Cultivating a digital heritage

Social media and emerging technologies meet traditional knowledge and cultural history

How do you preserve a millennia-old oral culture while ensuring its traditions, customs, stories and language are passed down to the next generation?

For the people of Arviat, Nunavut, the unexpected answer lays in the use of digital media—in particular, through the Nanisiniq Arviat History Project.

“You cannot have a healthy, productive population that contributes to the economy if those people don’t have a grounded sense of who they are,” says The University of British Columbia’s Frank Tester, a researcher deeply interested in social and environmental issues and team lead for the project. The long-time professor in UBC’s school of social work has extensive experience living and working in the North; his current research interests are centered in Nunavut, and include Inuit social history, housing policy and the legacy of residential schools.

As part of the SSHRC-funded Nanisiniq Arviat History Project, Tester led his team in training local youth in the use of digital technology—from video cameras and audio recorders to social media and the web—encouraging them to record live interviews and conversations with their elders. Blending Inuktitut and English, past and present, the project connected the youth on a personal level to a shared cultural heritage as they explored the history and traditional knowledge of their people. On a professional level, it left the youth equipped with practical, transferable research and valuable media production skills.

“These students have come away with skills they’ll be able to apply in their education and careers, from filmmaking to translation between Inuktitut and English,” remarks Nunavut Arctic College’s Jamie Bell. “We’ve had interest from other communities wanting to know how they can do a project like this. It’s a replicable model.”

SSHRC continues to recognize aboriginal research as a priority area, acknowledging the complexity of the aboriginal experience in the 21st century and the need for a future in which aboriginal communities are empowered, culturally vibrant, healthy, safe and prosperous. Supporting social science and humanities research undertaken by and with Aboriginal Peoples is a key way to invest in this future.