First Voices

First Voices is a unique arts partnership between the First Nations of America and New York-based performing arts nonprofit, Thresh. Initiated in Montana with plans to expand to other areas over the next three years, First Voices is a digital storytelling initiative focused on intergenerational collaboration between artists of different First Nations of America to link the wisdom of ancestral stories to contemporary life.

First Voices interweaves two areas—the artistic creation of ancestral stories through digital media and a mentorship program for youth in tribal reservation schools through an arts-based collaboration between the First Nations artists and Thresh.

First Voices uses the tools of storytelling (music, dance, theater, visual and sculptural arts), both ancient and modern, to foster new vocational opportunities through the creative use of digital technology, healing trauma and loss, and building resilience and leadership through community-based collaboration.

Project Goals

  • Partner with artists to build better intercultural (Native and non-Native) relationships

  • Document ancestral stories and interviews with tribal elders and youth using digital technology; train youth towards a vocation in digital technology

  • Use storytelling as a healing tool to address trauma and loss

  • Foster self-confidence and leadership skills among youth through mentorship workshops with multidisciplinary artists from the program and presentations within the community

"This project is a great way to promote our culture and show people that we are still here and our way is not lost."

 

Samuel Haugen, Senior, Lame Deer High School

Digital Storytelling Performances

First Voices digital performance series is an archive of vanishing elders' stories, preserving their wisdom for future generations. Stories are selected by a group of First Nations elders from different tribes through a series of artistic discussions coordinated by Thresh. 

Contemporary interpretations of ancestral stories are created for the digital platform bringing intergenerational Native and non-Native artists to foster better intercultural understanding between the two groups. Recordings of elders as the primary narrators of their stories will allow younger generation artists to bring their contemporary creativity alongside the elder’s storytelling methods.

 

Thresh captures behind-the-scenes media of the story created for First Voices, documenting the process of artistic creation, interactions between participants, as well as reflections on such unique collaborations.

First Voices premiered in December 2020 with a digital story performance between Thresh and artists from three Montana tribes: Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and Chippewa Cree nations. The performance embraced an interdisciplinary approach involving music, Indigenous narration, dance, and visual arts as a cross-tribal and inter-community exchange.

 

In the short video clips below, key collaborators and teaching artists answer questions about First Voices

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Sammy Jo Bird’s three-part canvas "Tséhésenéstsesttse" depicts the Northern Cheyenne Creation Story of The Big Dipper, or the constellation Ursa Major. Commissioned by Thresh in December 2020, the artist was inspired after listening to elder Ruthie Shoulderblade tell the constellation story in her Native Cheyenne language. Bird describes the words of the elder as “brushstrokes” that wash over the listener.

 

The work is comprised of three canvases, which reflect the unique experience of listening to the creation story. According to Bird, the painting has a “build-up” or a beginning, climax, and ending, just like the narrative. She paints in acrylic with various application methods, including several key symbolic elements from the tale: the teepee, devil’s tower, river, bear tracks, and bear.

 

Indigenous stories are often told in the evening, which is reflected in Bird’s artistic decision to paint the scene at nighttime. The night sky’s magical quality takes on an appearance similar to the Northern Lights, highlighting the Big Dipper constellation. Bird’s work calls attention to another Cheyenne art form: beadwork. The sides of the center canvas are decorated in ornate beaded patterns, modeled on traditional Cheyenne beading in which specific colors and patterns take on their own significance.

Learn more and acquire this work here.

Mentorship Program and Outreach

First Voices includes a year-long semester-based mentorship program that serves young adults in Title I reservation schools. This creative program is mentored and guided by professional artists within, and outside of, the community.  

The program’s goal is to inspire young adults (ages 14-18) to find their own unique voice in the contemporary world through reconnecting wisdom by working together with elders, teaching artists, and Thresh over the course of the academic year.

Students create contemporary interpretations of ancient legends and learn from professional artists:

  • Narration & visual art techniques

  • Film performance & script adaptation

  • Storyboarding for film

  • Music composition, audio recording & practical studio application

  • Dance & movement interpretation of stories

  • Virtual & in-person presentation skills

 

The program encourages students to build their own stories that have been inspired by ancestral stories. Through online performance videos and related educational media (including lesson plans for educators) the project aims to inspire young adults and empower them to become agents of change within their communities and beyond.

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YEAR 1: Montana State University, Billings partnered with Thresh to host the inaugural First Voices Mentorship Program. Artists provided high school students from the Lame Deer school system with hands-on learning experiences through multiple artistic disciplines.

The series took place in September 2021 where students engaged with storytelling, movement and choreography, and introduction to film making and presentation skills for the camera. In May 2022, we aim to create a public digital installation will present the various phases of the workshop through behind-the-scenes videos, panel discussions with the student team, teachers, and artists involved in the project. Students' stories will be archived and featured on First Voices partners and Thresh's websites.

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Storytelling workshop led by Preeti Vasudevan and Alaina Buffalo Spirit at Montana State University, Billings (2021)

Project Outcomes & Need

  • Generate a series of digital stories based on First Nations ancestral stories through collaborative partnerships between Thresh and Native artists

  • Cultivate contemporary, intergenerational narratives through visual and performing arts presentations

  • Build a mentorship program between the Native artists and youth (junior high and high school) from reservation schools

  • Inspire young adults from the First Nations to find and develop a unique voice through personal narratives inspired by their ancestral stories

  • Develop a year-end touring digital public program installation of the students works

First Voices is developed in three phases, each over the span of a year. The greatest needs are:

  • Personnel: Artistic Director, educational director and artists fees

  • Filming & post-production media expenses

  • Website content creation and instruction design

  • Special projects staff fee (Project Manager & Cultural (Tribal) Advisor)

  • Marketing and M&E

  • Travel, boarding, and lodging

Measuring Impact

The metrics and techniques used to evaluate the impact of FIRST VOICES relate to four inter-dependent dimensions as follows:

 

  1. Reach: How many students are we able to reach, and how many lessons and workshops have been successfully delivered?

  2. Enjoyment: Is the creative approach to storytelling appealing and engaging for our audience?

  3. Attitudes: Do the students we interact with experience change in their attitudes? Do they commit to new behaviors that show evidence that the goals of the project are being met?

  4. Action: Do students follow-through on their commitment to action in a way that is likely to achieve long-term improvements in their lives and the wider community?

 

Tools for measuring success against targets will deploy mixed methods—from online engagement metrics (through blogs, social media and web presence) through to longer-term bias-free surveys to establish shifts in attitudes resulting from the project.

 

Measurements will be both quantitative and qualitative, as we evaluate the project's contribution to achieving both short-term and long-term impact goals. Interviews with broader stakeholders in the project (such as educators and teachers who use the stories in class) will also help to establish a realistic and practical assessment of impact on the ground.

Advisory Board

First Voices is a partnership between Thresh and Lame Deer High School, Lame Deer MT. We are grateful to the following for their participation in the project advisory board:

 

Monica Grable (Arts Education Director, Montana Arts Council)

Alaina Buffalo Spirit (Northern Cheyenne Tribes Advisor)

Don Wetzel Jr., (Tribal Relations, Montana Office of Public Instruction; Blackfeet Tribe member)

Susan Wolfe (Art Educator, Lame Deer Schools, Montana)

Mary Serbe (Education Director, Yellowstone Art Museum)

Aaron Rosen (Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion, Wesley Theological Seminary)

Adam Jahiel (Independent Photographer)

Institutional Partners

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