Thursday, May 6, 2010

thinking about Native American stories in SL

Studying the Cherokee alphabet developed by Sequoyah

Hi guys.

Sorry I haven't been posting for a while. I started a new job and it has pretty much sucked up all my energy for the last few weeks. The good news is, it's a decent job, and I'm mostly working with great people (only a couple of feckless goobers in the lot).

But that doesn't mean the intellectual well has run dry. In fact I have been thinking a great deal about SL, particularly the ways that Native American culture and history are represented in-world.

I got to pondering this topic a few months ago, when Ernst Osterham sent me a screenshot of of a vendor in one of the various "old west" sims that was emblazoned with an image of a voluptuous "Indian" woman wearing a skimpy sort of deer hide bikini. At least I assume it was supposed to be deer hide. Anyway, it was furry and left little to the imagination. And of course, it looked nothing like any actual 19th century Plains Indian female clothing I had ever seen...and in fact, it looked pretty frakkin' preposterous. But hey, it's SL and one of the principles we all embrace here is our Linden-given right to make goddam fools of ourselves, right?

Not that long after that, I happened to go with September Blaisdale to visit an "historical" western sim that initially seemed all right. When checking out an Old West sim for the first time, I always start by going into the saloon--if there is (a.) a stage with stripper pole, (b.) modern line dance pose balls, and/or (c.) stools at the bar, I just go ahead and say "fuckit," and leave. Yeah, I know, it's SL and people can do whatever the smeg they want to...but I also have the right to my opinion that there is a minimum level of authenticity I ask for if I am going to spend any time in an Old West sim, and the presence of a stripper pole is always a good indication that I'm just going to get irritated. Then it's probably best if I simply accept that reality and move on.

Anyhow, like I say, this one didn't seem too bad--it was about your average pre-fab generic old westy environment, and actually there was a smattering of really cool bits that showed some promise. But then we got to the "Cherokee" village.

And of course there were tipis.

If I may, I would now like to direct your attention to the FAQ page of the website of "the Museum of the Cherokee Indian" which unequivocally states in its second paragraph that "The Cherokee never lived in tipis." This revelation is in the very first return you get when you google "Cherokees and tipis." In short, how fucking hard is it is check something like that? The answer is, "not very, unless you just utterly determined to be a bonehead about the subject matter."

Ok, so the tipis were bad enough, but then there was also stuff like a circle of "war dance" pose balls that allowed you to do some animated choreography that looked suspiciously like an Elves' circle dance I had seen long ago; plus there were these huge-ass drums that looked like the things that Bill "Bo Jangles" Robinson danced on in "Stormy Weather." Best of all, there were some kind of fucked-up looking totem pole thingies that had various bondage poses built into them so you could tie "captives" up and presumably dance around them in uncivilized glee.


Now mind you, as far as I know, I do not have any Native American heritage in my background. But holy Moses in his woolly bathrobe, I was pretty sure that if I was of Indian descent--particularly if I happened to be Cherokee--I would have been even more irritated than I actually was. Which, in point of fact, was pretty goddam irritated.

Consequently, I was not surprised when I came across this recent blog post by Barnabe Geisweiller regarding this very topic: Native Americans Object to Portrayal in Second Life

The author of the piece is evidently a graduate student in Journalism at Columbia, and is not specifically an SL blogger, so I thought it was interesting that he picked up on this. Among the people he spoke with for the post was the typist of Nany Kayo, an individual many people regard as a crank and a troll because of her strident (and at times vitriolic) objections to not just the inaccurate representations of Native American history and culture in SL, but to any portrayal of Indians by non-Indians. In fact, she argues that it is inappropriate for anyone who is not an officially enrolled member of a federally-recognized tribe to play in SL using a "Native American" avatar. Furthermore, she contends that the portrayal of Native Americans in sims like Tombstone is so offensive that it violates the LL TOS and those places should be shut down.

