In thePresence
of theSacred
Sweetgrass is the hair of our Mother;
separately, each strand is not as strong
as the strands are when braided together.
--Mary Ritchie (by way of Carol Dana)

Sweetgrass braid courtesy

In the Presence of the Sacred will explore interactive storytelling ceremonies, or "story braiding" between Native American and local storytellers using Access Grid hi-bandwidth videoconferencing technology.

To learn more about this project, click on a subject at left.

This project is currently seeking funding from organizations including Creative Capital. If you are interested in supporting, contributing to, or learning more about this work contact: joline blais.
ABOVE: child on rocky beach, Lucerne Maine
In the Presence of the Sacred:
Story Braiding on Access Grid

In his book In The Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, Jerry Mander reminds us that the technological and social systems that have destroyed the living ecosystem are destroying human beings as well. The 1977 Iroquois address to the UN confirms this, but adds that Native people "can contribute to the survival potential of the human species" because they still know how to live in harmony with the natural world.

To do this, Native People "have need of a forum in which our voices can be heard. . . we need alliances with the other people of the world to assist in our struggle to regain and maintain ancestral lands and to protect the Way of Life we follow." In the Presence of the Sacred builds these cultural alliances between indigenous and local storytellers via the Access Grid multicast platform.

The Passamaquoddy word kehsatokot signifies length of a "braid" or "story", from their tradition of telling stories as they braid the ceremonial sweetgrass. This "braiding", "kestakenikan" will be the model for both the technique of storytelling, and the content of the stories.

A story-braid is a live interweaving of stories in which each storyteller adds her strand, but in a way that respects and honors the other strands. In the end an interactively produced story emerges that becomes greater than the sum of its strands.
Contexts and influences for In the Presence of the Sacred
Just over a year ago, the Passamaquoddy learned that a proposed Liquefied Natural Gas plant would level the sacred site where they have gathered sweetgrass for thousands of years. The LNG plant would transform their homeland in Maine's pristine Quoddy Bay into a toxic industrial zone, disrupting traditional economic activities such as fishing, basketmaking, and trading and depriving them of their profound connection to the land.

According to Native American religious scholar Vine Deloria, peace between the people and the land will require reconciliation "between the spiritual owner of the land--American Indians, and the political owner of the land--American whites."

As a Mainer, of both French and Native descent, I see ample evidence for this claim.

As a storyteller, I also believe in the power of shared narrative to expose injustice and rediscover common ground, both figuratively and literally.
An experimental approach to content and form...
When someone does not yet understand, Passamaquoddy elders have told me, they are "not yet ready to braid".

While the concept of cultural braiding is ancient, western print culture, with its insistence on "the truth," often exacerbated the cultural imperialisms triggered by bible-toting missionaries.

New technologies like Access Grid make room for a rethinking of both western and native approaches to cultural exchange. Access Grid enables instant interactive contact among several locations, allowing storytellers to use a full range of speech, gesture, sound, and object, as well as inviting live participation.
Issues currently under discussion
Meetings, workshops and conferences with project participants have raised a number of critical questions:
  1. Can these story-braids aid in decolonizing for both Wabanaki & local storytellers?
  2. What has been the process of de-tribalization for settlers and native peoples? or, what has happened to the role of mothers & grandmothers?
  3. What role has religion played?
  4. What kinds of relationships have communities formed with the lands/waters that sustain them? What inhibits the formation of these relationships?
  5. How can we get youth involved, especially with the elders, in storytelling?
  6. What kind of a framework is required so storytellers feel safe & also feel an urgency to both tell their stories & listen to the stories of others?
  7. How can we link local story "braids" into a larger network? How can we maintain the ritual nature of the story circle yet weave some strands with other communities? (This is the problem of avoiding the lure of broadcast or entertainment as cultural material moves out of the community.)
Personal and artistic growth
Typically, technologies exacerbate the power of those already holding the reins. Taking a cue from artists critical of technology like Natalie Jeremijenko and Natalie Bookchin, I am interested in exploring ways that new media can be used to protect ancient wisdom.

In projects like the sustainable eco-village of Gaviotas in the Columbian llanos, technology is brought to the service of people and the environment rather than corporations and profit. As a new media practitioner, I see my work as part of this tradition, but my point of departure will be the Maine soil--and the community--in which I am rooted.
This project eschews the broadcast model of art production, in which a single person or group produces content for a mass audience.

While storytelling sessions may be 'documented' and reproduced for other audiences, the primary goal is to explore participatory storytelling across Access Grid networks, initially among Native, French, and Yankee Mainers with stories of the land to share.

Once a local model is established, we hope to inspire other Native American groups who are new to Access Grid, such as the Jicarilla Apache Cultural Center and Pueblo of Jemez, to join our braids.
UMaine has two Access Grid sites to host the initial sessions. In addition Northern Maine has a dense videoconferencing network that would enable us to host-link the Passamaquoddy in Pleasant Point, the Maliseet in Houlton, the Micmac in Aroostook, and the Penobscot in Old Town.

