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The Ways

…because the old media of film and TV still don’t tell stories that speak to the Native American experience. While an educational web series from a public media organization might not sound exciting, "The Ways" turns abstract issues about American Indian culture into compelling narratives with real life characters. The series not only provides a voice for an often marginalized group, but also taps into new media’s potential to explore serious topics from a personal, intimate level. The producers of "The Ways" were also smart to include multi-media options like interactive maps with additional information, adding further context to the complexities of Native American existence.



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Phrases like “cultural arts” or “cultural history” might cause an automatic “Face with Rolling Eyes” response. And sure, millions of people probably aren’t crashing bandwidth servers in order to stream a documentary series about contemporary Native American life. But in both these senses, "The Ways" not only serves as a possible correction to prejudices against Native Americans, but also to preconceived notions about what makes compelling content. So while "The Ways" is a documentary series that focuses on Native American life and culture, it’s also a crucial reminder that culture actually consists of people with interesting stories and unique points of view. Whether it’s the experience of a college student participating in a powwow dance, how a girls’ basketball team promotes participation in tribal life or a fishing family’s struggle against nature and prejudice in Lake Superior, "The Ways" shows how Native American culture isn’t simply one thing, but a collection of human stories. Old media has created so many barriers to whose stories can be told, especially concerning what those people look like and where they come from, but the ease of both production and distribution in new media presents an opportunity for series like "The Ways" to present alternative perspectives.

Series director and producer Finn Ryan also makes interesting creative choices in how he and his team choose to present the material. Each episode skillfully blends montage footage with contemporary tribal music and voice-over interviews to construct an interesting story in just a few minutes run time. The overall aesthetic is probably closer to Vice than to Frontline, but with one important distinction. While a media organization like Vice has made a name for itself by reporting provocative content about non-mainstream cultures and peoples, there is some controversy to how the Vice reporters often insert themselves into the story. While there are artistic choices made by Ryan and his team, they have also gone to great lengths to ensure that "The Ways" allows its subjects to have their own voice. Ryan has admitted that one of the biggest obstacles in filming the series was overcoming the mistreatment that Native Americans have so often faced in media coverage. Not only did the filmmaker and his crew consult a team of Native American advisors for the series, but at the most basic level of presentation, the audience only hears the subjects speak without any editorial commentary from Ryan. It’s always a risk when anyone from outside an often marginalized culture tries to chronicle it even with the best of intentions, but "The Ways" shows us that the important creative decision is simply to let the people speak.

For all the talk about the potential of new media to disrupt and reshape traditional standards, educational content is the one area where this actually seems to be occurring. "The Ways" is a great example of an educational series that isn’t trite infotainment, but also isn’t, for lack of a better word, boring. Each episode tells a different story that manages to present a complete picture of the subject, while also touching on larger issues without spoon-feeding the message to the audience. And oh yeah, each one only runs for a few minutes, making the accomplishment that much more impressive. For any viewers who wish to learn more, the website’s platform has a host of multimedia options, from traditional plain text offering more detailed information about the story and issues to more interactive features like a map users can toggle to learn more about the regions featured. This could be a good model for most creators of educational content going forward: create a simple video story, and then offer more in-depth features that allow those who are actually interested to learn. It also perhaps makes sense that educational content would be the first place we see real change in storytelling. In general, the traditional formats for educational content have either been extremely dry and uninteresting or too obviously pandering and condescending. New media allows educational content creators to take chances. Perhaps the short webisode format is a naturally better fit for an audience with a limited attention span, or to be more generous, enjoys multi-tasking while consuming stories.

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