In Celebration of Native American Heritage Month

Building Bridges Through Collaborative Research

Linking indigenous people’s knowledge to the world

By Debbie Cutler

Mark Palmer and Joseph Erb work to help save indigenous language and art, while introducing it to the world.

There are many schools and departments across the College of Arts and Science that have researchers delving into studies of and research with indigenous peoples – including the departments of Geography, English, Religious Studies, Sociology, the School of Visual Studies, and many more.

There are collections of indigenous works, databases and peer-review journal articles written by professors and graduate students; there are indigenous majors, minors, and certificates; there are Mizzou researchers who strive to work with these peoples to free them from the pains of their pasts, save their languages and customs, and aid their communities.

So, it is not unusual to run across the likes of Mark Palmer who works in the Department of Geography. He explores indigenous story-mapping in New Zealand and is the principal investigator for a National Science Foundation-funded project on indigenous virtual realities in central Mexico. He is also a member of the Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma.

Or Joseph Erb, in the School of Visual Studies, who is from the Cherokee Nation located in Oklahoma and is a digital media artist and storyteller, using both to help indigenous peoples.

Each has their own goals, own stories to tell, own reach into their communities and the world. Each is motivated to embrace their culture, to live and learn from their pasts and present, and create a better life for those both like and unlike them.

Mark Palmer

MARK’S Story

The History

Mark’s present works stems from his past as part of the Kiowa culture, which has a rich but tortured history.

The Kiowa origin story places the Kiowas at the basin of the Yellowstone River in northwest Wyoming and western Montana. This nomadic tribe migrated to the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota in search of horses, eventually finding feral horses and bison in Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and Texas.

But they were forced from their lands in Kansas in 1862, into a 2.8-million-acre reservation in southeast Oklahoma.

The Kiowa historically believed their dreams and visions held supernatural powers and turned to them especially during times of war, when hunting, and for healing purposes. They lived in teepees and spoke the now endangered native Kiowa-Tanoan language that is still spoken today by approximately 1,000 of their peoples, mainly elders.

Kiowa are noted for their pictographic histories of events. They created elaborate drawings first on dressed skins and eventually on ledger paper. They’re also known for their storytelling – which holds knowledge and information useful to Kiowas, such as creation (origin), historical and family stories.

“I’m a part of an indigenous culture, part of the Kiowa tribe,” says Palmer. “Growing up {in Oklahoma on the Kiowa reservation} for nearly a decade – I found our narratives, our histories, our experiences have always been diminished. They’ve always been pushed to the side, even though we have a goldmine of information and experiences and histories that are available.”

Palmer adds that growing up in Oklahoma as part of a large Native American population, had a big influence on the direction of his life and as his role as a researcher.

“As a person who has lived in indigenous communities and outside of indigenous communities, it’s just natural for me to do my research within the gray spaces between science and indigenous knowledge. So, I’m always shifting from one area of inquiry to another. And that’s what I’m most comfortable doing.

Historical Kiowa pictorial map created sometime between 1893 and 1895 showing southwestern Oklahoma and parts of the Texas Panhandle. The map presents common geologic features, like mountains and bodies of water. Also, symbols of Kiowa experience throughout the landscape.


Today, Palmer, a professor and a scholar, has three main projects he’s working on regarding indigenous cultures.

The first, with former MU Department of Geography grad student Cadey Korson (MA, Geography, ’12), is regarding story mapping in Tongariro National Park on New Zealand’s North Island, home to three active volcanoes and recognized for its landscape, spiritual significance, and indigenous Maori communities.

Currently Korson is in her third year of work, which was started in 2019 by Palmer. Palmer says the work theorizes possibilities that bureaucratic state maps, found within some UNESCO World Heritage nomination dossiers and resource management plans, contain indigenous cartograph elements that indigenous communities could use as the basis for creating indigenous story maps. Palmer’s work on it will carry on through the next four or five years.

A second project involves interpreting a Kiowa map created in 1895 into a manuscript with undergrad students Sarah Frost (senior, geography) and Grace Martinez (senior, biology). They are studying a digital reproduction because the rare and valuable original is housed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. The Kiowa pictorial system is embedded in information from 1895, but it’s interpreted through the eyes of 21st century scholars from different cultural backgrounds.

Palmer’s third project, which is collaborative with about a dozen individuals (who are on the Advisory Board of the Earth TimeKeepers, a network of traditional knowledge-holders from Indigenous Nations and communities in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and Columbia) looks primarily at the influence of art on science, and the influence of science on art through the creation of virtual realities experienced in domes or planetariums. Palmer says he has also established partnerships with faculty from the University of New Mexico and the University of Toronto.

