Professor and students help Lakota Sioux Indians get animated about computer programming

For two weeks this summer, Assistant Professor of Art Tracy Taylor, Caitlyn Pickens ’11, and Anica Lin ’13 taught computer animation, including necessary art, math, creative writing, science, and computer skills, to middle schoolers on the Pine Ridge Reservation, located in one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.

Alcohol abuse and drug addiction are rampant among the Oglala Lakota Sioux on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, also home to Porcupine Day School (located a short distance from where the Wounded Knee massacre took place in 1890).

The poverty is decimating: unemployment eclipses 80%, with nearly half the community living below the federal poverty line on an average income of $6,286 (less than room and board for a year at Lake Forest College). The life expectancy is worse than in Haiti, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. And nearly 80% of the Lakota Sioux don’t have a college degree.

For the past four summers, Associate Professor of Art Tracy Taylor, who also chairs the College’s new digital media design minor, has hosted a two-week computer-programming workshop for seventh and eighth graders at Porcupine, hoping to inspire children in one of the poorest areas in the United States.

Since she’d gained the trust of the Oglala over the past several years, she was able to take two students with her this summer, Anica Lin ’13 and Caitlin Pickens ’11.

“It’s a small impact, but it’s direct. And I’d always wanted to bring college students,” said Taylor, “but the relationship with the Lakota was so delicate. You have to prove yourself. I had to wait until I knew 100% that the students I’d bring would be professional and mature, and Anica and Caitlyn are amazing students.”

“It was a life-changing experience,” said Lin ’13, who grew up in Swaziland, of her two weeks on the reservation. “I had no idea what a Native American reservation was like. There’s nothing [on Pine Ridge]; it’s like a third-world country. But, the students were really open, and they love to tell stories from their ancestors.”

Taylor believes teaching computer programming will provide students with skills to pursue a career on the reservation, leaving a more direct and lasting impact. The Lakota feel connected with their land, and they feel it’s important their community remains in tact for generations to come: “The land is most important. It’s what keeps us together,” said President John Yellowbird Stelle during the group’s visit with the tribal council.

In the workshop, students use Alice, a free, 3D-programming environment developed by a Carnegie Mellon research group. Using the program, students learn the basics of computer animation and video-game development.

“Many of these students never knew they were good at anything,” says Taylor, “and they love this. They’re doing art, math, and science. They’re really excited. The impact with younger kids has been really obvious from the beginning.”

The workshop draws on skills from a variety of disciplines, including math, art, science, and computer science. Using a character from Lakota fables, Iktomi, the students created animations of the stories that have been passed down for generations. First, students were asked to imagine the environment for their story and what form Iktomi, who is a shape-shifter in the fables, would take. Then, they developed the plot of the story and created a storyboard for their animation. Finally, they took their plans to the computer and built the animation using Alice.

Lin and Pickens assisted Taylor and the full-time Lakota teachers, teaching the students how to use the software, teaching them about developing a plot in a story, and helping them draw their initial sketches.

The efforts from the workshops are already noticeable: “One of the students from my first year came to visit me while we were there. She’s now a sophomore in high school and one of the best students. She won the best animation prize during our workshop, despite never having heard of computer animation. It’s inspired her to become an animator, and she’s looking for college programs in animation.”

Taylor has also made a deal with this student: if she does the problems and animations in a new textbook, Taylor will send her a computer loaded with Maya, the premier animation program.

In a community ravaged by poverty, gangs, and drug abuse, community leaders are trying to invest more time and energy to education. Just getting children to consistently attend school is a challenge. During the workshop, however, of the 18 students signed up, usually 15 students showed up for class.

On her blog, Pickens describes their visit to the tribal council, who support the workshop and other similar programs: “President Steel and the other council members also repeated (over and over again) how important it is for the students to get educated: ‘Your job is to learn what your teachers know, and keep learning.’”

Taylor first visited Pine Ridge when she was working at Columbia College, but has been able to continue her annual trips through a summer research grant from Lake Forest and raising funds on her own. In hopes of securing more funding, Lin has applied for a Davis Projects for Peace grant. Porcupine also receives additional money through the Gear Up program, a U.S. Department of Education grant that aims to promote college readiness.

The cross-discipline nature of the project has made it difficult to secure grants, Taylor believes. “The summer research grant [from the College] has been a life-saving last resort for the project and without it we would not have been able to continue. Going there is easy for me, and it’s really rewarding and fun. But, it straddles so many disciplines, and is a little outside the box for a lot of foundations.”

Mirella Shannon, who Taylor met at Columbia, co-founded the project.


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