I am also working on UMaine's portion of a half-million dollar RUS grant for rural technology infrastructure that would create cutting-edge videoconferencing network in Washington County, linking the afore-mentioned tribes to the University. From there, we would branch to Access Grid nodes in the SouthWest and Canada.
Professional reference who is knowledgeable about the proposed project.
Jon Ippolito
Associate Curator of Media Arts
Guggenheim Museum

Assistant Professor of New Media
Co-director, Still Water for network art and culture
The University of Maine
406 Chadbourne
Orono, ME 04469-5713
tel 207 581-4477
fax 207 581-4357
Short Bio:
Fiction writer Joline Blais is an Assistant Professor of New Media at UMaine and co-founder of Still Water for network art and culture. She previously directed Digital Media Studies at NY Polytechnic University and introduced media studies in SCPS at NYU.

Blais' research and creative work explores new narrative and poetic forms, and includes forthcoming The Edge of Art, which examines that ways digital technologies have reshaped art.

She is currently working on Babel/Babble, poetry generated from infant speech; Sorties, a novel which retells of the story of the Biblical Ruth in the context of race & white ethnicity; as well as ways to link new technologies to indigenous storytelling and ritual.

Longer Bio:
Fiction writer Joline Blais is an Assistant Professor of New Media at UMaine and co-founder of Still Water for network art and culture. She previously directed Digital Media Studies at NY Polytechnic University and introduced a Media Studies program at New York University.

A Lewiston native with both French-Canadian and Native roots, Prof Blais returned to Maine to work on "glocal" explorations of New Media relevant to her native communities, and to enable her 4 & 6 year old children to develop their own sacred ties to their homeland.

Prof Blais' work is fundamentally about power and how technologies affect who has it and who doesn't. More specifically, she looks at how strategic uses of New Media can empower people over corporations, networks over nations, and local musicians over the recording industry. Released from the shackles of huge, profit-minded institutions, people rediscover their civic enthusiasm, their creative impulses, and their entrepreneurial spirit--all good for the local community and critical to developing a creative economy.

The Edge of Art, a forthcoming book co-written with colleague Jon Ippolito, looks at the ways these empowering strategies work in a communities of New Media artists, and how these artists are reshaping both the practice of art and the world in which they practice.

Her current projects include revising the manuscript of her novel, Sorties, to highlight issues in French-Canadian ethnicity, researching infant speech through voice recognition software--a way of giving voice to those whose speech we often don't understand or pay attention to; assisting with research and media strategies for Passamaquoddy leaders of the anti-LNG movement; and teaching courses that relate new media issues and technologies to Native American and Indigenous teachings, including game concept design, and interactive storytelling.

She has recently received a WIC (Women in the Curriculum) Grant to for research on Cyberfeminism.

*Total Budget:

-$45,000. sought from Creative Capital

*Amount Raised to Date:

-$500,000. RUS grant pending
(to extend videoconferencing network in Northern Maine, near tribal lands.)

Communities & Participants
Critical to In the Presence of the Sacred are the communitites and participants who advise, support or participate in the project. This section details the nature and kind of relationships we are trying to build.
Anikwom Whole LIfe Center
Response of The Anikwom Wholelife Center
In the Presence of the Sacred, a proposal to build cross-cultural relationships in addressing understanding and socio-cultural issues of respect in the Wabanaki-Maine and Maritimes Communities by Professor Joline Blais of the University of Maine at Orono

This response is a statement of endorsement for the project entitled, In the Presence of the Sacred, created by Professor Joline Blais.
Anikwom Wholelife Center is a newly established Indigenous charitable Center located in Passadumkeag, formed to address the socio-cultural health and wellness needs of Wabanaki Communities throughout the northeast new England states and the canadian maritimes provinces, the original Homelands of the Wabanaki Nations. Anikwom creates programs and projects with Youth-focused and adult Culturally-based activities designed to enrich cultural self-awareness, self-empowerment, health and wellness. To this end, the work of Anikwom parallels Joline BlaisŐ proposed response to providing meaningful and significant address for fundamental empowerment to Wabanaki Communities.

Representatives of the Anikwom Wholelife Center have met in consultation with Professor Blais regarding In the Presence of the Sacred and we are excited to participate in deliberate, constructive, partnership and collaboration. These parallel concerns shared by Anikwom and In the Presence of the Sacred include addressing Anikwom is aware that Professor Blais has sought consultation with Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Community members and fully endorses her efforts to work directly with the People. We are willing to partner and collaborate in this effort to work directly with and through Wabanaki Communities.

gkisedtanamoogk, a co-founder and the Cultural and Education Specialist for the Anikwom Wholelife Center, will represent the Center in the continuing collaboration with Professor Blais and the project. gkisedtanamoogk is accessible by phone [732.4472] and e-mail [].

Of special note, uncommon language use and capitalizations serve to reflect Wabanaki Worldview and Cultural Values. This usage should not be considered grammatical errors.

