Red Lake Nation College is the only institution of higher learning located on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. In 2019, the college received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a podcast about Red Lake Ojibwe language and culture. In 2020, the college was able to use the capacity built by that grant to quickly expand its digital offerings to better serve the Red Lake Nation community while under stay-at-home orders.
“Without the catalyst of NEH funding, we never would have thought to move in the virtual direction. Without the podcast, we wouldn’t have had the tools we needed to adjust to the pandemic.”
–Jacob Starks, Red Lake Nation College director of library management
Initially, the podcast’s plan of action was for students to collect and record oral histories from tribal elders and to use material in tribal archives to craft episodes that focused on Ojibwe language and lore. Students were very engaged with the project: about 40—out of a student body of 110—participated in the recordings. Participating in the project gave students direct access to their language and heritage as well as valuable skills in technology and audio post production.
The onset of the COVID-19, however, shut much of the production down, as vulnerable elders could no longer safely travel to the college’s recording studio to do their oral histories. This pushed the college to think creatively: in addition to creating technology kits for students to take recordings in the field, college staff began to use VR technology to craft tours and other immersive virtual experiences. Though the NEH did not directly fund the college’s new virtual offerings, Jacob Starks, the college’s director of library management says that “without the catalyst of NEH funding, we never would have thought to move in the virtual direction. Without the podcast, we wouldn’t have had the tools we needed to adjust to the pandemic.” The college’s expanded capacity allowed it to quickly engineer a drive-in graduation ceremony that was live-streamed to an audience of 4,000 people and featured on the Minneapolis evening news. The graduation ceremony was “oral history in the making,” said Starks, and thanks to NEH funding, Red Lake Nation College and its students have the ability to record that history themselves.