Amherst College’s Lehua Matsumoto built an interactive virtual reality environment that introduces students and interested users to the natural world surrounding Amherst College and the Western Massachusetts area. Noting a general lack of understanding local native American history, knowledge, and epistemology, Lehua’s project is designed to help people explore and create awareness of local indigenous ecological knowledge. This virtual reality experience will provide users an interactive showcase of plants and environmental characteristics (see video below).
Cycles of Reconciliation
By Lehua Matsumoto
My project is a virtual reality experience in which students and faculty
(or anyone else is interested in learning more about Native plant life in this area)
can experience “walking” through a computer-generated environment, watching
videos of Native plants found in the area, and listen to audio recordings (or read
pieces of text) that give them some background on the plants featured in my project.
I’m hoping that those who experience my project will come away from it
understanding a little more about the plants in this area, and about an Indigenous
understanding of our connection to the land itself.
Interactive and Immersive
This project has moved in many different directions from the start of the
semester. Initially, I was hoping it would be a very interactive experience, where the
user would be able to examine plants and turn them around in the process of
learning more about them. At this point, I think the project will still be an immersive
experience (because it will be in virtual reality), but maybe not as interactive as I
Thinking with Wisdom Sits in Places and Braiding Sweetgrass
The two main texts I’ve used as the basis for this project are Wisdom Sits in Places
by Keith Basso and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Aside from that,
I’ve used the Amherst College Archives to build historical knowledge of the land
around campus. Through these texts, I hope to incorporate knowledge of Indigenous
traditional ecological practices into my project so that as users are learning more
about the plants in this area, they also learn more about how Indigenous people
think and their attitudes toward the land itself.
From a technical aspect, I’ve been using Unreal Engine to build my virtual
environment and I’ve used SpeedTree to create some of the computer generated
plants scattered throughout the environment. I’ve realized the difficulties of trying
to make trees and plants look as organic as possible, but I think the contrast of
computer generated plants next to videos of the plants in real life will help drive
home the point that we often treat nature as we do everything else in our lives (i.e.
computers), but the land is, in fact, more powerful and more complicated than we
Braiding Sweetgrass and Wisdom Sits in Places have given me the language to use to
talk about Indigenous theoretical frameworks surrounding relationships with the
land. Through the Amherst College Archives, I’ve found a lot of interesting material
on the Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary, which I have used to look for different plants
that will be represented in this game form. Some of the more unexpected finds are:
1) I found out that the red pines on campus were cut down due to insects and
a fungal disease, when they were planted in the first place for their resistance to
insects and fungal diseases, and that 2) the land where the Bird/Wildlife Sanctuary
sits today was first cleared by students who needed extra money to pay for college
in the wake of the Great Depression.
In conclusion, after walking the land myself and through my readings of
Indigenous knowledge-based texts, I have come to the conclusion that even just
Indigenous attitudes of respect toward the land make a significant difference in the
way we exist in this world. When you start off every morning with a sense of
gratitude, it’s hard not to feel good throughout the day, even if you ended the day