Our student collaborators at the Boys & Girls Club of Rosebud used the cameras on their cell phones to document their lives under quarantine on the Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota. Their perspectives on the pandemic became the Life Under Quarantine project.
We talked to the teaching artist of the project, Robin Dahlberg, to get more insight into their collaboration and process.
Eilee Long Crow
How did your collaboration with the Lakota youth start? What was the process of co-creating for Life Under Quarantine: The Rosebud Reservation photography project like?
I first became involved with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe as a civil right attorney. I represented several families in a lawsuit against the Winner School District. The town of Winner, South Dakota, is located just outside the Rosebud Reservation’s eastern border and is home to many Lakota families. The school district was discriminating against the Lakota youth who attended its schools by failing to provide them with the same educational opportunities as its non-indigenous students. Disproportionate numbers of Lakota youth were being sent to prison for minor disciplinary infractions.
When I left the law to become a full-time photographer, I wanted to continue to work with youth on the Reservation. I was captivated by the Reservation’s landscape and very interested in Lakota culture. One of the families that I had represented in the lawsuit put me in touch with the Boys & Girls Club on the Reservation. I have been teaching photography at the Club every summer for the last four years and have begun to develop some meaningful relationships with Club youth and staff. The photos we took were presented at the Star Stories exhibition at MAX 2019. The students participated at the festival and visited California Academy of Science, where their photos were exhibited.
This summer we were unable to return to the Boys & Girls Club because of the COVID quarantine. Like many cities and towns throughout the United States, the Reservation shut down to protect the health and well-being of its residents. Because we wanted to continue working with the Club youth, we formed a virtual Summer Photo League. Six girls who are between the ages of 12 and 14 and are regular members of the Club’s Teen Program joined. These girls have agreed to use their cell phone cameras for a six-week period during the summer to document their daily lives. Each Friday, they send us by email the photos they took that week. Four of the six girls attended our Summer 2019 photography workshop. Two girls we are just meeting for the first time.
Most of the girls do not have access to the internet from their homes and must travel to the Boys & Girls Clubhouse in Mission, South Dakota, to use the Club’s internet to send their photos. For a large part of the summer, the Club has been closed as part of the overall shut-down of the Reservation. The kids are able to access the Club’s internet from the Club’s parking lot.
Alexa Elk Looks Back
What insights did you get from seeing the photographs and perspectives of your students?
The images that the six members of the Summer Photo League have been sending us have been incredible. During a time period when the world around them is in upheaval, our students have been focusing on the beauty and force of nature. When home and personal lives are difficult or chaotic, artists have often been drawn to the uplifting images of natural beauty. Our students are no different. In fact, because they live in isolated, rural communities, nature is much more accessible to them than it is to artists from less geographically isolated areas. In addition, the Lakota, like many indigenous cultures, have a deep connection to nature.
We Indians think of the earth and the whole universe as a never-ending circle, and in this circle, man is just another animal. The buffalo and the coyote are our brothers; the birds, our cousins. We end our prayers with the words “all my relations” – and that includes everything that grows, crawls, runs, creeps, hops, and flies.
Jenny Leading Cloud, Lakota, 1992
This project is the first phase of a larger project called Two-Eyed AI, an investigation into artificial intelligence and computation through indigenous perspectives. Could you talk about this project?
Two-Eyed AI is a project supported by MAX, that expands the Western notions of artificial intelligence. Indigenous scholars and thinkers around the globe have begun to advocate for a “Two-Eyed” approach to artificial intelligence (AI). The Two-Eyed principle asks that we approach life with one eye focused on indigenous ways of knowing and the other on Western or mainstream knowledge. A Two-Eyed approach to AI would combine indigenous theologies with Western scientific and technological know-how to create an ethical framework for AI systems: a framework that would welcome collaboration, giving indigenous groups a voice in data creation, collection and management; and would place the good of the whole above the economic and political interests of the few.
Many indigenous theologies make no distinction between humans and inanimate objects or entities. They contend that all entities, beings and objects are equally as important as every other. All are a fundamental part of the same whole. Indigenous theologies teach that every entity within a kinship circle owes a duty of respect to every person, object or entity in that circle. Dakota philosopher Vine Deloria, Jr., describes this duty as imposing an obligation to act responsibly towards all others in the circle, ensuring their well-being as opposed to depleting, subjugating or diminishing them; and to establish mutually beneficial communications and covenants that do not elevate some at the expense of others.
Indigenous scholars propose that we accept AI systems created with Western scientific and technological know-how into our kinship circles and that we “figure out how to treat these new non-human kin respectfully and reciprocally “ — and demand that they treat all of us in the same way. We not as mere tools, or worse, slaves to their creators.” They contend that only by doing so can we get beyond the exploitation of resources and a cynical winner-takes-all mentality, and can permit us to foster innovation that benefits all beings across species, generations, cultures and socio-economic strata – not just those without our own tribes.
Devils Tower, South Dakota