TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - "The Beginning They Told" is an 11 minute computer animated short by Joseph Erb that tells the Cherokee creation story, featuring a talking beaver, a buzzard, and a water beetle. The film recently showed at the Smithsonian and is currently available on VHS videotape from the Cherokee Nation Gift Shop.
Erb is a Native filmmaker from Oklahoma who works primarily in Native languages. He sees computer animation as a way to teach Native children not only their heritage, but also computer skills. "We're competing with mass culture," Erb told Indian Country Today. "The kids have a choice; they can watch our animation or they can watch Elmo. You have to compete with all of that so the children will want to know their traditional stories and their language."
Erb started his journey into art through sculpture but he eventually began to work with installations that utilized projections where he told traditional Cherokee stories in his art. "After a few pieces like that I started going into regular three-dimensional animation, like 'Toy Story,' to tell a story," Erb said. "I completed a film as my master's thesis at the University of Phoenix, and I was really moved to tell more stories. It was the first computer animation ever made in the Cherokee language with a traditional story. I've moved back home and I'm starting to train people here. I've taught a lot of students, I've been in 12 schools, and I have eight animations that the schools have done."
One of his biggest success stories has been with the students at Ryal School in Henryetta, where Erb helped make four shorts; "Vnoksetv" ("Greedy,") "How the Woodpecker Got Its Colors," "Mapohiceto" ("Not Listening,") and "The Boy Who Turned Into a Snake." The shorts have been shown in various American Indian film festivals.
"I'm working with Lost City, Okla. which has an immersion program," Erb said. The city's school system has a program where young children only speak Cherokee. "I've been giving animation to their immersion program to help with materials. I did a little possum scene with digital animation where he counts numbers in Cherokee. There's also a rabbit that talks and sings about colors. I work at night and on weekends on the animation so they will be able to have more of a 'Sesame Street' orientated education program to keep children interested. I had never really thought of animation before college, but some of the ideas that I had and some of the stories I knew were better implemented in animation. If you watch animation from different cultures it manifests itself differently, even though it's the same medium. I think we're at the beginning of something exciting because Native culture will re-define animation for itself."
Erb started work on "The Beginning They Told" while he was in Philadelphia, but he needed Cherokee voices, so he offered the project to the tribe if they would provide the voices. The animation was a two-man operation with just Erb and Scott White doing all the work.
Erb disagreed with the videotape pairing of his original version, in the Cherokee language with English subtitles, with an English language version. "I did not want to do the piece in English, which is what they did with it later. On everything I do I try to avoid English, because if a kid can watch it in English, he will, and that's what I'm trying to keep from happening. I'm trying to make sure that when you watch it you will be exposed to the story in the original language it is told in. Basically, I didn't have any control, and I didn't want to be a part of the English language version. I don't mind putting my work in other languages, but they'll be in other Native languages. I don't really promote putting my work in English because it's so accessible. English is an overused language as it is."
Erb works on low to non-existent budgets for his films, but as the technology grows he sees the lower cost opening doors for a new generation of animators. "If you notice the film credits on most animation, you'll see dozens to hundreds of names of animators, so when you only have one or two animators working on something, it's a big project. Computer animation is becoming pretty accessible because of the speed of computers today; the faster these computers go, the more they can compete with any type of cell animation. In the schools we do clay animation because it is pretty quick, and it's very accessible to children because they are very tactile and they play with clay quite naturally, but I love computer animation because all of your variables are very controlled, lighting, color."
The animator is currently putting the finishing touches on his next release; a 26-minute claymation/stop-motion piece called "The Messenger," which will be entirely in Cherokee with English subtitles. "I moved back to Oklahoma specifically to do this," Erb said. "I work on grants to train Creek and Cherokee children. I bring in speakers to work with the kids so the kids become the voices of the animation, and they are also the animators. They have to learn the language, they choose the story as a group, and then they animate it and do the voices. From the experience they learn technology, they develop skills, they learn teamwork, and they learn about their culture."
For more information about "The Beginning They Told," visit cherokeegiftshop.com.