New tools to tell stories

(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

Derrick Lameman, 9, the youngest participant in the March 18 digital storytelling workshop, explains his video to presenter Brenda Manuelito of nDigiDreams, a consulting and training company from Santa Fe. Derrick and his older brother Patrick, 12, collaborated on a video about their grandmother.

Workshop participants use a new medium for an age-old activity

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

RED MESA, Ariz., March 25, 2010.

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A digital story created during the March 18 workshop.

(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

An alien spacecraft goes up in flames in Donovan Nakai's animated video. Learning how to draw and animate on the computer was just one skill taught at the March 18 digital storytelling workshop in Red Mesa, Ariz.

So far, Donovan Nakai's video is looking more like a sci-fi shoot-'em-up than a plug for wellness.

It features Nakai as a futuristic U.S. Marine, battling an alien in a spacecraft.

"The red is explosions, and the green is alien blood," Nakai explains as he reviews his hand-drawn animation on one of the computers in the Four Corners Regional Health Center's technology room.

Nakai knows his story is supposed to promote a positive lifestyle, so he's trying to work in a "stay in school" message. But, being an 11-year-old male, "what I'm really interested in is games with a lot of gunfire," he confesses.

The presenters of the digital storytelling workshop Nakai and nine other area residents are taking are careful not to rein the boy in, even though this story track is perhaps not exactly what they were looking for when they suggested positive stories based on health and wellness.

"For so long now, indigenous people have had stories told about them," says presenter Brenda Manuelito of nDigiDreams, a consulting and training company from Santa Fe. "We're giving them the power to tell their own stories, edit them the way they want to, and distribute them the way they want to."

Manuelito, Diné, and her colleague Carmela Rodriguez have given this presentation to indigenous communities all over the western U.S., including Alaska, to people as young as 8 and as old as 83. This particular one is sponsored by the health center's community health program and Eve's Fund, a foundation dedicated to preventing injury and maintaining wellness among Native Americans.

Day one of the three-day workshop focuses on writing the script. Participants see videos made in previous workshops, then float ideas in a "story circle." The only requirement is that the stories be short - taking two to five minutes to tell - and based on the teller's own experience.

The second day, participants refine their ideas with the help of Manuelito and Rodriguez. Tools such as the storyboard - where pictures are arranged in a sequence to tell a story - are introduced. Participants record their narrative, adding music and other sound effects if they like.

By day three, participants are layering on the visual elements. These can include still photographs, video footage, graphics and even - as in Nakai's case - animation. It's all done with free software anyone with a computer can download.

"Basically, they're telling us their ideas and we're giving them the tools to make it a reality," Manuelito explained. "As Native people, we're hard-wired for storytelling. We're just tapping into new tools."

By noon on the last day, the stories are coming together. Later that afternoon, they will have a mini-film festival and view each other's work. Manuelito has encouraged the participants to stay positive, showing ways they or someone they know have overcome obstacles to lead a healthy life.

Five-time All-America cross-country champion Lenny Esson, now a coach at Shiprock High School, is doing a piece on, yes, running.

Seventeen-year-old Kodi Grant of Red Mesa is telling how learning to play the guitar got him out of a depressive funk when both his mother and sister, facing the harsh economic realities of their area, left to seek work and join the Army, respectively.

Two young brothers are showcasing their own grandmother, who taught them about eating right. Nakai is still wrestling with his alien-vs.-Marine/stay-in-school plot.

A young woman sits cross-legged on the floor, balancing her laptop on her knees. Her story of fleeing her alcoholic family to make a life on her own is fresh and still painful, and she's not sure yet how she'll share it.

"I don't think it's something my family will want me showing all around," she reflects.

That's a decision she'll have to make, says Manuelito.

"How they distribute these videos is entirely up to them," she notes. "They can post them online on YouTube or Facebook, they can share them at events, or they can just keep them to themselves. Sometimes just the process of making them is healing."

But sharing the story, even with a close circle of friends, is very powerful, says Manuelito, whose training is in anthropology.

"Our ancestors knew the power of that personal voice, that story," she says. "We want to tell our stories, but we also want to involve the whole community."


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