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Using Digital Storytelling to Change the Narrative in Native Communities

03. 21. 2019

Meet Jill Fish

"How do we as indigenous people honor and transcend a past that is seldom acknowledged? And when it is, it's our plight not our perseverence? A culture not seen as thriving but as long-lost?" This is the central question to which Jill has dedicated her research in pyschology. As a therapist, she's spent countless hours helping others meaningfully integrate their past into their present. And as a member of the Tuscarora Nation, this work is deeply personal to her. 

She was drawn to the University of Minnesota because of the Twin Cities' substantial native community, but has found community within her academic environment as well. In her Digital Storytelling Workshops, she teaches people how to create stories about their own lives, and, in the process of coming to better understand their culture and history, have greater control of their own narrative for the future. 

What led you to the research you are pursuing?  Does it relate in any way to your background?  Other influences?

My upbringing has been the strongest influence on my research with Native American peoples. I was born and raised on the Tuscarora Nation on the border of Niagara Falls, New York. Growing up in our community, I was fortunate to be immersed in our culture. In elementary school on the reservation, we had Skarú:rę' class to learn about our language, history, and practices. And when I became older, I started to notice the effects of oppression in our community too, like substance use, poverty, and violence. I didn’t always think of these as a byproduct of oppression, but I did find the rate at which these things occurred on our reservation compared to the surrounding area interesting. And this is really similar to my program of research as a psychology doctoral student now. I’m very curious about understanding the ways in which Native peoples navigate and overcome oppression in our society, especially in instances where Native peoples leverage cultural strengths to do so. And to be clear, this happens all of the time – it just so happens that we live in a society that doesn’t depict us as doing so. So that’s a secondary goal of my research, to use research methodologies that empower Native peoples to tell their stories in a way that is consistent with their cultural history, which in turn, can be used to change the national narrative of what it means to be Native American in the modern U.S.

What do you value most about graduate education?  How did you decide to come to UMN?

I really value the community of people who support my research. From my advisor, faculty, department staff, to fellow graduate students, the support I’ve received has been monumental to my success as a graduate student. I always laugh and say that my dissertation is a community-based project for obvious reasons (I mean, it is based in the community), but also because it has only been possible through the support of the University of Minnesota’s Grand Challenges initiative and my advisor, Moin Syed. Our program’s administrative assistant, Amy Kranz, has also played a key role in getting my project off the ground. Amy introduced me to her mother, Renay Tolbert, who works at the Minneapolis American Indian Center and helped me get started facilitating a series of digital storytelling workshops for my project at the center. So even though I always tell people a large reason I chose to come to the University of Minnesota was because of the large Native community in the Twin Cities, had I known that I would’ve found a community in and of itself at UMN, I would’ve said that too. 

Please explain a bit about your background - where you grew up, where you did your undergraduate work, what circumstances framed your project.

So many different parts of my life frame my digital storytelling project. I’m the first person in my family to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree, and now a Ph.D. As both a Native woman and a first-generation college student, I had to navigate a lot of barriers to get to where I am now. I’ve become a mentor to Native students and youth along the way, to not only support them in forging their own path, but also to show them that doing so without giving up who you are is possible. That idea plays a big part in the Native American Digital Storytelling Workshop. During the workshop, Native people learn how to create a digital story about their life, culture, and history. I plan on using the digital stories to create a website in the future so Native people and youth everywhere can see the diversity of paths taken by people from our communities and start to imagine different possibilities for their own journey. It’s very similar to the Immigrant History Research Center’s Immigrant Stories project, which I modeled my project off of. 

What do you hope to do after getting your degree?

I would love to continue using digital storytelling as a research methodology with Native American peoples. My short-term goal is to expand the project to include Native people outside urban areas in Minnesota. So far, I’ve facilitated digital storytelling workshops in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, and Duluth. I think it would be amazing for Native people from reservations and in rural areas to be able to have access to the workshop across the nation. There is much work to be done and many stories left unheard. I want to continue empowering Native people to share their stories, their way. 

Jill Fish is a Ph.D. candidate in Counseling Psychology. She is COSP scholar and gave a Ted Talk on Honoring Indigenous Cultures and Histories in Fall 2018.