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Preserving and promoting Indigenous history, art, language, and culture through popular virtual tours

Six Nations, OntarioSix Nations (Ontario)

Story Seeker: Melanie Fernandez
Person interviewed: Janis Monture, Executive Director
Interview dates: various dates

The Woodland Cultural Centre (WCC), a First Nations Educational and Cultural Centre, is a leader in the revitalization and celebration of Indigenous history, art, language, and culture, particularly those of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Ongwehon:weh. Established in 1972, the WCC is located on the grounds of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School near Brantford, Ontario. The School is sometimes referred to as the “Mush Hole” by those who attended, in reference to the gloopy grey porridge that they were often served at meal time.

The Centre’s primary activities include educational and artistic programming, museum/art gallery exhibits, as well as outreach presentations at community events, for organizations, and for schools. Through a Language Centre and a research library, the WCC provides a comprehensive and community-centred facility where  youth, adults, and seniors can research, reaffirm, and celebrate Indigenous cultures, languages, histories, art and values. Its focus on intergenerational learning has attracted global visitors who seek to further understanding of the legacy of the residential school experience, placed in context within the resilience of Indigenous identities.

The Centre also presents a variety of traditional and contemporary Indigenous performances.

In 2013, major roof leaks caused significant damage to the building. With large looming repair costs, the Woodland Cultural Centre conducted community consultations to gauge community support for different options. The consultation results were overwhelming, with more than 98% of participants in support of the restoration of the Mohawk Institute. The WCC launched a “Save the Evidence” fundraising campaign in response.

With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report and recommendations released in 2015, the Centre has worked with settler communities to explicate the rich histories and civilizations of the Eastern Great Lakes region and the Haudenosaunee peoples. Possibly more importantly, the Centre has worked extensively to support community aspirations within its local communities, including the Six Nations of the Grand River, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, and Wahta Mohawks.

The Innovation: Virtual tours allowing extended reach

Prior to the pandemic, tours were only offered in person, on site while visiting the museum and cultural centre. As a result of the pandemic, all programs were adapted for a virtual environment, yet still offering opportunities for personal engagement. The resulting virtual tours provided an overview of the historic context, Q & A sessions, and resource packages designed to enhance visitors’ engagement with the subject matter.

The WCC offered both a live tour through a Zoom session with live facilitators, or a pre-recording that can be accessed through a time-limited Vimeo link. Groups can also schedule a session with a survivor, but the availability of these sessions is very limited. Participant feedback is often featured in WCC’s e-newsletter, which serve as a great engagement tool for deepening storytelling and participation.

Screenshot of videos of interviews with Mohawk Institute Residential School survivors. Source: Layla Black, Marketing Coordinator, Woodland Cultural Centre, https://woodlandculturalcentre.ca/resources/

The virtual tour video follows the guide, Lorrie Gallant, as she gives a tour of the former Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School and the institution’s 140-year history. Viewers had the chance to see the girls’ and boys’ dormitories, the cafeteria, laundry room, and other parts of the building, and hear interviews from five survivors of the Mohawk Institute.

The tour can be accessed either through a Zoom session with live facilitators or a time-limited Vimeo link (with a pre-recorded intro and outro), should a group need to access the materials at their convenience.

Programs have been accessed by:

  • corporations, for training and awareness purposes;
  • schools, for curriculum needs;
  • service organizations, clubs, and special interest groups, for awareness;
  • non-profit organizations;
  • government agencies; and
  • individuals.

The virtual offerings can be customized to fit the objectives of the visitors. As an example, tours can be customized to meet specific school curriculum requirements, corporate training objectives, service and faith organizations who have specific priorities, etc. Resource packages, available upon booking, are tailored slightly differently for families, schools, and individuals.

As a result of the demand for Indigenous resources, content and training materials, the WCC is currently developing new virtual resources.  The production of a new Mohawk Institute Residential School tour as well as new virtual tours, including  a virtual tour of the museum and art gallery as well as tours with themes such as “land claims”, “contemporary art”, “living traditions”, and others are in development.

