Jason Edward Lewis

Current affiliation:
Concordia University

Building on his work with First Nations high school students on the Mohawk reserve of Khanawake, Professor Lewis’ Trudeau project will launch a residency program in which Indigenous youth will lead the drive to imagine a prosperous future for Indigenous communities using interactive media.

1) Tell us about your Trudeau project.

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF), which I co-direct with the artist Skawennati, will research and develop alternative visions of Indigenous communities tomorrow in order to better understand where we need to go today. The Initiative employs a research-creation approach in order to connect Indigenous youth to their heritage, provide them with the skills to be successful creators today, and enable them to imagine how they and their communities will look in the future. 

A primary motivation for our work is the observation that very few Indigenous people inhabit the future imaginary, or the set of images, stories and legends in North American culture that are used to envision what humanity will be like five or ten generations hence. Novels, movies and games set in the future rarely contain portrayals of Indigenous people. If they do, these portrayals are most likely based on caricatures of our cultures. Rarer still are future imaginaries produced by Indigenous creators.  

This absence from the future imaginary worries us. A people that are absent in the future need not be consulted in the present about how that future comes about. A people without a vision of what their future might be like, risks that future being constructed according to the dreams and desires of others. We need to actively imagine what cultural, social, political, and technical contributions we will make. We need to use those visions to feed a conversation about how we will thrive in the seventh generation and beyond. 

The Initiative for Indigenous Futures will act as an Aboriginally-determined platform for artists, scholars, technologists, cultural and political activists, and policy developers to imagine the future of Turtle Island’s Aboriginal communities, and to develop strategies for achieving that future. We will work with youth through a series of workshops integrating Aboriginal storytelling and new media production, including videogames, machinima, hardware hacking, and mobile media.  We will house a residency series that will provide Indigenous creators and thinkers with the time and resources to explore ideas related to the Indigenous Future Imaginary. And we will host an annual symposium on these topics through which we will invite the larger public to engage in this conversation.

2) Explain one of the most interesting discovering you have made so far.

One of the most interesting discoveries we have made is the ease with which Aboriginal youth are able to remediate stories from their communities into new media forms, and use this experience as a platform to talk about the future. When Skawennati and I started the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC) research network on which the Initiative is founded, we had no idea how youth related to their communities’ stories. We did not know if they felt ownership over the stories, or if they would be comfortable discussing and reflecting on them. Through Aboriginal storytelling and video game design workshops, we learned that even those youth who self-described as ‘not being traditional at all’ had still absorbed many stories, or at least elements of stories, giving them a good sense of what kinds of stories were appropriate to tell which group of people, and why and when stories should be told.  

Furthermore, re-imagining the stories into interactive media formats like videogames was an experience that youth found feasible, fun, and culturally illuminating. They eagerly embraced the use of contemporary technologies to retell the old stories. We also found that this approach encouraged youth to find out more about the original stories, whether from their cultural centre, their aunties, or the longhouse. 

A corollary to this finding is our own confirmation of just how rich a cultural experience it can be to create a videogame. People in the field of game studies and design have been talking about this for years, but it is another experience entirely to work with youth constructing a game based on their communities’ stories. The program led to series of discussions about specific (reserve, band, nation) ideas of Indigeneity, the history of this territory pre- and post-Contact, the role of stories and storytellers in traditional Native societies and how that has evolved in the contemporary context, gender roles, insider-outsider dynamics, etc. Add to that an intense introduction to the fundamentals of digital media production, including image-making, audio and video production, 3D modeling, animation, media integration, and programming, as well as an introduction to design, from conceptualization to storyboard to concept art to asset production, and you have a complex environment for teaching a number of different conceptual, aesthetic, and technical lessons. 

3) How will the Trudeau fellowship help you pursue your work?

The Trudeau Fellowship will provide the seed funding to launch the Initiative for Indigenous Futures, enabling us to transform our ideas into action. Current and former Trudeau fellows, scholars, and mentors, as well as Trudeau Foundation staff, will give us a rich network to help us imagine what our Aboriginal communities will be like one hundred or five hundred years from now.  

4) How will your Trudeau project help develop better public policies in Canada?

Our hope is that the Initiative for Indigenous Futures will assist Aboriginal communities in articulating a vision of how we want to evolve over the long term. Such visions will feed into policy discussions around identity, membership, sovereignty, territory ,and the use of the natural resources that rightfully belong to our peoples.

We also hope that the Initiative will help educators at all levels and in both reserve and urban contexts to develop curriculum that engages Aboriginal youth through the use of community-specific and culturally relevant materials that speak to their concerns for the future. This has the potential of addressing Canada's current need to work honestly and more collaboratively with Aboriginal communities in providing them the support we need to properly educate our youth. 

Jason Edward Lewis is a digital media artist, poet, and software designer. He is based at Concordia University, Montréal, where he is the Concordia University Research Chair in Computational Media and the Indigenous Future Imaginary as well as a professor in design and computation arts. Professor Lewis founded the Obx Laboratory for Experimental Media at Concordia, which develops digital media in its conceptual, creative, and technical dimensions. At Obx, he directs research/creation projects devising new means of creating and experiencing digital texts, experimenting with systems for the creative use of mobile technology, designing alternative interfaces for live performance, and using virtual environments to assist Aboriginal communities in preserving, interpreting and communicating cultural histories. Professor Lewis is also the co-founder and the co-director of the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace research network and the Skins Workshops on Aboriginal storytelling and video game design. 

Jason Lewis’ creative work has been featured at Electronic Literature Organization, Ars Electronica Center, Elektra, ISEA, SIGGRAPH, Urban Screens, FILE, and Mobilefest as well as in numerous exhibitions in North America and Europe. He has mounted performances in Montréal, London, Paris and Buenos Aires, and his writing about new media has been presented at conferences and festivals on four continents and in numerous edited collections. In 2014, his P.o.E.M.M. project won the inaugural Robert Coover Award in Electronic Literature. Professor Lewis has received major awards from the Ars Electronica and ImagineNative festivals. He is a former Carnegie Fellow.

Before joining academia, Professor Lewis spent fifteen years in Silicon Valley exploring early digital and networked media at the Institute for Research on Learning, Fitch Design, and Interval Research. In 2009, he founded Arts Alliance Laboratory, the research and development arm of London-based venture capital firm Arts Alliance. Born and raised in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California, Jason Lewis is Cherokee, Hawaiian and Samoan.