Wabanaki Center
Rivers & Tides
Sweetgrass braid courtesy

Sweetgrass is the hair of our Mother;
separately, each strand is not as strong
as the strands are when braided together.
--Mary Ritchie (by way of Carol Dana)

In the Presence of the Sacred develops over three phases: De-colonization requires an analysis of the violence of de-tribalization. According to gkisedtanamoogk, tribes and clans, organized around mother-bonding, and bonds to the "mother earth" have been destroyed to make room for individuals subject to hierarchical and patriarchal structures. To regain our lost freedoms, we need to rebraid the strands of the mothers' hair.

Each phase of the project focusses on preparing the local strands to ensure proper braiding.
The Strands
The Braids
The Braided Net
Related Work by Artist
Two related works, Fair e-Tales, and The Pool focus on digital storytelling and collaborative art production, two key features of In the Presence of the Sacred. Fair e-Tales uses open brower code--dhtlm and javascript, to break the ideological structures of the plot lines, revealing the stories of mothers, daughters, sisters and fathers neglected by the main story lines. The Pool re-imagines art as the product of a community rather than individual genius, and develops an architecture for tracing the contributions of all members of a collaboration. Conceptually, and technically, these works ground the investigation of storytelling and collaborative, community-based work at the core of In the Presence of the Sacred.

Fair e-Tales

Folklorists, psychologists, and historians have read the deep meanings of our cultures from folk tales and children's stories. But most, like Freud with the Oedipal story, take these stories at face value and never uncover the buried character, perspectives and viewpoints within the stories they take as models of the human psyche or mythos.

Fair e-Tales breaks open three well-known fairy tales to investigate the stories buried beneath the typical lenses through which we see these tales. Using dhtml and javascript in a browser window, hidden perspectives within each tale compete for the attention of the viewer. In Cinderella, the story changes depending on character alliances chosen by the viewer. In Red Riding Hood, sliding screens move in and out of the story at different depths and with different content, depending on whether the viewer chooses first, second, or third person pronouns. In Rapunzel, a rotating prism shifts the story according to point of view, though it is possible to read more than one point of view at a time through a divided prism.
View Fair e-Tales...
The Pool:
an architecture for online collaboration
The Pool logo

The Pool is a collaborative online environment for creating art, code, and texts. In place of the single-artist, single-artwork paradigm favored by the overwhelming majority of documentation systems, The Pool stimulates collaboration in a variety of forms, including multi-author, asynchronous, and cross-medium projects.

The Pool's structure emphasizes distributed learning and authorship. Contributors can propose a concept for others to implement, or respond to invitations to explore, debug, or remix existing works. Thanks to an innovative graphical interface, when Pool surfers review artworks, programs, and texts, the ratings they give these works ensure that the best of them will be most visible to future surfers.

Even in its beta version, The Pool made the top headline in Wired magazine's online news site in 2003. Soon afterward the Wired profile was blogged by over 40 online commentators, becoming the fourth-most commonly cited article in blogs worldwide as of late December 2003.
Tour The Pool...
View The Pool...
Distributed Creativity
Still Water partnered with New York's Eyebeam Atelier to conceive and produce an unprecedented online forum on open culture that spanned six weeks and four continents.

Distributed Creativity wove together correspondents from separate email lists based in California (Creative Commons), New York (Rhizome), Ireland (DATA), India (Sarai), and Australia (Fibreculture) in a global conversation on the future of creativity, intellectual property, and mobile media.

Weekly topics included: View Distributed Creativity...
m a r c e l
many voices, one conversation
image of MARCEL teleconference
Still Water, along with the University of Maine's Collaborative Media Lab, has played a strong role in the development of MARCEL, an ultrahigh-bandwidth network dedicated to uniting artists and scientists in cross-cultural and cross-discipline presentations, performances, and conversations.

Still Water has coordinated MARCEL teleconferences on network collaboration, digital video archiving, and the future of code.

View latest MARCEL project...

Texts here

Relevant Projects.

Works here
We will establish an open e-mail discussion list to facilitate the discussion of the process, methods, issues, and feedback generated by In the Presence of the Sacred.

You may subscribe to the list at

Once you are subscribed you will receive a confirmation message to which you must reply. After that you will receive email messages sent to the list by other subscribed members and you will be able to send mail to the list from your subscribed email address.

Please avoid using HTML formatted email when sending mail to the list. The list archives will "scrub" HTML formatting to prevent potential security problems with HTML content. Please also avoid sending attachments since not all subscribers, such as those in rural New England, are likely to have inexpensive or high-speed connections.

We hope this discussion list enables us to more actively engage with each other in the process of braiding our cultural stories together.
The Advisory Group for In the Presence of the Sacred includes: Participating institutions include: and other organizations concerned with local french culture and indigenous media.

Web site by Still Water.

Still Water logo
To find out more about In the Presence of the Sacred, please contact Joline Blais:


Joline Jeannine Blais
Professor, New Media
Co-director Still Water for network art and culture
400 Chadbourne
UMaine, Orono
207 581-4486
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