ABOUT FIRST VOICES
How did First Voices begin?
First Voices is a project from Thresh, an award-winning performing arts and education organization based in New York City. Both Thresh and First Voices were launched by renowned choreographer and performer Preeti Vasudevan.
Thresh was founded in 2005. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the connection with the Indigenous communities of Montana began, when Preeti visited schools in Lame Deer, Montana, at the heart of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. At that time she was engaged as a storyteller-educator for Yo-Yo Ma's Silkroad organization.
Northern Cheyenne artist Alaina Buffalo Spirit (Northern Cheyenne artist) and Preeti Vasudevan (Artistic Director, Thresh / First Voices) pictured in Billings, MT
While working with students and Elders of the Lame Deer community, Preeti recognized fascinating parallels with her own South Asian (Indian) heritage, particularly the inter-generational connections that pass on wisdom through stories. This is a need for all cultures globally: through stories, members of the younger generation can connect to their culture and find ways to apply this wisdom to their own lives in a contemporary context, strengthening a true and deep-rooted sense of identity.
The first iteration of the First Voices project was developed by Preeti in partnership with colleagues from the Lame Deer community as a response to the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the reservation. Tragically, many Elders were taken by the virus and the younger generation was experiencing a critical loss—of ancestral connection, of hope and empowerment through the tradition of storytelling between the generations.
The video below explores in more detail how the goals and objectives of First Voices evolved to address this important need.
"This project has opened up my heart and my mind...and it seems like once you open that door—that's where the trust comes in!"
—Jordis, Fort Peck Community College
How are Indigenous Communities involved?
First Voices works with tribal Elders, Knowledge-keepers and young people to create digital (video-based) performances of Indigenous ancestral stories. Tribal Elders and Knowledge-keepers work in partnership with First Voices on all elements of the project, from selecting and narrating the Indigenous story in the original language, to building partnerships with tribal colleges, high schools and community centers. It is with these institutional partners that the project recruits participants who interpret and create the digital story.
The story is created through a series of workshops, conducted by teaching artists (Native and non-Native) over five days, in five artistic disciplines. (See Approach & Impact for more details on the structure of the workshops).
What is Thresh—and what is the connection with First Voices?
Thresh is a New York-based, female-led performing arts non-profit producing work about storytelling in all its forms. First Voices is a social impact project within Thresh, focused on Indigenous digital storytelling.
As stated above, both Thresh and First Voices were conceived—and continue to be led—by award-winning choreographer and performer Preeti Vasudevan. Thresh was founded in 2005 to create ground-breaking art-based projects, with a mission to empower individual voices within the context of a global community.
FOUNDING ADVISORY BOARD
Artistic Director (Thresh)
Alaina Buffalo Spirit
Elder, Ledger Artist, Storyteller
Donnie Wetzel Jr.
Tribal Relations & Resiliency Director
Art Educator, Lame Deer School
Professor & Author
Montana Arts Council
Arts Education Leader
TEAM & STAKEHOLDERS
First Voices is produced by a diverse team of teaching artists, scholars, education specialists and storytellers from both Native and non-Native backgrounds. Each team-member brings a unique cultural and professional history to the project, ensuring a broad range of viewpoints and perspectives.
Art Education Specialist, Faculty MSU Billings
Cultural & Educational Adviser (FPCC)
Sammy Jo Bird
Visual Artist, Rodeo Champion
Videographer, Documentary film-maker
Dr. Sweeney Windchief
Associate Professor, MSU Bozeman
Cultural Adviser, Native Studies instructor (FPCC)
Director Chanté Project (FPCC)
Dean, MSU Billings
Alaina Buffalo Spirit
Ledger Artist, Elder, Storyteller
Choreographer, Project Leader
Art Educator, Lame Deer High School
Graphic Artist, Documentary film-maker
Nakóda Language Specialist (FPCC), Knowledge-Keeper
Elder, Tribal Liaison Consultant
Chontay Standing Rock
Seidel Standing Elk
Cultural Adviser, Lame Deer High School
"Creating and sharing stories will help build a stronger community with more empathy because I could tell the story to my younger family members. They would most likely be more curious and they would want to tell other people. I was trying to make an example of how this can make a stronger community with more empathy."
—Juanita, Lame Deer High School