While I understand the whole thing about being pissed off over the egregiously inauthentic fantasy "Indian" stuff in SL, I think the lady goes a bit too far. I have friends who may not be card-carrying members of any federally recognized tribe, but they do some really intelligent, respectful and thoughtful representations of historical Native Americans in roleplay. For example, I have a couple of pards who have created roleplay characters that represent Crow and Arikara army scouts of the 1870s. In all honesty, I am not sure of their heritage--they may in fact actually be Indians--but more importantly, they are very careful about how they look (they based their appearance on actual historic photographs), and they are very careful both in how they speak and act. They demonstrate a familiarity with aspects of the history and culture of those people, and strike me as being very respectful in how they explore both Native American and US Army history.

And as for the idea of closing down sims...well shit...that just seems like a big ol' serving of "Worms, Canned, Size-large, 1 (one) each."

It makes more sense to me to provide authentic alternatives. If you want people to get hep to the real skinny on something, you need to go ahead and put it out there, right?

Well, as a matter of fact, Nany Kayo has done just that--she is associated with a group of "educational" sims called the "Virtual Native Lands." So I went there the other night, and you know what? By golly it's got some of the most authentic-looking representations of different traditional Native American living quarters you have ever seen in SL, plus they are situated in some reasonably well-done natural environments.

17th century Eastern Woodland dwellings in the Virtual Native Lands

It's also screamingly dull, with standard museum-style two-dimensional interpretive panels (the usual text, maps and pictures approach) that are supposed to help you understand the historical and cultural context of the three-dimensional builds.

The size of the panels however, is such that I couldn't read most of them even if I wanted to...which I really didn't. You have to keep in mind that I am a terrible museum-goer. I seldom read text panels and labels, and I never move in the direction that the exhibit designers intend for me to go in. But that's just me.

Very conventional--and hard to read--signage in the Virtual Native Lands sims.

The sims were empty except for one other person. Which wasn't surprising as they clearly suffered from the same issues that plague many "educational" and/or "virtual museum builds: they were sterile, lifeless, and lacking a clear interpretive purpose. So it's unlikely that the Virtual Native Lands will accomplish much in terms of counterbalancing the gawd-awful, idiotic fantasy "Indian " stuff you generally find in-world.

And I'll bet right now you're thinking, "holy porkbellies, Batman, ol' Dio sure is in negatory mode tonight! Doesn't she usually try to find something positive to write about to balance out her crankyrantyness?"

Goddam , Hon, I am glad you asked that question.

Because after all, I really do prefer to write about things that are good and positive, rather than writing about the not-so-good side of things. Matter o' fact, after my disappointing trip to Virtual Native Lands, I decided to go on a little quest and see what I could find in the way of Native American builds that were authentic and interesting.

And what I found was a sim called "Sallisaw, Indian Territory." at Maresias 117, 138, 23. Here is how it is described:

"Re-creation of Oklahoma in 1890. A quiet historical Cherokee town in the old west. No roleplay, just good international folks."

The sim was apparently the brainchild of Tsali Kamachi, who is also one of the owners. It consists of a little 1890s town and railroad station and some simple farmsteads. The build itself is nice. It's perhaps not as polished and refined as some of the other historical builds that are out there these days, but you know what? It has a charm and quiet dignity...and authenticity. It shows aspects of life in Oklahoma--the "Indian Territory"--as it really was at the very end of the 19th century. And not a tipi in sight.

A Cherokee family farmstead, circa 1890

Adjoining the Sallisaw build are some recreated structures that are associated with important stories from Cherokee history. And I had the pleasure of meeting their builder, Lee Lovenkraft, who happened to be present when I made my visit.

I thoroughly enjoyed talking with Lee, who was extremely proud of her work on these two recreations: the home of Chief John Ross--the principle leader of the Cherokee in the middle 19th century; and the cabin of Sequoyah, the brilliant creator of the Cherokee alphabet.

Inside the home of Chief John Ross--that is a portrait of the Chief over the fireplace.

Again, while Miss Lovenkaft's work may lack a bit of the refinement that is demonstrated by some other historical builders, her creations are very faithful in their representation of the actual historical structures (which in the case of Chief Ross's home was based on the evidence provided by a single photograph of the facade, as the actual real life building was burned down during the Civil War by Cherokee confederate cavalry).

