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Authenticity through Stories

For students of all backgrounds, stories narrated by Knowledge-keepers in their original languages provide exposure to authentic Indigenous culture. This can be contrasted with "book learning" or more theoretical understanding, which can introduce unhelpful distortions.

In the video below, the important role stories can play in transmitting an understanding of Indigenous culture is explained in more detail by Dr Sweeney Windchief, Associate Professor of Education at Montana State University.

Dr Windchief

To harness the power of storytelling in a practical, hands-on setting, First Voices deploys a multi-dimensional approach, as described below.


Native / non-Native collaboration

Every tribe tells its own stories in a way unique to their culture. When First Voices partners with a tribe, Elders select the stories, and a version is filmed in the original language. The next step is to work with language specialists to add captions (so the text of the story can be followed in the original language) and subtitles (where an English translation is provided).

The next phase of the project brings together reservation-based students and community members (high school and community college students). This cohort of around 30 participants spends one week working on-site with teaching artists from their own tribe, as well as other tribes, plus non-Native teaching artists.


Working face-to-face, on-site on the reservation, each teaching artist spends the week (five days) developing each participant’s ability and confidence in one of five artistic disciplines. The five disciplines are:

  • Choreography and movement

  • Music and sound design

  • Film-making and videography

  • Indigenous language and cultural history

  • Visual art and animation

In this way, the participants work together to interpret the story through all five disciplines. The process is filmed, and then a final performance is edited to create the finished story. The end product is a video combining the original storytelling and narration with the participants’ contemporary interpretation. (See examples here.)

Intergenerational / intertribal collaboration

The primary focus of First Voices is intergenerational and inter-tribal collaboration, with participants from reservation high schools, colleges and community centers. The goal is to work collaboratively to create digital (video-based) performances of ancestral stories. 

The creative process is fully collaborative, as participants work with professional artists (Native and non-Native), tribal Elders and knowledge-keepers to produce the videos. In this way the interpretation draws both on shared experiences and intensely personal interpretations.

The stories are published and distributed via this website (you can see the stories here, and associated educator resources here). The narratives selected for performance range from ancient origin stories to recent colonial-era history. Stories are presented in the original tribal language to create a rich archive for future generations.

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A videography and film-making workshop at Lame Deer High School, Lame Deer, MT

Learning and leadership through the arts

First Voices is based on a core belief that learning through the arts is critical to young people's development of self-confidence, teamwork and leadership. The program offers a non-judgemental, non-competitive space where each participant, whatever their ability and level of prior knowledge, can explore the expression of their own voice—and feel heard. 

Learning through the arts helps to build both interpersonal and technology-based skills. This can lead to next-level opportunities open up for students in the contemporary career marketplace.

Through the online publication of their performance videos, First Voices participants build a meaningful portfolio for their professional future—as well as long-term connections with peers, mentors and audiences within their own communities and beyond.

Course credits (college and high school)

An important long-term goal of First Voices is to encourage reservation youth to continue their education beyond high school. This is achieved through partnerships with educational institutions who offer students college credits for their active participation in the project.


Learning is aligned with course curricula in relevant fields. These include: media arts, humanities, performing arts, and Native American Studies, (including language and cultural studies).

Nutrition and wellness

Prior to engaging in on-site workshops First Voices works with locally-based nutritionists and wellness professionals, often identified through reservation-based wellness centers.


In partnership with these local specialists, a detailed five-day plan is developed for lunches and snacks. The lunch hour is used as an opportunity to discuss nutrition and wellness-based topics with participants including:


  • Benefits of sourcing food locally (and avoiding processed foods)

  • Nutrition and the body

  • Mental health and the connection to nutrition

  • Cultural significance of foods and food groups

  • Specific (take-home) recipes for on-going wellness


Right here on this website!

A critical part of the First Voices project is providing resources for educators (high school and college) to use as a means of exploring Indigenous culture with their students. 


Completed story videos and related content are integrated into cross-curricular lesson plans for educators at high school and college level. Our resources are endorsed by Indian Education for All, an initiative from the Office of Public Instruction in Montana, to ensure that tools and lesson plans follow guidelines mandated by the Montana Constitution.


Please visit the Educator Resources section of this site where you'll find details of these initiatives including a growing library of lesson plans and other resources.


