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Indigenous Peoples’ Day uses cutting edge technology to celebrate deeply rooted traditions

It was an unexpected mix of ancient customs and modern technology, but it worked.

The Santa Rosa Junior College Indigenous Peoples Day celebration, launched in 2015, did not take place outside on the oak-strewn campus, but was relegated to Zoom for the second time in a row on Monday due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Speakers appeared on tiny screens on desktop computers, applause was replaced with emojis, and dancing was seen on video rather than felt in person.

It wasn’t a common space as we know it, and yet it was surprisingly intimate. And move.

Attendance reached more than 100 during most of the four-hour online meeting, with speakers addressing issues such as missing and murdered Indigenous women, Indigenous Americans living in multiple cultural worlds, and the achievement of climate justice through indigenous power.

“A cultural, respectful and loving space was created in which we could exchange ideas about what is going on in the indigenous community,” said event moderator and SRJC psychology professor Brenda Flyswithhawks after the meeting.

While at a face-to-face event, approval might have been shown through modest applause, and attendees might have gradually wandered in and out of the area, Monday’s Zoom meeting evoked what felt like deeper emotions.

Loudspeakers were crying. The viewers flooded the chat box with supportive messages. Tiny zoom screens were regularly lit with heart emojis or those with clapping hands.

When that wasn’t enough, the audience simply clapped or nodded into the screen.

“At Zoomland we can still burn the smoke, we can still light the sage, we can still send the prayers in a good way,” said Flyswithhawks. “We can still remember our cultural teachings.”

At a point in the day that would normally have been a moving, emotional climax – the traditional pomo dance – Flyswithhawks had to marry and reconcile technology with sacred tradition.

“The virus won’t stop us today,” she said as she fiddled with the controls on her moderators. “Let me just switch to Western mode here and share my screen.”

Tiny screens gave way to a full view of the traditional pomo dance and song recorded on campus a few years ago. For the next 15 minutes or so, the participants watched dancers from past celebrations.

Flyswithhawks said cautiously that the videographer had asked permission before recording the dance. It was given, and on Monday she said she was grateful for it.

And the technology allowed panelists to zoom in from across Sonoma County and beyond. Institute of American Indian Arts artist and instructor Leah Mata Fragua spoke from New Mexico on “Using art, music and games and all these different types of media to translate our ancient stories and values into more contemporary forms of sharing “.

Fragua has shed light on the tensions that can arise when one honors the old and embraces the new.

“I know that’s scary because sometimes people say, ‘Well, that’s not traditional,'” she said. “In a modern world, you can still follow traditional protocols. You can have both. It doesn’t have to be binary. “

And so it was Monday.

Jennifer Perez, a faculty member at the college’s Child Development Center, spoke about cultural identity, resilience, and child development.

She was moved to tears by the sounds of a Native American lullaby she played to attendees via a YouTube video, and the chat was instantly flooded with supportive comments.

“This music is very expensive,” she said.

She spoke of simple things like rattles, drums, and baskets that provide parents with a way to connect their children with their culture. She and her colleague Maleese Warner are increasingly using outdoor education to connect both children and parents with the earth. Shoes off, hearts turned up.

As great as the Zoom call was, Perez had a faint memory.

“Zoom is tough, so tough on the brain,” she said. “We are not designed that way. We have to remember that. Don’t get too good at Zoom folks. We are not designed that way. “

In her closing remarks, Flyswithhawks paid tribute to the strange dance between traditional culture and modern technology that brought people together on Monday.

“We hope that this Indigenous Peoples Day has been a vessel, a vessel for your learning to find one another, and we hope that you have found yourself in our speakers who shared their hearts with you today,” she said .

“Here at this meeting, this virtual meeting, we’re all looking at each other in little boxes,” she said. “Thank god technology brings us together.”

You can reach columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.