He is working with Otomi timekeepers and knowledge holders in central Mexico, using consultants from the area, which he refers to as “ministers of culture.” This project, which involves translating indigenous knowledge into standardized 3-D images and visualization technologies, will be completed in two or three years, using a small carbon footprint.

(Note: The TimeKeepers adhere to community protocols regarding the sharing and dissemination of knowledge within their communities and with Otomi partners in Mexico, the latter of which is sharing what they know about the Otomi calendar and star knowledge.)

“It’s a virtual reality type of environment,” says Palmer. “Something that is more tangible. The VR prototype is a dome project, like a planetarium, with a virtual type of simulation played within the dome. At the present time we have animators, filmmakers, people who are familiar with dome technologies and projections … working on the prototype. And there are a lot of different actors contributing to the projects. Many different people and organizations are working together to get this prototype finished by hopefully the end of the year.”

The origin story uses calendar images, similar to those found on a Mayan calendar, using different symbols and representations.

Palmer adds the goal of the filmmakers and the animators is twofold. 1) understand the meaning of those images. And 2) take a bit of creative liberty with those images because the ideas associated with the images from the 12th and 13th centuries have changed today.

“And so, there is some reclaiming of knowledge and also some re-imagining what that knowledge might be saying or should be saying about the physical environment, about time, how we understand time, and how we understand its relationship and our relationship with the universe and the cosmos,” Palmer says.

One of the problems they are working on, is using a large dome to present the finished work – which is costly and technically challenging. One solution is to use a dome at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a test site. A second option is to create a 3-D video uploaded to YouTube that can be viewed from anywhere.

“In order to create these elaborate visualization representations using VR technologies and expertise takes millions of dollars,” Palmer says. “Everyone in production wants a cut. So how do you do it?  Well, what you have to do is be very innovative. We are trying to figure out how to create the [dome] images using the fewest possible resources and maintaining the smallest carbon footprint achievable. By spending millions of dollars, what you’re doing is actually growing a huge carbon footprint. Sustainability – culturally, and environmentally – is the goal.

There are implications associated with using digital technologies: “There’s a huge digital divide between North American university towns like Columbia … and these rural communities in central Mexico in terms of internet connection and the digital technology needed to develop the project. It’s just a very wide gap. We call that the digital divide,” says Palmer.

 “So, a lot of our problems initially had to do with ramping up the participants in central Mexico on the use of technologies like iPads, which are used to record Otomi community members insights on time-keeping knowledge; used for zoom roundtable discussions; and also to view VR prototype ideas.

“Technological ramping up is something that’s a big part of the project. So, anyone who is working with or plans to work with indigenous groups in Mexico, or nearly any other place in the world, has to come to the realization that there is a digital divide, there is a resource divide, there is social and cultural disconnectedness that has to be bridged in order for these projects to get off the ground.”

The prototype project, when completed, will first be shown to the Otomi peoples, which live outside Mexico City in the highlands.

“We will have them view it, and approve it before moving on to the next stage of the project,” Palmer says. “We want to understand what is culturally appropriate and what might be inappropriate within a dome environment or with the representations presented.”

Palmer's team is thinking of using a large dome to present the finished work of his visualization project  – which is costly and technically challenging. One solution is to use a dome at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a test site. A second option is to create a 3-D video uploaded to YouTube that can be viewed from anywhere. Pictured is the dome in New Mexico. Photograph by Jason S. Ordaz, Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) 


The Future

Their hopes for the dome project are not just for adult viewers, but also for children. They hope the younger ones will grasp the information, use it in the future for revitalization purposes.

“Youngsters know how to use digital technologies,” Palmer explains. “They know about the Internet, about social networking. They are global in their thinking, right? And so how these kids understand the Otomi content and how they interpret it is really important. We are trying to tap into their technological prowess and their technical knowledge. That’s an important aspect of this prototype.”

When you get to the point of communicating with each other, that’s when users will have to figure out how to create a common language? Do we create a lingua franca where we have Indigenous languages, English, French, Chinese … mixed into a global soup of a language? How do you deal with that? That’s something that will have to be addressed in the future. - Mark Palmer

The goal, eventually, is to create a global indigenous database where people can go in and compare and contrast different systems, different ideas in a global sense, not just for indigenous peoples. It would be written in multiple languages, including Chinese, French, English, Japanese and southeast Asian languages, as well as indigenous languages. Beyond that, the extend of the database is unknown as it is a future project, Palmer says.

