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Cycles of Reconciliation by Lehua Matumoto (2017-2018 Digital Humanities Undergrad Fellow)

Amherst College’s Lehua Matsumoto built an interactive virtual reality environment that introduces students and interested users to the natural world surrounding Amherst College and the Western Massachusetts area. Noting a general lack of understanding local native American history, knowledge, and epistemology, Lehua’s project is designed to help people explore and create awareness of local indigenous ecological knowledge. This virtual reality experience will provide users an interactive showcase of plants and environmental characteristics (see video below).

Cycles of Reconciliation

By Lehua Matsumoto

My project is a virtual reality experience in which students and faculty

(or anyone else is interested in learning more about Native plant life in this area)

can experience “walking” through a computer-generated environment, watching

videos of Native plants found in the area, and listen to audio recordings (or read

pieces of text) that give them some background on the plants featured in my project.

I’m hoping that those who experience my project will come away from it

understanding a little more about the plants in this area, and about an Indigenous

understanding of our connection to the land itself.

Interactive and Immersive

This project has moved in many different directions from the start of the

semester. Initially, I was hoping it would be a very interactive experience, where the

user would be able to examine plants and turn them around in the process of

learning more about them. At this point, I think the project will still be an immersive

experience (because it will be in virtual reality), but maybe not as interactive as I

first expected.

Thinking with Wisdom Sits in Places and Braiding Sweetgrass

The two main texts I’ve used as the basis for this project are Wisdom Sits in Places

by Keith Basso and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Aside from that,

I’ve used the Amherst College Archives to build historical knowledge of the land

around campus. Through these texts, I hope to incorporate knowledge of Indigenous

traditional ecological practices into my project so that as users are learning more

about the plants in this area, they also learn more about how Indigenous people

think and their attitudes toward the land itself.

Unreal Engine

From a technical aspect, I’ve been using Unreal Engine to build my virtual

environment and I’ve used SpeedTree to create some of the computer generated

plants scattered throughout the environment. I’ve realized the difficulties of trying

to make trees and plants look as organic as possible, but I think the contrast of

computer generated plants next to videos of the plants in real life will help drive

home the point that we often treat nature as we do everything else in our lives (i.e.

computers), but the land is, in fact, more powerful and more complicated than we

sometimes expect.

Finding Relations

Braiding Sweetgrass and Wisdom Sits in Places have given me the language to use to

talk about Indigenous theoretical frameworks surrounding relationships with the

land. Through the Amherst College Archives, I’ve found a lot of interesting material

on the Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary, which I have used to look for different plants

that will be represented in this game form. Some of the more unexpected finds are:

1) I found out that the red pines on campus were cut down due to insects and

a fungal disease, when they were planted in the first place for their resistance to

insects and fungal diseases, and that 2) the land where the Bird/Wildlife Sanctuary

sits today was first cleared by students who needed extra money to pay for college

in the wake of the Great Depression.

Conclusions

In conclusion, after walking the land myself and through my readings of

Indigenous knowledge-based texts, I have come to the conclusion that even just

Indigenous attitudes of respect toward the land make a significant difference in the

way we exist in this world. When you start off every morning with a sense of

gratitude, it’s hard not to feel good throughout the day, even if you ended the day

 I hope that users of my VR project come away from it with a reminder that if you take care of the land, the land will also–in its own way–take care of you.

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