Raising Spirit: the Opokaa’sin Digital Storytelling Project


This week’s BILD guest post comes from another team, and we are so thrilled to welcome the Raising Spirit Project team to the BILD community.

The Raising Spirit Project team includes researchers from the University of Lethbridge’s Institute for Child and Youth Studies, community partners and policy makers from Opokaa’sin Early Intervention Society, and local undergraduate and high school students. Anthropologist Jan Newberry, in collaboration with Tanya Pace-Crosschild, Opokaa’sin’s executive director, spearheaded the initial photo-elicitation project. Our Elder, Francis First Charger, Edna Bad Eagle, and Michelle Hogue have also joined us as community partners and policy makers. The project team includes researchers Kristine Alexander (history/CRC), Erin Spring (literature and education), Amy Mack (anthropology), and Taylor Little Mustache (undergraduate NAS student). Several high school students will join us, beginning in July, as research trainees.

The University of Lethbridge’s (U of L) Institute for Child and Youth Studies (I-CYS) is currently involved in a community-based, participatory research project with Opokaa’sin Early Intervention Society, an NGO that supports Indigenous children and families in southern Alberta. Together, we are building a digital library of stories and images that promotes resiliency and builds capacity in Lethbridge’s Blackfoot community. We anticipate that the project will increase the community’s, and particularly the youth’s, sense of belonging through intra- and inter-generational cultural knowledge transmission.

The project’s roots stretch back to 2007, with a joint U of L and Opokaa’sin photo-elicitation project designed to help local Blackfoot people living in Lethbridge articulate and share their child-rearing values. The project team gave parents digital cameras, and asked them to take photographs of what they saw as important moments in childrearing. The result was a compelling collection of over 3,000 photos. Two student research assistants, Allison Crop Eared Wolf and DJ Bruised Head, interviewed the participant-photographers. They also took a subset of these photos to powwows and rodeos in Blackfoot Territory in Alberta and Montana, where they interviewed passersby about their reactions to the images.

We are showing a larger selection of these images in a travelling photo exhibit, developed in collaboration with the U of L’s Museum Studies program. The aims of the exhibit are to convey the resilience of Blackfoot families, and to share their models of childrearing. As we are still seeking the Blackfoot and Lethbridge community’s responses to these photos, and to the project itself, data is being collected at the photo exhibits through informal interviews and written responses (i.e., comment box).

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Our project Elder, Francis First Charger, seen here greeting the children of Opokaa’sin at the opening ceremony for the art exhibit at Park Place Mall, Lethbridge, Alberta


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Community responses to the photo exhibit opening at Opokaa’sin

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Anonymous response to the photo exhibit from a community member after the opening at Opokaa’sin

The project team has grown significantly since 2007 and has become more interdisciplinary and child-focused. Previously, the research assistants had asked Elders, parents, and other adults from the community to share their interpretations, but they hadn’t yet asked children what they thought. To address this, we are currently sharing these photos with 3- to 6-year-old children at Opokaa’sin. In small groups, the children are being asked to choose a photo. They are then being asked a series of open-ended questions about their responses to the photos, such as “what do you see?” or “why did you choose this photo?” To ensure that the project remains sustainable within the community, Opokaa’sin has hired Blackfoot youth as research assistants to help with this work.

These photo-elicitation sessions feed into the broader storytelling project, which will result in a digital library of stories to be used in Opokaa’sin’s cultural programming, particularly in relation to language retention. Elders from within the community are sharing stories with children that are meaningful to, and some of these will be told in Blackfoot. During these storytelling sessions, the photos from phase one might be used to elicit stories. After the Elders have modelled the storytelling process, the children are going to tell their own stories. We will also give them the opportunity to respond visually.

The youth researchers will record these stories and help to digitize and place them in a database protected and stewarded by Opokaa’sin.  This is in compliance with the recommendations by the Alberta First Nations Information Governance Council (AFNIGC) and the principles of ownership, control, access and protection (OCAP).  From this database, the stories will be added to an accessible, child-friendly “digital library” on the online platform ThingLink, a site that is free, easy to use, available on multiple technological platforms, and able pull from different social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) and digital sources.

The youth will organize and code the stories into thematic “wings,” not unlike a traditional library that has genre-specific sections on mystery, history and romance.  These wings will house a curated collection of children’s artwork, maps and narratives, which will be paired with the videos and photos that elicited these responses. These braided layers of data will be brought together and made sense of by the students, Elders, Opokaa’sin staff and I-CYS researchers. We will co-theorize the connections and meaning, and co-construct a shared model for Opokaa’sin to use in their programming.

The digital library aspect of this project is meant to be an interactive way for children at Opokaa’sin to connect with their culture, history and language. Many of these youngsters live off reserve, and some are in the child welfare system.  As a result, they do not have frequent access to their Elders, which can impact wellness, resilience, identity, and language retention.  Moreover, through Opokaa’sin’s connections with Lethbridge School District No. 51, we hope to introduce this library to students beyond Opokaa’sin, and to their non-Aboriginal peers. This is in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) call for culturally appropriate and relevant curricula, as well as language retention and revitalization.

Involving Indigenous children and adolescents in the process of co-constructing the library – in the collection and curation of the data – will help them to develop research capacity and technical skills, while fostering and reinforcing connections within and beyond their communities. Our guiding research questions at this stage are about process: does involving youth in the process help to promote resiliency and build capacity?  What might capacity and resilience look like, and how will they differ between generations?

You can read more about our project here:

Institute for Child & Youth Studies website

Opokaa’sin Early Intervention Society website

Lethbridge Herald article

University of Lethbridge article


We graciously thank the following funding agencies and community organizations:

Alberta Summer Temporary Employment Program

Canada Research Chair Program

Community Futures Treaty 7

Institute for Child & Youth Studies

Opokaa’sin Early Intervention Society

Urban Aboriginal Knowledge Network

University of Lethbridge Office of Research and Innovation Services




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