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Completing the picture: Claire Levarreda talks about her archive for Indigenous voices

Emily Monaco / THE GATEPOST

By Raena Doty

Arts & Features Editor

By Francisco Omar Fernandez Rodriguez

Staff Writer

The Center for Digital Humanities hosted Claire Levarreda, who gave a speech titled “Learning as You Go: Building an Archive of Indigenous Voices” in the Heineman Ecumenical Center Oct. 5.

When introducing herself, Levarreda identified as Guatemalan-Irish, which she said she thought was important because she was “interested in connecting with my own heritage.”

She added she’s straight, which she said is important because she has LGBT+ participants in her archive, and she can’t necessarily relate to them directly.

Her project, a website called “How We Remember,” showcases the stories of Indigenous peoples across the world. On the site there are interviews, videos, and pictures of these Indigenous people’s life stories.

“I feel that for Indigenous communities, digital humanities really serves as means of cultural survival and preservation,” she said.

She added she uses the term “Indigenous” because it’s the best term that she has found, despite the fact some people don’t use this terminology.

Levarreda gave the example of a Japanese woman she interviewed who said she uses “Indigenous” to describe her experiences in English, but would not use the same term in Japanese.

“Despite this not being the best term out there, I find it the most inclusive,” Levarreda said, “and I've also noticed that it's become ... a way to recognize a colonial past.”

She said “Indigenous” is inclusive of cultures from around the world, including places outside of the Americas such as Africa, Asia, and Australia.

She decided to play a song about Indigenous people called “Lo Nuestro Nunca Muere,” or “What Is Ours Never Dies” by Kozmic Force. It is originally in Spanish but a translated copy of the lyrics was handed out to attendees. The song is about how Indigenous people have their own culture that will never die or fade away.

Levarreda explained she wanted to play this song because “this is a really kind of fun way and engaging way to realize that ‘Indigenous’ has become a form of protest and a unifying term.”

She said she uses a methodology outlined by Shawn Wilson in the book “Research is Ceremony,” then described that methodology for the audience.

She said she uses Wilson’s “Indigenous research paradigm,” which involves doing the research with Indigenous people, rather than attempting to study them. She added they make sure to care about their interviewees and their life stories.

To explain this, she gave the example of asking personal questions about participants in the research project and taking into consideration the welfare of the community when making decisions about how to run research.

Levarreda said her methodology is “anti-colonial” and “amateur friendly.”

She said that many professors disliked the term “amateur friendly,” but she doesn’t want people to think they have to be an expert to understand the research.

To build her website, Levarreda said she uses a platform called Omeka S. She added it was important for her to use this as opposed to options like Wix or Wordpress because it was “more collaborative.”

She uses Clideo to edit videos and Audacity to edit audio, she said. She added she uses to transcribe audio and commented on the poor quality of the transcriptions.

Levarreda said she uses Zoom to conduct her interviews for a few reasons - first, because some people are too far away to interview in person, and second, because many people feel more comfortable over Zoom.

She added another benefit of using Zoom is the interviewees “can outline their comfort zone ahead of time.” She explained they can decide how long the interviews are, whether or not they have their cameras on, and how much they want to share on camera.

She said she posts videos of interviews on YouTube.

“I have a YouTube channel, and I actually have three subscribers,” she said, “but maybe not because one of them is my mom.”

She said she has six participants in the archive already, and more people interested but unsure if they want to participate, and added the participants come from all over the world, including Guam, Nigeria, and Mongolia.

Levarreda said the funding for this project comes from Northeastern University, but participants in the archive are not always comfortable with the university having control over how they appear in the project.

“How We Remember” went through multiple makeovers, she said, and added it used to be less accessible to people with visual impairments or who use screen readers, so now it is all black and white.

She explained her site allows people to apply to be included in the archive and self-submit so people can “submit their stories or photos of their Indigenous heritage or their research or their work and it will appear on the site.”

Levarreda said she does not have International Review Board (IRB) approval because her research is focused on specific individuals, and added if she gets their approval she would need to report certain information to them.

She said IRB approval “makes you required to report certain things that you might not be comfortable doing or might violate the community’s trust.”

She added there have been some challenges, including that she only knows two languages - English and Spanish - and she has struggled to communicate with people outside the Americas.

Levarreda said one time she had to use Google Translate in order to interview someone who spoke French.

She added in those situations she would sometimes have the interviewee record themselves and send them to her. This also helps people who live in areas with a poor internet connection.

Levarreda said she tends to start with broad questions like “Where were you born?” when conducting an interview, and the question many people focus on is “What was your childhood like?”

She said her interviewees often talked about difficult childhood memories. One example, Levarreda said, was Colette Denali Montoya, a Native American enrolled tribal member of Pueblo of Isleta, who said she had to play the Native American parts in her elementary school plays.

She added there were also positive stories, including Matthew Taitano, who said that his grandmother would hold and hug him closely.

Levarreda added participants also tend to talk a lot about their work in adulthood, and said she personalizes questions to that work if applicable.

She said, for example, Darina Sanzhieva wanted to talk a lot about her role in a Mongolian folk band, and many interviewees wanted to talk about their grants and scholarship.

The payment method for participants, she said, is through Amazon gift cards. She added that this is not ideal because Amazon gift cards can only be used to buy certain items, but the university prefers this form of payment.

Levarreda added she has a “pre-interview” with the participants in order to set up boundaries and guidelines for the actual interview. She said this helps her shape what the final project looks like so participants are comfortable with how they’re represented.

She added, for example, María José Pérez Sián wanted to set boundaries around what language they speak in throughout the interview and what topics they talk about, because she didn’t want to talk about her own life experiences, and instead wanted to talk about her advocacy work.

She said she wants the focus on the participants, so she typically tries to talk as little as possible. She added she feels like viewers focus on her face in the videos, so she is considering cutting her face out.

“I feel like [digital humanities] sometimes - when it comes to Indigenous communities - gets pigeonholed into just one or two projects. And I think personal experiences and oral history are equally important to kind of complete the picture,” Levarreda said.


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