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Wampum.Codes Host Amelia Winger-Bearskin Uses A.I. Art To Tell Indigenous Stories

You normally wouldn’t think of a PC or a gaming system as a tool to make art. These pieces of hardware are inherently analytical. They’re built on mathematical formulas and electricity, which are not really the kinds of organic materials Van Gogh would use to create masterpieces.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin, however, has never seen technology and art as incompatible. Over the course of her career, Winger-Bearskin — an Associate Professor at the University of Florida, an organizing member of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, and the host of an award-winning podcast, among numerous other things – has sought to blend art and technology to tell stories and advocate for her Indigenous community.

“Art and technology have really never been separate,” Winger-Bearskin tells Uproxx. “But I think we have thought about it that way. All you have to do is peel back just a tiny bit of any kind of software product or technological gadget and you see all of the artists that were involved in it.”

As a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) of the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, Deer Clan, in Oklahoma, Winger-Bearskin grew up understanding how tech and art could combine to preserve her peoples’ history and fight for their future. Her dad worked for Kodak’s innovation center during the tech boom of the 1980s and helped create the first digital camera. Her mom, who holds a Ph.D., was their tribe’s storyteller – an umbrella term that meant she served as an academic, researcher, politician, and performer for her community. Her toughest job was translating the tribe’s history into something that could be easily digested by current and future generations.

Winger-Bearskin grew up learning how her people used tech to do everything from harvesting and planting to curing disease. She equated wampum – traditional beads made from shells and worn as jewelry or used as currency – with blockchain.

“I was always thinking of technology in that way, that it’s not something you discover, but it’s always around you and part of your life and has been part of your ancestors’ lives, as well,” she says. “It’s full of a lot of whimsy and innovation. I think that there’s a lot of creativity in the way that computers are created and how open of a sandbox they give us to think about the world. So I still am using computers and AI and non-human systems to make art. And art is a really important part of our culture. It’s something that we can prototype the future with. We can think about our past and reimagine a world in which rights are made from wrongs.”

Winger-Bearskin has done that in a variety of ways. She’s worked with producer Alysia Reiner and actress Christina Hendricks to create a VR experience and installation for the Sundance New Frontier’s Story Lab, modeling how tech can transform film and TV. She created a Virtual Reality toolkit to help citizens in New Rochelle, N.Y. co-design their city. She’s creating a chatbot for the U.S. Dept. of Arts and Culture to help people understand the importance of land back initiatives, the movement to get Indigenous land back in the hands of Indigenous communities.

One of her most popular projects though happened purely by accident … well, a pandemic-caused accident, anyway. Her award-winning podcast Wampum.Codes was initially part of her Mozilla Fellowship while she worked at MIT’s Co-Creation Studio. She intended to create a documentary, interviewing Native developers, gamers, creators, and more, visiting their reservations to see how they were using tech to disrupt and develop new ways forward for their tribes. When COVID hit and the world went on lockdown, Winger-Bearskin turned to podcasting as a way to continue telling the stories of these trailblazers.

From conversations with Indigenous game designers like Elizabeth LaPensée (When Rivers Were Trails, Thunderbird Strike) to deep dives with creative directors like Asha Veeraswamy who are using XR educational gaming to teach kids Shakespeare and transforming board games into 3D experiences, Winger-Bearskin has used this new format to host intelligent, exciting conversations on how everything things like VR, gaming, streaming, and A.I. can improve the lives of people in underserved communities.

“There’s just so many incredible projects that indigenous voices are leading,” Winger-Bearskin says.

Whether it’s initiatives meant to restore tribal land, VR experiences to tell stories of her tribe, or podcasts to give other Indigenous creators a platform to share their work, Winger-Bearskin is constantly finding the crossover potential in art and tech while challenging herself — and others — to use it to spark important conversations, meaningful connections, and needed revolutions.