Seeking Immortality IMLS Proposal

Preserving Native American Language & Cultural Artifacts in Virtual Reality

In partnership with the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Library, San Jose State University’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. academic library and School of Information will share the results of their work preserving both the Northern Cheyenne language and cultural artifacts using virtual reality. This skills-building lab session will be conducted in virtual reality and attendees will get a firsthand view of Northern Cheyenne’s tribal virtual spaces while also learning how to use the technology. The session will conclude with skills-building activities, so attendees get an initial look on how to use the VR space.

Seeking Immortality is the name for the formal Northern Cheyenne Preservation Project (NCPP). It builds and expands on an existing partnership between the Northern Cheyenne Tribe (NCT) people and San Jose State University through the funded IMLS leadership grant entitled Reading Nation Waterfall (RNW), which is focused on increasing access to literacy resources and libraries for tribal children and families. The RNW – Seeking Immortality grant serves as Phase 1 of Tribe’s preservation project that will leverage RNW’s current organizational capacity to achieve IMLS’s organizational Goal 3: Advance Collections Stewardship and Access and Objective 3.1: Support collections care and management and Objective 3.2: Promote access to museum and library collections and the Native American Library Services Enhancement Grant’s Goal 3: Enhance the preservation and revitalization of Native American cultures and languages and Objective 3.2: Support the preservation of content of unique and specific value to Native communities and Objective 3.3: Support the sharing of content within and/or beyond Native communities. The project will develop a model for using state-of-the-art technology to preserve and richly share the NCT language and cultural heritage using virtual reality. 

Need Statement

There are currently less than 300 native NCT language speakers remaining and most of these individuals are over 65 years old. There are currently 12,266 enrolled tribal members with about 6,012 residing on the reservation (Cheyenne Nation Website). As of 2017, 38% of all residents of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation were under age 18 while 7% are age 65 or older (Montana Poverty Report Card), which is almost half as less than the state’s other tribes at 13.5%. There is an urgent need to preserve the NCT language and past and current way of life for future generations.

The Northern Cheyenne Reservation is in the state of Montana and encompasses 440,000 acres of land with Lame Deer, Montana serving as the Tribe’s headquarters. The tribe is also known as “Tsis tsis’tas” (Tse-TSES-tas) which means “the beautiful people” and it is one of ten bands that comprise the Cheyenne Nation who reside over the Great Plains, which stretch from southern Colorado to the Black Hills in South Dakota (Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs). The Northern Cheyenne Reservation is approximately 44 miles long and 23 miles wide, located in the rural area of the Bighorn and Rosebud counties, the Reservation is situated in ranching and coal mining country. The majority of the Reservation population lives in the five distinct centers: Ashland, Birney, Busby, Lame Deer, and Muddy Creek. The largest population center is Lame Deer with approximately 2,900 people. 

We seek to preserve our language and traditions so current and future generations can learn about and richly experience the NCT language and cultural heritage.

Target Group

There are two target groups for preserving the language and cultural heritage of the NCT: 1) The current and future generations of the NCT people, and 2) All those who wish to learn about and experience the NCT language and culture.


There are four ultimate beneficiaries of this project: 1) All past, current, and future enrolled members of the NCT, 2) Other tribes and indigenous people who will benefit from this model, 3) Society in general who will have access to tribal language and culture as preserved in 2022, and 4) Other people who wish to preserve their language and culture using this model.

Project Work Plan

The project will take two years to complete. 

Tasks and Activities

Year 1 and Phase 1 (Sep. 2022 – Aug. 2023).

Task 1: Finalize Administrative Team (Sep. – Oct. 2022). While the existing RNW leadership team will help oversee this grant including the national advisory committee, project director, project manager, steering committee, web/social media/VR coordinator, and external evaluator (view RNW project team here), a dedicated project manager and VR consultant will help oversee the day-to-day implementation of this grant. Virtual Reality subject matter expert, Jon Oakes, and international digital archives and preservation expert Dr. Dara Hoffman will help develop the protocol and oversee the digitization and preservation process and its migration into virtual reality. 

