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Animation project to be shown at Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian

Monday, February 20, 2012 – Ann Claycombe

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When most people think of recording Native American traditions, they think of photographs or documentary film. But Melanie Davenport, associate professor of art education at Georgia State University, helped a group of students in Mexico document their way of life through stop-motion animation. One of the resulting shorts, “The Drum Celebration,” will be shown at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in two film festivals this spring.

“The Drum Celebration” shows a village of Wixaritari – otherwise known as Huicholes, a native group of west central Mexico – preparing for and conducting a ritual autumn celebration. The villagers set a date, gather flowers and corn, and then gather to make music and share food and drink.

“The kids made everything,” Davenport said. “They developed the storyboard and script, made all of the sets and props and scenery – and all of the creative decisions.”

“The kids” in this case were students at the Centro Rural de Educacion Superior in Estipac, Jalisco, Mexico. Almost all of the students – 98 percent – are Native American, and a large majority are Wixaritari.

Davenport and her collaborator Karin Gunn traveled to the school each year between 2007 and 2009 to teach the students how to create their own animations. They brought supplies with them: a computer, a video camera, a still camera and a wide range of art materials.

The Estipac project fits into two larger movements, Davenport said. One aims to teach media literacy to youth, and another teaches media skills to indigenous communities so they can express and share their cultures.

“The students were learning about the power of the media,” she said, “becoming critical consumers by becoming producers themselves.”

Animation proved very engaging for these indigenous youth and was an effective way to document their own story in their own language. Cartoons and animated advertisements are often among the first things that rural people encounter when they get access to television or the internet, so the technique seems relevant. It also allowed students to work together at the school (where many live in dormitories), rather than traveling to their remote home villages to try to document community members who may prefer not to be recorded.

“The Drum Celebration” and other animations by the students at Estipac have been shown in film festivals previously, and will be on display at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian from March 5 through April 1.

The students can’t afford to travel abroad to watch their own premieres, Davenport said. The impact on them has been more immediate and local – and in at least one case, possibly life-changing.

“After working with us, one student decided to go to college and study communication,” she said.
“The Drum Celebration” and other animated shorts by the students in Estipac can be seen on the web at:

The Estipac project was supported in part by a Professional Activity Grant and an Institutional Support Grant from GSU's Center for Latin American and Latino/a Studies.

A student positions a figure on the set of the animated short "The Drum Celebration."