A tribal past finds its future.

As a kid, Jessica Cantrell always knew she was Native American, but as she grew older she found it difficult to find resources to help her connect with her culture. “I didn’t really know what it meant to be Native American,” says Cantrell.

Now, she is the catalyst behind a 360° film project that’s empowering tribal members to share their own stories and reconnecting young people with their community’s past. “It’s important for youth to learn who they are and where they belong in the world,” says Cantrell, now a tribal librarian for the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria.

Cantrell originally set out to replace inaccurate library materials through an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant. But after receiving the grant, Cantrell discovered that the materials she envisioned didn’t exist. That’s when the library project expanded into a virtual reality project. Cantrell set out to bring tribal traditions such as eeling — which were historically passed down through oral storytelling — into a modern visual medium.

Created in partnership with Oculus, the tribal library’s 360° Film Project launched with the premiere of Bear River, a Nation: What Can Eeling Teach Us? The launch event, held at the tribe’s northern California Tish-Non Community Center, brought tribal members together to experience this new form of community storytelling.

For Quincy and Joaquin, both 13, What Can Eeling Teach Us? gave them a deeper understanding of their heritage. “It’s cool seeing where you come from,” Joaquin says. “Just learning all about the culture and seeing how it works.” Quincy and Joaquin are working with Cantrell to develop their skills in VR storytelling and plan to record their own stories.

But it’s not only tribal youth who are impacted by the project. In 360°, members of all ages are re-immersing themselves in their culture. Cantrell describes how VR transports elders to sacred places they can no longer access, helping them recall earlier memories of the tribe. For Brenda Bowie, a tribal elder, the project also goes beyond preserving culture. “I think this is going to be huge to get a message from our tribe to say, ‘Look at these people, look at the beauty of their land, look at where they are, look at who they are,’” Bowie says.

John McGinnis, a tribal council member-at-large, became emotional after watching the Bear River Band’s first film. Not only was the film dedicated to his late brother Joe, but McGinnis saw the technology’s potential to preserve tribal stories for generations to come. “You know where we came from and where we’re going. We’ve got to connect the past with the present and future — and technology is the future,” says McGinnis. “Now the stories cannot be untold.”