“When you get to the point of communicating with each other, that’s when users will have to figure out how to create a common language? Do we create a lingua franca where we have Indigenous languages, English, French, Chinese … mixed into a global soup of a language? How do you deal with that? That’s something that will have to be addressed in the future. When you put indigenous knowledge into a of large global database, the knowledge is going to change. Global collaborations cannot be dictated by a few individuals. Global collaborations will require a collective type of decision-making amongst everybody on the planet.”

Joseph Lewis Erb and ᎠᎹᏱ Lewis Erb standing in front of the permit installation of Joseph’s work , “Indigenous Brilliants”, commissioned by the First American Museum (FAM) in Oklahoma City. FAM represents 39 tribal nations. 


The History

Erb’s people – highly intelligent, literate, and wealthy – weren’t always called the Cherokee Nation.

Run by tribal town leadership, they existed since before memory, and their oral history extends back 10,000 years or longer. They had advanced cultures and rich lives before European contact and trade with European immigrants, which eventually led to their struggles to remain in their lands and hold on to their sovereign rights.

In the early 1820s, they had a written language, a newspaper published in both English and Cherokee, and a constitutional government. They went to Dartmouth College, which was originally conceived as a missionary school for Native Americans, as well as other Ivy League schools. They also played instruments.

In 1838 and 1839, Cherokees were removed by efforts of the United States government, from their homes and farmland in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and parts of Alabama, due to racial prejudice, the growth of cotton agriculture, and the discovery of gold on Cherokee land. They were placed in stockades until their departure and forced to take a half year or more journey to land beyond Arkansas, which is now Oklahoma. About 4,000 perished out of 16,000 Cherokees forced on what is now called the “Trail of Tears.”

“Cherokees were more literate than Americans by our removal time (i.e., the time they were forced from their lands by the government after the Indian Removal Act of the 1930s, passed by President Andrew Jackson),” says Erb. “By our removal time, some estimates put Cherokees’ literacy close to having 80 to 90 percent literacy rate when Americans in that area were anywhere from 9 to 13 percent. We were possibly one of the most literate people in the world.”

But even after their removal from tribal lands, the people continued to thrive and grew into the sovereign tribal government of today – one of the largest nations in the U.S., with more than 390,000 citizens worldwide. Many still live-in northeastern Oklahoma on boundaries (they don’t call their lands reservations) that extend 7,000 miles, a place where Erb once lived and sometimes still does, a place his mom and grandparents call home as well.

“My mom’s parents’ family have been in the same community since removal, as far as being removed from our homeland,” he says.

Today there are only three continuous federally recognized Cherokee Nations, the largest in Oklahoma, with several famous people coming from these nations, including linguist Durbin Feeling and Hollywood star Will Rogers. Cherokee Nation is visible on Google maps, thanks to Erb.

“Cherokee Communication.” Copper cuff 3”x4” Private collection.


Recently, Erb, a computer animator, film producer, educator, language technologist and artist, sat in front of his computer during a Zoom meeting, the image of a woman in a flowered dress in the personalized Zoom background behind him.

The Cherokee illustration was an image of his grandmother. When asked what the background was, he responded that unofficially it was for an animated series in Native language funded by a tribal nation. This is one of many projects he is working on. In fact, even he struggles to list all current undertakings.

“Where do I begin,” he sighs.

There are so many: an animated series based on a true story, about five brownfields – environmentally impaired indigenous lands – but with a twist: they’ve been cleaned up with indigenous community support.

Or working with language programs, such as he’s done most of his professional career. “Before I came to Missouri, I worked at Cherokee Nation and did animations and worked as a language technologist with Google, Microsoft and Apple to get our language on all the different devices,” he adds. “Now our language is on every device, pretty much, which are sold in stores. I’m trying to figure out how to make sure that our language continues.”

He does this using Cherokee fonts that he created, more than 40 total. “These fonts were a new process in the beginning,” Erb says. “I don’t know if controversial is the right term, but obviously it was a concern in the beginning, whether or not new fonts were needed. Now they seem to be adopted much more readily. We don’t have the luxury of having thousands of fonts, so everyone you do is very important that you get it right and that people have some kind of input on them.” The fonts are in different Cherokee Nation language programs, and also shared with his community.

When in meetings with Apple and others, Erb brought the Cherokee Nation chief, colleagues, immersion teachers, children who spoke the language, and others with him to meet the corporate leaders.

“They took us seriously,” Erb says. “We are still one of the few indigenous languages that are installed [on Apple products]. Straight out of the box, for iPhone. That’s amazing!” 

He’s also working on a VR – a computer-generated virtual reality, where a person interacts in a three-dimensional, 360 environment using electronic devices – funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation. Erb is working with Palmer on this planetarium project, Erb’s work involving the Cherokee Nation and a portable planetarium to take out into communities.