Task 2: Finalize Project Logic Model and Evaluation Crosswalk (Sep. – Oct. 2022). To ensure close alignment between the project proposal, project timeline, and evaluation methodology, a project logic model (aligns project goals, inputs, outputs, and outcomes) and project evaluation crosswalk (aligns all evaluation methodology with project goals and objectives) will be developed and used to oversee the project with built-in formative and summative evaluation. 

Task 3: Finalize Project Implementation Design (Sep. – Oct. 2022). The project timeline will be finalized, and site visits will be scheduled to preserve and archive language, cultural ceremonies and traditions, and scan select artifacts. 

Task 4: Site Visit 1 (Oct. 2022). Site visit one will be a five-day visit that will involve orientation for the team and an opportunity to meet with the community and get oriented to the technological infrastructure, cultural traditions, and physical spaces that are available. In addition, select candidates for language and cultural heritage preservation will be identified for digitization and addition to the VR museum and library. 

Task 5: Finalize Digitization and Preservation Plan (Oct. – Nov. 2022). After Site Visit 1, the final plan for what will be digitized and preserved will be completed. The plan for digitization and schedule for Site Visit 2 will be developed and finalized.  

Task 6: Develop and Maintain Virtual Reality (VR) Language and Cultural Heritage Museum and Library (Oct. 2022 – Ongoing). The design and development of the VR space will begin in October and continue for the rest of the project. This will include recording a series of native language speakers in VR using both video/audio and motion capture technology (see figure) to create life-like avatars that “speak” the language both verbally and non-verbally in 360-degree fidelity; culturally relevant and historic spaces and artifacts of cultural significance will be digitized, categorized, preserved digitally, and shared in an open access VR museum and library using Mozilla Hubs which is browser-based and can be accessed via standard web address or hyperlink in a standard web browser. 

Task 7: Order Digitization and Preservation Hardware and Software (Oct. – Dec. 2022). Once the final language and cultural preservation plan has been finalized the appropriate hardware and software will be ordered in preparation for Site Visit 2. 

Task 8: Site Visit 2 (January 2023). Site visit 2 will be for two weeks which will involve the process of digitizing both language and cultural heritage items on-site. This will include recording both language and cultural traditions such as dances, songs, oral storytelling, etc. Only a small set of content will be identified during this project as a pilot and proof of concept of our methodology. 

Task 9: Digitize and Preserve Select Cultural Heritage Traditions and Artifacts (February 2023 – Ongoing). Once the preliminary recording, documentation, and digitization process is complete, the items will be cataloged, archived, and digital representations will be developed in the VR museum and library. This will include usability/UX testing as well across multiple devices and platforms. Following the project logic model, the full team will meet quarterly along with the evaluator to ensure formative evaluation is applied and in place. This will include qualitative interviews of team members as well as documentation of project inputs and outputs like the number of language recordings or number of artifacts posted in the VR museum and library. 

Task 10: User Testing and Community Input (Mar. – Jun. 2023). Formal feedback from NCT community members will be conducted. This will involve user interviews, focus groups, and a community survey to collect tribal member feedback on the VR museum and library. 

Task 11 (May 2023): Site Visit 3 will be for one week and will involve conducting any additional recordings or digitization for Phase 1, gathering further feedback, and training for staff. 

Task 12: Refine VR Museum and Library Based on Community and Tribal Leadership Input (Jun. – Aug. 2023). Based on formal feedback from the community and additional recordings and digitization from Site Visit 3, refinements will be made to the VR space. 

Task 13: Develop Model of Digitization and Preservation Process. The steps in the process, the technology, and the procedures will be documented and shared in multiple spaces including the website and VR space.  

Task 14: Present and Disseminate Findings. The findings of the project will be presented at academic conferences and published in peer reviewed venues to ensure there is scholarly dialogue around the process and the creation of a VR museum and library. 