The Challenge: Balancing history

It is important to the WCC mandate and vision that visitors understand the history of residential schools as a tragic part of the history of Indigenous Peoples but does not define the depth and resilience of their communities and culture. The WCC believes that it is critical to present a counterpoint to the history of the residential school system by ensuring visitors also visit the museum and art gallery to better understand the full scope of Haudenosaunee history.

The challenge exists to balance this important history with equally important history of vital cultural communities with rich histories and traditions. Achieving this is a tricky balancing act, particularly the recent focus on residential schools within the public domain following the terrible discoveries of unmarked grave sites across the country, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report.

The Centre faced many practical challenges in implementing this program. A key issue that the WCC had to consider at the start of the pandemic was how best to limit access to resources so as to keep them out of the public domain. The Centre has realized that they have to rely on trust that individuals would not copy the tour and its associated materials. The resources are only available upon booking, however sessions are run on Zoom and university sessions are given access for a specific amount of time through a YouTube link. New materials are in great demand across the country.

At various points during the pandemic, the Centre found it difficult to manage the overwhelming number of requests for its virtual programs. In fact, the number of people who engaged with the Centre’s offerings tripled, thereby raising awareness of Haudenosaunee culture and helping the Centre achieve its goal of balancing the history of their people.

The Financials: A substantial new revenue stream

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person educational and public visits to the Woodland Cultural Centre became non-existent, which had a huge impact on revenue streams. The development and packaging of the Centre’s virtual program more than tripled the educational program’s generated revenues. Not only did the number of virtual visitors expand dramatically, many came from across the country, including schools. The Centre also reached many international visitors and has seen its offerings included in corporations’ training and development initiatives. This has led to many more visitors hearing some of the important stories told by the WCC’s programming.

The initial virtual tour, which has excellent production value, was created with a very limited budget ($9,000) and with the support of a Six Nations production company (Thru the RedDoor), who has often provided in-kind support to the Centre. The virtual tour and Q & A sessions are extremely engaging and offer survivor testimonials. Groups can schedule a session with a survivor, but the availability of these sessions is very limited.

The virtual tour’s fee varies depending on the visitors:

  • Schools and non-profit groups: $300, with additional attendees after 40 people at $7.50 each.
  • Corporate / for-profit sessions: minimum rate of $400, with additional attendees after 40 people at $10 each.
  • Public sessions: offered twice monthly for a suggested $10 donation. Visitors often donate more, with the average donation being $15.
  • The program is also available as a benefit to individual donors at certain levels, as well as to corporate sponsors.

After the success of the first virtual tours offerings, the WCC has secured additional support to develop additional virtual offerings through a number of funding sources:

  • Canada Council Digital Strategy Fund
  • Ontario Trillium Foundation, Resilient Communities Fund
  • TD Bank
  • CIBC
  • McLean Foundation
  • Inspirit Foundation
  • Brantford Community Foundation
  • Slaight Family Foundation
  • Various tourism funding sources (local and provincial)

The Takeaways: Virtual offerings can raise awareness of Indigenous culture and help balance history, and cultural organizations are at the forefront of dialogue building

The Woodland Cultural Centre innovation is timely as a result of the high profile of issues related to residential schools across Canada. It offers an important focus on Indigenous issues for individuals and schools at all levels.

Participant feedback is often featured in an e-newsletter that WCC has developed to support the restoration of the Mohawk Institute Residential School. This is a great engagement tool for deepening storytelling and participation.

This innovation demonstrates an important takeaway beyond timeliness. It shows how artists and cultural organizations can be at the forefront of engaging in dialogues about the compelling histories, stories, issues, and ideas that exist in every community. In this context, cultural organizations are often important places of exchange.

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Members of Tupiq Arctic Circus Troupe: Saali Kuata, Michael Nappatuk, Charlie Makiuk, Minnie Ningiuruvik and Sarah Ainalik. Photo: Danielle Bouchard