigenous and BIPOC panels for me to connect to. So for reasons I can’t remember, I said yes. 

When I got there it was mostly a White space (a diaspora of Whiteness but culturally White and really nice welcoming people). When I got around to meet with the local Anishinaabe folks who were there, and came out to meet me, they told me that this was the first time any of their panels were allowed. They said they had tried many times to get things out there that supported their interests and talk about experiences that were particularly Indigenous, they were voted down and told that there wasn’t enough interest. The con allowed the panels this time because they wanted things I could attach myself to. So I attached myself to almost every one of those panels and did my own presentation too. In those other panels, I was mostly quiet, deferring to the wisdom and experience of the people from the area who normally don’t get to be heard. 

This is an important thing to do. We return to the idea of attention being a dominant economy. Once you have success, you have some attention. Do not be afraid to expend some of that attention to use it to create space that isn’t about you. Use it to center others. Use it to center marginalized people connected to you. This is how we build a sustainable ecology for the new stories that are yet to come.

I think I’ve rambled long enough. I hope that everyone participating at this ImagineNative festival explores, connects, creates, and builds nourishing communities and gets both seen a little bit and deeply inspired. You all inspire me deeply and I’m honored that you have taken the time to hear my thoughts.

I look forward to a time when I can say I was there when some of you were getting started and before you changed the world. Feel free to reach out.



Allen Turner

Writer, Storyteller, Game designer, Teacher, Dad, Table-top RPG geek. I'm just a dude who likes to share my wild imaginings. Follow me on Twitter @CouncilOfFools

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