Ezhishin, the very first conference on Native American typography


A new virtual event will bring together designers, artists, illustrators and other Indigenous practitioners to discuss the challenges and triumphs of designing typefaces for Indigenous languages. Co-hosted by Ksenya Samarskaya and Neebinnaukzhik Southall (Chippewas of the Rama First Nation), Ezhishin is the first-ever conference on Native American typography.

“There aren’t many typefaces available for Indigenous scripts — and almost all of those that are widely available aren’t created by Indigenous practitioners,” Samarskaya, executive director of the Type Directors Club, told Hyperallergic. “When there aren’t a lot of options, we get really conservative, safe, limited styles. There’s not a lot of visible dialogue about the possibilities, or how people want their scripts to evolve. I wanted to see what indigenous practitioners were doing, I wanted to hear what they needed or wanted.

“Ezhishin” is an Ojibwe word for “he/she leaves a mark,” which Samarskaya hopes this conference will help Indigenous practitioners realize.

“If we look at how fonts are developed for use, they’re optimized and created around western-style alphabets,” she said. “Because that’s who was in the room at the time. That’s how we ended up with Unicode; that’s why our keyboards look like them. And these systems are not very ideal for complex symbols or other scripting ideologies. And the best way to start changing that is to bring other people into the room and have more dialogue. So I think it’s possible to extend that visual language at every step of the process.

For artist and illustrator Whess Harman (Carrier Wit’at), the visualization of language is rooted in a desire for presence and visibility. The type of fonts they design were born out of their desire for intentionality and a deliberate native voice.

“There’s that part of your brain that tickles when you see text that not only looks aesthetically beautiful, but also communicates its intent very clearly,” Harman said. “So for me, it’s about having representation in the room even when our bodies can’t physically be there.”

Harman, whose work often intersects with activism, notes that design can be a powerful force when asking for change. They will lecture Ezhishin on how indigenous textual works have been used, particularly in militant movements.

Designer Bobby Joe Smith III (Hunkpapa and Oohenumpa Lakota) began his career in Washington, DC, pursuing federal Indian politics before moving into graphic design.

“It was clear that Indigenous issues were always at the bottom of the agenda, if they were on the agenda,” he said of his time on Capitol Hill. “And I felt like the things I wanted to see in my communities were things we had to create ourselves.”

After studying photography, Smith III felt that having a vision and bringing it to life was a more powerful form of activism than working in Washington. During his transition into design work, he began to view issues such as language revitalization and visualization as design challenges. At a time when traditional modes of Lakota transmission have been disrupted, design can play a role in preserving and amplifying the language.

Joi T. Arcand, “she wanted to be a ballerina” (2019), neon

“How do you write Lakota, a language that has been passed down orally for millennia? Now he suddenly needs a written form so he can teach and make sure he doesn’t die out. It can go dormant if we lose our native speakers,” Smith III said. “So how do you represent and visualize this language? These are the challenges we face in our community.

Smith III will present a lecture on how he approached graphic design work on what he calls “deep colonial projects”, such as language revitalization and blocking oil pipeline developments in the lands of origin.

Artist Joi T. Arcand (Muskeg Lake Cree) also examines how visibility keeps a language alive, reminding people that the Indigenous presence is still there. She notes that as the conversation about Indigenous fonts progresses, Indigenous artists need to be at the forefront.

“As Indigenous designs, typefaces and typefaces become more popular, it is essential that they are designed by Indigenous people and adhere to the teachings and oral histories that may accompany these ancient writing systems. “, she said.

Sébastien Aubin (Opaskwayak Cree) is a designer and the creative director and founder of Otami, an independent Cree/Nêhiýaw graphic design studio based in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, as well as an artist in residence at Concordia University. Aubin’s work centered the computer as a method of communication and preservation of the Cree language.

“When I did my master’s, I designed a monospaced Cree syllabic font,” he said. “I developed this font to be able to code and create, because we code in English, and it’s really a colonial language. If we have a different language with this inanimate object called a computer, or with programming, maybe we can develop a different relationship with it. If we ever lose the scream in time for some reason, you might be able to find it in a computer in the future.

For Aubin, designing for the Cree language isn’t just about visualization, it’s about finding something that has been lost and continues to be in danger of extinction. Her participation in Ezhishin will address her personal and professional design practices, and the future of collaborating with non-Indigenous designers.

Kaylene J. Big Knife, “Screaming Months” by My Cree Activity Book: Kindergarten (2020)

For author, dancer, choreographer and storyteller Violet Duncan (Kehewin Cree Nation), Ezhishin is an opportunity to learn. As an author of children’s books, she is interested in how language and representation can empower children.

“It’s so interesting to navigate as a mother and that’s kind of what keeps me going because I want my own kids to be complete human beings,” she said. “And to do that, I need to understand who they are, how they see the world. And then I try to embed kindness and respect into our culture and our identity into how they learn.

She hopes Ezhishin will present an opportunity to communicate to the world that Indigenous design represents contemporary Indigenous life, not just the past.

Kathleen and Christopher Sleboda, “Good Relative” (2022), mural for Google Open Arts

“I want to know what other natives are doing. Am I on the right track here? What are people doing with the design? Their typography is what they are. It’s usual. It’s modern. It’s us now. We are here, we are thriving and we are creating,” Duncan said.

Samarskaya hopes Ezhishin will demystify character design for those curious to get involved, and that the talk is just the start of a larger conversation.

“For a long time, the type was seen as this ‘cheesy’ thing where someone is snacking in a remote corner – as something purely official and technical, where there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. things,” she said. . “But I see it more as food, or fashion, or culture. I see it as one of our cultural beacons that indicates how heritage and history are passed on. I want to make sure that what we are doing with Ezhishin is not a one-time event, I want it to be an ongoing conversation.

Joi T. Arcand, Northern Pawn, South Vietnam, “Here On Future Earth”, 2009

ezhishin takes place virtually on November 11 and 12, 2022, with workshops on November 13.


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