The home of Chief John Ross

I really like Miss Lovenkraft's work. She obviously deeply cared about the stories that are connected with these structures. I don't think I am projecting when I say that I believe they have a certain feel to them that is extremely appealing.

Sequoyah's cabin

I particularly loved Sequoyah's cabin (the home he built in the 1820s in what would later become Oklahoma). Miss Lovenkraft had also made furnishings for the cabin, based upon the items that can be seen in the actual cabin today, which still stands, not far from the real life town of Sallisaw.

Builder Lee Lovenkraft demonstrates the animated spinning wheel she made for Sequoyah's cabin.

Due to prim limits, these were not in the cabin when I saw it. But Lee rezzed them specially for me to see them and I was very impressed to note that on the table lay a copy of Sequoyah's alphabet.

Sequoyah was one of my heroes when I was a kid, even though I have no connection to the Cherokee. It's just a great story, and he was simply a cool and inspiring dude. I am thrilled that there is something representing his story in SL. And that's the bottom line here: there is Native American-related material in SL that is authentic, respectful and pretty well thought out. Yeah it's not always as well presented as it could be, but there is some good, fun stuff out there. It's not all furry bikinis, badly-made tipis and Gorean "Red Savages."

I would be curious to know if any of you all have any examples of Native American builds that work well, or of people who portray Indian characters in ways that are respectful and well thought-out.


  1. First and foremost, congratulations on the new job - may it continue to be interesting for many years to come! (And how wonderful that the feckless goober population is low at present. Some days I'm surrounded by so many that I curse George Washington Carver.)

    Nany Kayo...Miss Emilly Orr made me familiar with the lady, and it's good to see she remains so steadfast in her crackpot ideas. Only Indians can portray Indians? How insular of her. By that logic, men can't write about women, whites can't write about blacks, straights can't write about gays, et cetera and vice-versa. It's a very artistically barren world Miss Kayo would have us inhabit.

    Finally, the humble barstool is surely one of the more important inventions of our civilization. (And absolutely essential for Neil Young to have writte "Barstool Blues.") I'm shocked to learn that frontier saloons lacked this amenity. I suppose the menfolk were made of sturdier stuff, so they could stand and drink, while the womenfolk simply drank in secret. :)

  2. ey Rhia,

    thank you for the congrats. I really am thrilled to have left the world of consulting for a real gig.

    Anyway, regarding bar stools: historically proper saloons had no stools at the bar. That is why you have the brass foot rail, so you can put one foot up and redistribute your weight while you stand there drinking and talking.

    As best I can tell from stdying period images, you don't see bar stools become common until the early 20th century--quite possibly as an adjunct to the shift that takes place in which it becomes more acceptable for women to drink in bars, so I actually think you may be on the right track with your comment about women drinking in private.

  3. Just so you know... that's completely and totally not how a spinning wheel works. The fiber never touches the large wheel.

  4. Agree with Anonymous. If you get a chance, pass on to the site's creator that her recreation of a wheel is also missing the entire working assembly that makes it a spinning wheel. It has the drive wheel, but it lacks a flyer assembly -- the business end! It needs a mother of all set into the wheel's table that supports two upright maidens. Between them should be a metal spindle shaft that supports a curved flyer with hooks, a bobbin, and a drive whorl. To spin, the drive band goes around the large wheel -- the drive wheel--and around one of the grooves on the whorl. That rotates the spindle and flyer assembly, and allows the spinner to insert twist in the fiber. He or she manages the twist in the fiber at the flyer, and then the thread - -a singles -- enters the flyer orifice, is guided around the flyer via hooks, and wraps around the bobbin.

    She can see multiple examples of spinning on this kind of wheel (look for Flax Wheel, Canadian Production Wheel, or even (for a modern one) Ashford Elizabeth or Saxony wheel) on You Tube. THere she can also see how spinners spin, how they sit to spin, how the singles travel, and the like. A store called The Woollery has a lovely diagram of all the parts of a Saxony spinning wheel that will help her make a more accurate rendering of a wheel, as well. Good luck!!