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.”

@Oregonian

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.

Reading reflection: Philip D’Anieri’s The Appalachian Trail: A Biography

What does it take to craft a new book about an old trail? Philip D’Anieri chose to focus on the people who shaped the Appalachian Trail, shining a spotlight on one or two from each era of the trail. His book, The Appalachian Trail: A Biography, consists of a series of biographies that trace the evolution of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from a dream to a reality. The choice to craft a biography-centric view of the AT was both unique and appropriate–each chapter captures the unique skills and approaches of each individual, reflecting the balance between solitude and individualism with importance of community on the AT. As a collection, the book demonstrates how each person’s vision, matched with their unique talents and foibles, helped mold the AT into what it is today. Rather than focusing primarily on the role of technology in understanding trail use on the trail perspective,

Philip D’Anieri is a lecturer in architecture and regional planning at the University of Michigan. He admits that he’s not much of a hiker, and an outsider to the AT community, so it seems like an odd choice for him to focus on a hiking trail that stretches over 2000 miles through the Appalachian mountains. His introductory chapter includes a description of his own section hike of a small portion of the trail, on which he “failed to summit a mountain of utterly mediocre stature”. It became increasingly clear to him that he hadn’t prepared well–he didn’t understand how challenging the climb would be, he started late in the day with the possibility of ending in the dark, and, perhaps most egregiously, he failed to bring any water. He redefined victory, embracing his “up and down” experience to that moment and eschewing the dangers of extending it, as he cut short his hike and returned to his car.

So it might be comforting to know that D’Anieri doesn’t approach his storytelling from the perspective of an expert hiker, but as an expert in urban and regional planning. His teaching and research has explored how urban areas evolve through intentional decisions and uncontrolled events, and he turns that lens to seek to understand the AT. He chooses to focus on select individuals who were instrumental in the evolution of the AT, acknowledging that, in so doing, he walks the line between oversimplifying the evolution of the AT and understating the rich lives of the people who are profiled in an effort to highlight the symbiosis between the evolution of the AT and the lives of the people who were part of the evolution. His exploration includes the original mapping of what would become the AT by Arnold Guyot, the vision for a trail from Benton MacKay contrasted with the reality organized and executed by Myron Avery, the early thru-hiker tales spun by Earl Shaffer and Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, and the telling of the trail by gifted storyteller Bill Bryson. He provides pointers to additional readings about the AT and about many of the featured individuals for the interested reader.

D’Anieri also summarizes the ways that technology has influenced the AT experience. He details three changes that have come about because of technology: (1) “how quickly and easily trail knowledge moves around” including through maps, progress updates, and pre-trip research; (2) social media and the “public performance” aspects of a hike, in which you endeavor to develop and promote a personal brand (which should include the many blogs that emerge each year); and (3) the “blurring of dividing line between civilization and nature” which leads to everything from doing business to contacting Mom becoming an obligation that is difficult to escape–people know you are in contact and expect prompt responses to their queries and entreats!

If you want to read more about the book, check out the official book site, an interview in Discover magazine, or a University of Michigan article. Or, if you haven’t already, go read the book!

BOOK RELEASE: HCI Outdoors

I’m proud and pleased that our book, HCI Outdoors: Theory, Design, Methods and Applications, is available from Springer Publishing. The book is an edited volume of contributions from 18 groups of authors—researchers in academia, industry, research labs, and think tanks who are defining new ways that technology is explored, designed, and tested for use in outdoor settings. The book is part of Springer’s Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) series, which features books that focus on interactions between people and technology.

The book is divided into five sections, each with multiple chapters. Rural Contexts explores how outdoor settings are different than urban ones, and how technologies designed for urban settings may not work as well and should be designed and evaluated differently. Willed and the Wild examines the wildness that is inherent in wilderness, and how that affects the way we design and evaluate technology. Groups and Communities considers how technology assists collections of people to feel more connected. Design for Outdoors raises questions about the design sensitivities and guidelines important and unique to outdoor settings. And Outdoor Recreation considers how technology affects our enjoyment of outdoor recreation like skiing, walking, and hiking.

Crafting the book was a long and rewarding process, spearheaded by a collection of workshops that helped identify key ideas in the area and bring together interested researchers. Virginia Tech’s Tech on the Trail workshops examined how technology is used on trails, including our nearby Appalachian Trail, in support of exploration, recreation, science, and more. The NatureCHI workshops sought ways to¬†support engagement with nature in an unobtrusive manner to avoid detracting from the outdoor experience. The UbiMount workshops looked at how ubiquitous computing technologies can support mountaineering activities. Finally, the HCI Outdoors workshop at the ACM SIGCHI Conference in 2018 featured the largest collection of participants, with around 20 people taking part in presentations, discussions, and activities that highlighted and categorized the challenges of designing technology for the outdoors. The idea for the book emerged from the final HCI Outdoors workshop in 2018, and almost all of the chapters include authors who attended one or more of these workshops.

The book was vetted through a pair of classes offered at the editors’ home institutions, Virginia Tech and Brigham Young University. Each class dedicated a class session to each chapter, seeking to view it not as a final product but as an early-stage work in progress. The students contributed to constructive feedback for the authors, furthering the discussions with the authors and resulting in a far better product that the editors alone could have helped to create. The final versions of the chapters captured the authors’ views of the HCI outdoors theme, balanced with our desire for a coherent and connected book.

A great many universities have this book in their libraries, and Springer’s MyCopy program allows you to purchase a softcover version of the book through your library for only $25. (Yes, I’m aware that the hardcover and digital versions are much more expensive.) I hope you’ll look it over and consider using it for your own research, teaching, or enjoyment.

GROUP 2020

The ACM GROUP Conference is the premiere destination for research work on groups and technology. Held every year in Sanibel Island, Florida, it We were well represented at ACM GROUP 2020–2 full papers, 4 posters, 1 design fiction paper, and 1 doctoral colloquium presentation from this crowd of faculty, grad students, and alums from Computer Science at Virginia Tech!

Lindah Kotut had an awesome 36 hour stretch at the ACM GROUP Conference, using it to launch her research ideas on social media use in outdoor settings. First she presented her Ph.D. research directions to top researchers in the field in the doctoral colloquium–summarized in the poster session, where her work was chosen by her peers for the best poster award. And in between, she presented her vision of the future of the selling of personal data in the design fiction session of the conference.

Clark University prof and Virginia Tech Ph.D. graduate Shuo Niu presented his investigation of how people establish personal territory on large digital displays–e.g., for a digital tabletop, if two or more people are working simultaneously then they exhibit ownership of the area closest to them and are offended when others invade the area without permission. This work was a chunk of his Ph.D. research.

As always, Sanibel Island is an awesome conference destination, particularly in early January when it’s cold in much of the rest of the United States. The Ding Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge maintains an environment where nature can spread its wings, with trails that lead us human interlopers to places where we can sneak a peek at it. The conference venue is right on the beach, with a handful of good restaurants nearby, and the breaks between sessions allow us to venture off into these destinations. (As if you needed another reason to attend!) Looking forward to a return trip in 2022.