A former Cherokee Nation science officer, who did STEAM outreach in schools in Cherokee Nation, asked Erb: “Can you make an animation for this?’ And I thought ‘well, you know I do not do a 360-planetarium animation,’ but I thought I could figure it out, so I spent about six months trying to tell a story in that realm. When you make it a 360 environment unlike the traditional standard film, there’s a different kind of language because you can’t do the traditional camera shots.”

This was because it used a different film-production language and a different way of storytelling through the camera, Erb was not used to.

“It was hard. I didn’t have a lot of language skills when I was young. I could, you know, name animals and a few words, but it wasn’t enough. I needed to know more complex sentences and certainly Cherokee. Most people in my generation don’t speak much Cherokee.”

In addition, he recently completed an animation using the Cherokee language for a documentary called “Searching for Sequoyah” where he wrote the animated historical scenes of Sequoyah, a Cherokee person who wrote in the 1800s. A preview screening for the Tulsa Native American Society was broadcast Oct. 11, with a PBS Broadcast Premiere on Nov. 1. It is scheduled to appear on American public television on Nov. 21.

Another project: A Kanyen’kehà:ka  Mohawk people piece in which he is creating a short, animated part of a larger undertaking.  “’The Clay She Is Made Of’ is an animated documentary drawing comparisons between Sky Woman of Kanyen’keha (Mohawk) origin story and Kahstoserakwathe Paulette Moore’s mother - Patsy Hill. Sponsored by the Ontario Arts Council, the film focuses on the strength, humor and heart of Onkwehòn:we (Indigenous) women. Kahstoserakwathe Paulette Moore is a filmmaker and educator who focuses on the wellness of Onkwehô:we people through language, land and relationships.”

There are more projects where these come from: “Just a bunch of different things,” he explains. “Indigenous animators – there’s not that many and so it really keeps you busy trying to keep up with the work.”

He’s also done work for the American Indian Resource Center working with communities from Muscogee communities and Cherokee communities, teaching animation and film in the Muscogee and Cherokee languages, as well as producing film for the National Park Service.

“One of the things you learn fairly quickly – on any kind of project in the indigenous community, is it’s all consensus building, and involvement – and those are the long-lasting projects that are successful in communities when you are involving other people and decision makers. You certainly are consulting with a number of elders and talking to people about what you want to do before you do it.”

Erb says his interest in indigenous peoples began when he was in a computer-animated class in grad school while earning an MFA at the University of Pennsylvania with a concentration in Digital Media.

“My professor told us to tell a story, and all of a sudden, I thought I could tell a Cherokee one,” he says. “And that little idea turned into the rest of my life! And what this gave me was the ability to do something more connected to the community.”

After his MFA he fell in love with telling indigenous stories in digital media, he says.

Rabbit Stories 3d animated film series. Created, directed, and produced by Joseph Erb.

The Future

Erb says he has learned asking questions is more important than finding answers, as in asking questions one learns how to examine things in a different light. “It gives you more questions,” he says.

“Not that answers aren’t important, but learning how to figure the answer to questions, which creates more questions, is really the key, and that’s where I think these institutions, like Mizzou, are giving them the foundation of questioning things and finding out the next evolutionary step of understanding – in whatever field.”

His hope for the future is to learn more about his Cherokee culture’s language, as well as inspire other students or researchers to continue his work in translating indigenous words and languages so they are preserved and known about.

“I think narrative and narrative storytelling is where indigenous stories can be more fruitful and help society. We all are part of a larger thing connected to community and language and land and space, and why that’s important is that narratives [promote] understanding and will give a healthier understanding of story, which will help with the environment, the values of that, the values of place.”

He says that kind of understanding leads to tolerance of differences and connectivity among peoples.

“A good narrative shows that place matters, no matter where, and this can actually help and heal other environments. I think that narrative is actually one of the most important things in contributions that we can do for society, to build these archetypes and places that actually can transform society.

“When I’m old and in a chair and I think about what I did in my life, I’ll be pretty satisfied with what I’ve completed. So, if I didn’t make it another day, I can say I had an impact on my community. And you know, what I care about is that I could affect seven generations from now. That there was an impact. That I was able to do that.

“And I can say I contributed to it, and in 200 years everything that I made is important because it’s all in the language. They’ll study these stories, these animated films of these archaic little things and they’ll see how we spoke, and they’ll see our language, they’ll see what our buildings look like.

“I think though the only thing that makes me special is I’m a link in the chain of a bunch of special people."