Delanna Studi’s And So We Walked

“It was very important to me that I didn’t tell the Trail of Tears as a victim story. It’s a very defining point of who we are as Cherokee people, but it doesn’t define us as Cherokee people.”


Last month, DeLanna Studi came to the Moss Arts Center to perform her one-woman show, And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears. Studi traveled the Trail of Tears with her father as a way to connect with her ancestors’ legacy. While her story is featured on a web site and Instagram site, and elements of her story were highlighted on Facebook and Twitter, her primary focus has been on communicating through her theater project. Through the efforts of several groups at Virginia Tech, Studi brought her show to the Moss Arts Center for four performances over four days. I went to the first of the performances, on Indigenous People’s Day.

The Trail of Tears is the path of forced removal for Cherokee and other Native American tribes. It stretches from the southeastern United States to the Oklahoma territory, over 900 miles. In actuality, it isn’t a single trail but an assortment of paths from desirable expansion areas in growing states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee to far less desirable areas in the unsettled Oklahoma territory. For more information about the Trail of Tears, Studi recommends (and I agree) that you read Steve Inskeep’s JacksonLand: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab.

Studi and her father traveled what is known as the northern route–the path that many Cherokee, including ancestors of the Studi family, were forced to traverse. She drove and walked with her father, along with a documentary artist and other team members, in 2015. She visited homesteads, towns, parks, museums, trails, and memorials along the way, and she and her team conducted lots of interviews as they went. She posted to Facebook and Twitter, mainly short updates with links to places, articles, and other information.

For many years, DeLanna described her dream project as this journey with her father along the trail–from her original family homestead in North Carolina to the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma. She had visions of walking the entire trail, though funds to make that happen didn’t come through. But a friend and colleague, Cory Madden, learned about her dream and called her months later to help craft the project. It was Madden who asked Studi to focus her story on her relationship with her father–her original telling of the story was over 30,000 words and over 6 hours long. Clearly this was a good choice, as it highlighted the tensions with her father, who is a full-blooded Cherokee old speaker (his first language is Cherokee) who experienced great prejudice and trauma because of who he is. In an interview with Jill Ditmire, Studi noted that the journey lacked the epiphany she was expecting–there was no singular moment of connection. Indeed, toward the end Studi and her father had a fight, and they didn’t speak for months afterward. But the trail started a healing process, and the subsequent time has brought them closer together than ever before.

From a Tech on the Trail perspective, Studi clearly has the skills (and the team) to establish an online presence. She leveraged Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a web site to tell aspects of her story and to promote her performances. But it is the one-woman stage performance that is at the heart of her storytelling–a medium that allows the audience to get close to her, to connect with her emotions, to watch her interact with physical objects, to experience her re-creating the interactions that she had with her father and others along the trail.

The performance is a testament to Studi’s skills as a performer. It lasted over 2 hours, with only a brief 15-minute intermission. In the first half, she provided background on herself, her family, and the Cherokee people. The second half delved more deeply into her journey–certainly the physical journey along and around the Trail of Tears, but even more so her personal journey toward discovering who she is, the nature of her relationship to her father and her family, and possibilities regarding a potential love interest who disappears and reappears along the trail. She seemed to feed off of the audience reactions, connecting through smiles, laughs, tears, thoughts. By the end of the performance, DeLanna seemed emotionally drained. She waved her thanks to the standing ovation from the audience and made a quick exit. We lingered a bit afterward, but she didn’t return.

Studi has described her theater performance as the tip of the iceberg with regard to telling the story of her journey. It is certainly an impressive statement, and it will be interesting to see what next steps emerge. Even with four shows in four nights, there were only a limited number of people who could connect with her shows in Blacksburg. I suspect that, next up, there will be a technological microphone to spread her important story more broadly.

ICAT Day 2017 project recap

The Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) holds its annual ICAT Day every May, and this year’s theme was Sensing Place; apropos to the geo-sensing aspects of our initiative.  We set up a series of projects related to Technology on the Trail, largely drawn from our CS 6724 graduate special topics class.  Here’s a recap of them, along with links to ongoing work and press releases.

Andrey Esakia presented FitAware, his extension to the FitEx health and fitness program. FitEx leverages relationships within and between teams to improve physical activity behaviors, and FitAware helps raise awareness of individual and team fitness behaviors through smartwatch and mobile device interfaces. FitAware was a featured story in Virginia Tech News, and he authored a work-in-progress paper that appeared at the ACM SIGCHI Conference in May.  Andrey was funded by ICAT this past year, in collaboration with Mike Horning, Samantha Harden, and Scott McCrickard.

2017-03-02 18.16.09
Shuo and blog author Alan Dix interacting with his data on the Microsoft Perspective Pixel and a secondary cloud display

Shuo Niu demoed his collaborative surface system for exploring hiking blog data. He uses a 55-inch multitouch tabletop display to show various analytics-based visualizations of the contents of hiking blogs. Words and phrases from the blogs can be manipulated to reveal repeated themes within a blog–often themes that the blog authors themselves didn’t realize were part of their blogs! A paper about this work is under review to appear at the ACM GROUP Conference (available upon request).

2017-05-01 15.29.12
Gracie exhibiting her cultural probe materials at ICAT Day

Gracie Fields displayed results from her cultural probes, a technique she employed to understand how people prepare for, undertake, and reflect on hiking experiences. Probes were sent to hikers of varying ages and abilities, from a 13-year-old Boy Scout who has done a few extended hikes to people in their 60s who have spent weeks at a time hiking. The probes asked people to answer questions, undertake preparatory hiking activities, reflect on personal and themed pictures, and much more over a multi-week session, toward encouraging participants to think and reflect in multiple ways about what hikes mean to them. Navya Kondor and Jagath Iyer also presented a spinoff presentation focused on the “would you rather” questions. More about Gracie’s work can be found in her recently completed thesis (available on request).

Tim Stelter presented a reflection on his week on the Appalachian Trail. I gave my class the challenge that if they took technology onto the trail for a 100-mile hike, it would earn them an automatic “A”. He and his dad covered over 50 miles (so 100 miles combined?) over spring break, and Tim generated a reflection paper to appear in the NatureCHI workshop in September. An article about his preparation for the hike appeared in our local Roanoke Times newspaper.

An ICAT Day attendee trying out Wallace’s Microsoft Hololens waypoint identification system

Some quick notes about other projects related to the theme. Colin Shea-Blymyer investigated mindfulness and forest bathing using EEG devices that monitored brain waves. He looked at baseline data from indoor EEG use, then compared it to data collected on outdoor hikes. Abigail Bartolome is collecting Twitter data from the three “triple crown of hiking” trails in the US: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Her focus in Spring 2017 looked at the different emotional themes that emerged on each trail. Phillip Summers crafted visualizations of hiking data that was uploaded to a public repository, particularly the geo-temporal data. He was able to identify main trails, side trails, camping areas, common turnaround points, and more. And Wallace Lages used the Microsoft Hololens to craft an augmented reality waypoint identification system for hikers.

Most of these project are still under way, so comments below or via email would be greatly appreciated!