Example of a First Voices lesson plan (PDF). Click here for the digital version.


Five areas of learning

Throughout the program, participants explore and develop a range of skills, working with professional artists to create contemporary interpretations of tribal stories. The skills that participants work on fall into five broad areas:

  • Choreography and movement

  • Music and sound design

  • Film-making and videography

  • Indigenous language and cultural history

  • Visual art and animation

Through the intensive workshops, the participants work on and practise key "soft" skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership. This helps to prepare participants for participation in the 21st century knowledge economy.

Improving outcomes for highschoolers

Specifically for high school participants, First Voices can improve participants' participation and engagement.

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What participants are saying...

This project is a great way to promote our culture and show people that we are still here and our way is not lost... this is a great idea and I'm thankful that these artists are taking time out of their lives to do this because not everyone knows about us. Our creation stories are something that will be passed down for many generations to come.

Samuel H., Lame Deer High School

It was powerful and unique. I especially love how my culture is introduced and how well the story presented itself... Seeing it being displayed in an artistic vision, watching it all mesh well together, the music, the story, and the body language. It was engaging and different. First Voices is inspiring me!

Latessa T., Lame Deer High School

Our culture is very very beautiful from the stories to the paintings, beadwork, and people. It's great to see it come alive.

Davinia, Lame Deer High School

What tribal Elders are saying...

It’s universal, in a way, the way that the tribes are related. We may have different designs, but we are all universal in the respect for mother earth, in our culture, our children, our ways of life. It’s all universal throughout America with Natives.

Alaina Buffalo Spirit, Northern Cheyenne Elder

There’s a lot of hardship in this story. [Young people] can take away that they can have endurance and that they can have faith.... Hope is something that we have to work towards... For me, as parents and as middle-aged people, we would have to work hard to ensure that that’s not lost. I see this event that we are doing to be a great part of it because you can see and know and understand where it came from.

Ruthie Shoulderblade, Northern Cheyenne Elder

What artists are saying...

It will give them [young people] the inspiration to strive towards art… to believe that through art there are a lot of possibilities. This project specifically will empower them… it will show them not to be ashamed of who they are as Native people. It will empower them to be proud as Native People. This is a good project to show youth around the world.

Chontay Standing Rock,
Musician & Composer

Although many Indigenous communities actively reclaim their narrative, allyship is still necessary. I believe this partnership will assist in the perpetuation of culture and heritage and highlight potential in the sovereignty of storytelling for cultural groups.

Ben Pease, Visual Artist

This project is really important and I’m very proud to be a part of it… I’m really proud to be a part of a project that is helping students know their background and stories but also helping promote and encourage students to express themselves, to find their art form—and capitalize on it!

Sammy Jo Bird, Visual Artist

What educators are saying...

This is important for many of our traditional people and indigenous nations because it’s a voice that is often not heard. To do it in this way, provides an avenue for others to know a little bit more about us, to have some of the original elders of this continent share some of their knowledge is an excellent way to come together and move forward in a positive way.

Don Wetzel Jr., Tribal Relations Advisor & Blackfeet Tribal Member

It's a fundamental human right to be heard and respected and these students are demonstrating so much of their talents in part because they had that. They had people listening, respecting them, and inviting them to create, to direct, and really engage in the entire process

Tami Haaland, Authro, Dean at Montana State University Billings 

I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to work with Preeti and First Voices. What an incredible program that truly spans generations and brings communities together. Preeti has an incredible way of working with people, making them feel comfortable and bringing out the best in them. I look forward to seeing what else will be accomplished with First Voices in the future!

Carrie Got-Nettlon, Educator Director at Yellowstone Art Museum


See below for some videos of a range of First Voices participants (including teaching artists) talking about their experiences.

Community Member: Jordis Ferguson

Jordis is one of our mature student participants. In the video below she talks about why she feels the First Voices project is important. This relates to her experience at the workshops held in Fort Peck (May 2023).

Teaching artist: Scott Smoker

Scott is the videographer for First Voices on the Fort Peck Reservation (all the the video relating to the project you see on this site was shot by him).

Scott is also a teaching artist, leading participants through videography workshops and teaching them fundamental principles of lighting / camera work etc.

In the video below he answers the question: "What are three things you take away from your experience with First Voices?"

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