Task 15: Perform Annual Evaluation and Progress Report (Jul.-Aug. 2023). The project will be evaluated for strengths and opportunities for improvement. The annual report to IMLS will be prepared and the project will be refined as needed based on the evaluation results.

Year 2 and Phase 2 (Sep. 2023 – Aug. 2024).

The project will be refined based on evaluation results and lessons learned from Year 1 and design and development of the NCT VR museum and Library will continue. The SJSU team will conduct three one-week site visits to add additional items to the virtual space, provide training, and seek community input. Task 6 (Mar. – Jun. 2024) will involve additional community input about the overall usability and user experience of the VR space. Task 9 (Jun. 2024 – Aug. 2024) will involve final design and development of the Seeking Immortality process into a replicable model and toolkit.

Risks & Mitigation

What are the risks to the project and how will you mitigate them?
The primary risk will be in handling important cultural artifacts. To mitigate risk standard preservation and archiving procedures will be followed. The risks in this project are multifold. In handling irreplaceable cultural heritage belongings, the risks of loss or damage must be mitigated through appropriate archival practice and procedures. For non-records items, which are outside of the scope of the team’s expertise, we provide referrals to expert conservationists. Furthermore, while digitizing is a step that can help to preserve records from risks such as wildfire (by permitting offsite storage of a preservation copy), it is important to remember that digitization is not preservation. Rather, digitization is the first step in a process that only ends when the digital object is no longer needed. A large part of the work for the archives team has been developing guidance on everything from checksums to metadata based on accepted best practices and international standards, as well as helping the CDKC draft all of the supporting documentation – everything from a digital preservation plan to IRB documentation – to help support the CDKC in ensuring that it has the institutional infrastructure to preserve the digitized and born-digital materials. Perhaps most important in this work, from a preservation perspective, is working with the CDKC and NCT team to ensure internal capacity to appraise, select, arrange, describe, and preserve materials in conformance to both archival best practices and standards and in conformance with the needs and governance of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. 

However, even more importantly than working with irreplaceable objects, this project is working with the Northern Cheyenne people to document their language, culture, and heritage. Beyond the typical concerns that must be attended to in any project with human participants – ensuring meaningful informed consent, protecting the privacy of the participants, creating safety such that participants feel free to assert their rights throughout the process – all of our work has to be done with cognizance of both the sovereignty of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe – as owners of the grant, the project, and the heritage – and the need to ensure that appropriate safeguards are built into the project. It has also been critical to supporting the CDKC team’s leadership and initiative in efforts to revise materials like IRB, consent, and deed of gift documents and procedures because the default in U.S. law often supports overdocumentation of indigenous and native peoples (by outside, settler institutions) in ways that undermine their sovereignty and self-determination. Supporting the digitization of language and culture in a way that supports digital sovereignty requires consulting the substantial work that has already been done by and for native and indigenous peoples – on everything from metadata to arrangement and description to data governance – and building in numerous checkpoints throughout the archival process for consultation. Especially when, as is the case here, the archivists are outsiders to the culture (in this case, settlers), it is critical that cultural protocols concerning recording, access, and retention be respected and that procedures be put into place to ensure that decision making adheres to NCT governance.


The following subject matter experts will be part of the project team:

Dr. Anthony Chow is the founder and project director of the RNW project, full professor, and the director of San Jose State University’s School of Information. His expertise includes Native American and indigenous culture and librarianship, usability, and user experience (UX), technology integration, and the design of digital spaces. He will serve as project director and lead user and UX testing. Dr. Darra Hoffman is the program coordinator for SJSU’s Master of Archives and Records Administration (MARA) program and is an expert in archives and records management with a special focus on the intersection of archives and technology. She will oversee the archival process. Jon Oakes In memory, we honor the work that Jon Oakes completed on the project as the Technology Labs Coordinator at SJSU’s MLK, Jr. King Library. A foremost expert in VR and emerging technologies, he led the digitization and VR development process for two years. Adrienne Violett is the library director at Chief Dull Knife College and will lead the digitization and archival process on behalf of the tribe.  Dr. Kathryn Grogan is an evaluator and senior research scientist at WestEd who will lead the project’s evaluation. Illustrate preparedness by describing your team and showing these people are the right members to include on the team. The project will also hire a project manager and a VR consultant who will assist in developing the VR spaces. Alfredo Alcantar, LTI Library Tech Lead, and Nick Beber, LTI Library Tech Student Assistant from the SJSU LTI Lab (, have joined the team to help with VR, tech support, and training for the Seeking Immortality project. This includes going on-site to learn the equipment, developing and providing training, and helping with preliminary recordings. Cole Higgins and Chuck Carter are the VR consultants. Sheralyn Milton is a consulting archivist whose duties are digitization and teaching how to use the equipment and how to properly store and house the collections safely and securely.

Management Plan

Under the existing Reading Nation Waterfall IMLS project leadership structure, the Seeking Immortality project will be managed by Dr. Chow, RNW’s two project managers, and a dedicated project manager to oversee the day-to-day logistics and a dedicated web development/social media/VR student assistant to ensure a strong public presence who will also support the VR design and development as needed. Dr. Hofman will oversee the archival process, Jon Oakes will be in charge of the digitation and VR design and development, Adrienne Violett will oversee the digitization and archival capacity building on behalf of the NCT and oversee the archival process and also be the connection between the tribe and SJSU researchers.


The project will follow a standard design and development lifecycle, which will take a full two years. Primary costs will be travel and accommodations to the NCT reservation as well as time for senior personnel to carry out the duties of the project and the hardware and software needed.

Dissemination Plan

The project will have a dedicated position to oversee its web and social media presence and the VR library will be designed for public access when it is finished. Other dissemination activities will be traditional scholarly venues including ATALM, ALA, state conferences, and journal publications. Most importantly, will be the design and development of the methodology used to digitize and preserve NCT language and cultural heritage and traditions in VR. A toolkit will be created by the end of the project.

Project Results 

Intended Results

The goal of the project will be to digitally record, preserve, and share select aspects of the NCT language and culture in a virtual reality museum and library. This will serve as pilot project and a “proof-of-concept” that both the process and a VR space is usable and an appropriate digital representation of the NCT language and culture. The project, as outlined in the Northern Cheyenne’s Tribal Council Resolution has one goal – to preserve the NCT’s language and culture – with two objectives: 1) To, “…help the Northern Cheyenne build their capacity and expertise using state-of-the-art hardware and software to preserve the Cheyenne language and cultural traditions” and 2) To, “…establish a protocol to preserve and share the Cheyenne language and cultural traditions/Cheyenne cultural heritage belongings, crafts, and Cheyenne ceremonials for posterity.” Seeking Immortality will have three outcomes: 1) To, “…give future generations the opportunity to see and hear current and future leaders and experience cultural practices as they were in the 2022s”, 2) To serve as, “…a model for establishing the protocol and methodology to assist other tribal nations in preserving contemporaneous artifacts and cultural practices”, and 3) To, “…help preserve the current and the past for the future with the help of the latest state-of-the-art technological hardware and software along with developing a blueprint of the preservation process” (NCT Tribal Council Resolution. Additional project outputs will include 4) Training of the NCT library and archives staff, and 4) Design of a toolkit that can be used to replicate the process used for this project. 

Lasting Impact

The NCT people will be left with both the technology and process for preserving its own language and culture. Delivering these in a VR environment will also increase access to our people and the outside world.


The two most tangible products will be the VR museum and library and the toolkit to replicate the process. The most important product, however, will be the digital recording and preservation of some of our language and culture.

Sustainable Benefits

The NCT will have enhanced capacity to be self-sustaining in preserving its cultural traditions and history.