• Indigemoji is a collaborative project that runs for seven weeks over the Summer school holidays period for the Alice Springs local library’s 'Geek in Residence’ (Caddie Brain)Source: Caddie Brain
A pilot program that has been running throughout Summer in Mparntwe-Alice Springs focusses on digital decolonisation and Indigenous empowerment through the development of culturally specific emoji.
Steve Hodder Watt

6 Jan 2019 - 7:46 PM  UPDATED 6 Jan 2019 - 7:48 PM

Indigemoji is a collaborative project that runs for seven weeks over the Summer school holidays period for the Alice Springs local library’s 'Geek in Residence’ program. Aimed specifically at working with young Aboriginal people in Central Australia, participants in the program develop a sticker set of Indigenous emojis as a way of decolonising the internet during a time of rapid technological uptake in Central Australia.

Funded by the Northern Territory Government and IndigiMob First Nations Media, the project is overseen by Arrernte linguists and language-speakers Joel Liddle Perrurle, Veronica Perrule Dobson AM, and Kathleen Wallace Kemarre. 

Local Indigenous artists and illustrators, predominantly from Tangentyere Artists, the Aboriginal town camp community-controlled arts centre have worked with the young participants to develop their own basic designs of generic emoji symbols like hand signals, plants and animals. 

CAYLUS Youth Services also supported the project through supplying some funding for the iPads.

Project coordinator, Caddie Brain says local youth that aren’t as "digitally-ready" have developed their own digital creations through the program already.

“A lot of kids don’t have email, phones, iPads so it’s a question of access," said Ms Brain.

"The Geek in Residence program has been running for a year now as a way of engaging the many young Indigenous people aged 12-25 who spend time in the library. It's had over 3000 visitations from local kids during this time, which is quite amazing. They make some interesting digital artworks and videos and generally experiment in the space, but this is the first time they're working on a project with an outcome of this kind. Everyone's quite excited.”

Supporting artist Graham Wilfred Jnr mentors a young participant to make his own emoji.

Continuity and integrity of Indigenous languages is an ongoing concern for many First Nations peoples around the world. Joel Liddle Perrurle is an Arrernte man who recently reclaimed the language he belongs to. He is navigating the complexities of being able to continue carrying the voices of the ancestors.

Mr Liddle Perrurle said he grew up not speaking Arrernte, but through learning it later in life has a unique understanding of the process of cultural revitalisation through language.

"At least with Arrernte we're lucky we have resources, so picking up (Arrernte) dictionaries, books, short stories and listening to recordings that elders have done in the past," he said. "I understand how hard it is to pick up language and engage with it, but also then you know the need for this.

“Arrernte is still considered a relatively strong language compared to other Aboriginal languages in an Australian context. The biggest thing I hear around this is that Aboriginal languages were never written at all. They weren't written languages.

"It's kind of an interesting one for me because I also research our culture here in Central Australia; rock engravings, rock paintings and body paint. They're all written forms of language, how they used to symbolise language and interpretation in the past. In the form of how English is written now, there's this myth around that our language wasn't written, but they were just expressed differently, in different symbolic ways."

Mr Liddle points to the ever-growing use of, and reliance on, digital media as another warning for all First Nations to propagate and promote their languages internally to retain their authenticity and continuity.

“In this day and age where everything's digital media, phones, iPads and computers, I think our languages need to move along with the mediums we use ... so that we're not just speakers of language, but we're actually people that can write language, we can read it and we can create text in it, write papers in it and create books and become authors in our own languages. Emojis is just another side to that," he said.

Mr Liddle hopes to develop an Arrernte digital orthography, like language keyboards and link them in with autocorrect filters.

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Igneous Studios' Leigh Harris, a Kanolu and Gungarri man, has been a digital innovator and technical creator for 25 years and will develop the Indig-Emoji keyboard developed within the program for Android phones.

“The premise of creating this is really about getting our cultures included in the digital space,” he said.

Mr Harris said he has seen plenty of hit-and-miss moments when it comes to Indigenous communities and digital engagement. As a result, he’s calling for more substantial direct technology funding that targets specific remote and regional communities, rather than the temporary Fly-in Fly-out support or training they generally receive.

“In Aurukun, $8 million was spent on 37 live video-feed cameras that used most of the data bracket for the community and then the main telco for most remote communities waited until the mine (at Weipa) came in to finally set up a communication tower and then lease it to the mining company, rather than just set it up for the Aboriginal community directly," he said.

"If we had the proper connections, the proper training in community – not gammon training– then the opportunities for growth are there.”

Mr Harris said he hopes that more interest and education in the industry can lead to innovations in service and infrastructure delivery.

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“They’ve spent billions of dollars on Remote Housing (SIHIP program), but there’s been a solution around for the past five years that they’re implementing in South America, in India and in Africa.," he said.

"They’re making reconstituted concrete and wood houses using a 3D printer: for under $50,000 and in under 48 hours. There’s all these types of solutions out there, but we’ll miss it if we don’t encourage interest in the sector.

"We need to learn how to use technology to benefit us and our culture. That's what we have to do. That's the first instance. I deal with young kids, they're 14-15 year old, they know how to use Snapchat and Instagram and Facebook. They don't know how to use Dropbox, they don't know how to use Google cloud.

"Those sort of things can maximise and benefit them hugely. I say start off with digital literacy and be competent in the usage of technology and then you know you can grow from there but a lot of people out there are saying ‘build all these advanced technologies’ and they're doing it but they're doing it overseas, they might say they're developing this stuff but they're actually getting it done overseas or some whitefella down the road is doing it, that's not helping our mob.”


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