Meet the UBC Professor Using Virtual Reality to Revitalize Nisga’a Culture

While Dr. Amy Parent was earning her anthropology degree from SFU, she knew to be critical of what was in the books. “We’re often taught about these old dead white guys, like Marius Barbeau,” she says, “and I knew to be very very cautious because their work is so inaccurate—and erroneous, and insulting at times.” Parent has always devoted her work to re-writing (and “re-righting”) the work of colonial researchers. A key part of that is supporting the revitalizing of the Nisga’a language.

The Nisga’a language is considered endangered—only 5 percent of Nisga’a citizens can speak it fluently. “There is an integral connection between language learning and land,” says Parent, who is learning the Nisga’a language herself as an adult. As anyone studying a new language can tell you, it’s not an easy task (especially when you don’t have fluent folks around you to talk to everyday). But a chance run-in with a colleague inspired Parent to explore language learning in a new way: via virtual reality.

Parent and her SFU colleague chatted about VR research coming out of China. “It indicated that VR creates a totally immersive learning experience, and it was having a very positive impact on increasing language acquisition,” says Parent. Though she doesn’t call herself a techie, Parent is curious by nature—and shares that she comes from the Raven/Frog Tribe. She tried a VR headset herself (flying around a desert in Arizona, she remembers) and was hooked. Besides thinking it was extremely cool, she also began connecting the euphoric feeling of exploring the land with her own experience to language-learning. “I thought, as someone who is an urban Nisga’a citizen and began learning my language in my mid-life, it can be a challenge for some of us to have connections to our motherlands,” she says. Virtual reality could provide that connection to the land that is so important in language learning (move over, Duolingo).

Parent’s new research project, “Raising Nisga’a Language, Sovereignty, and Land-based Education Through Traditional Carving Knowledge (RNL),” does just that. She and her team will use VR to create a holistic approach to language learning that features interviews with Nisga’a speakers and land-based walking tours—all following Nisga’a protocol, of course. The project is highly collaborative, and Parent is grateful to be working closely with Nisga’a Chiefs, Matriarchs, language educators, the Laxgalts’ap Village Government and the Nisga’a Lisims Government. The immersive experience will help Nisga’a citizens who live outside the Nass Valley (in Northwestern BC) access their ancestral lands and waterways.

In addition to virtual reality, the RNL project seeks to repatriate Nisga’a Niis Joohl Pole from Scotland. The pole was stolen in 1929 by colonial anthropologist Marius Barbeau himself. There’s only one totem pole in Canada that has ever been successfully repatriated from a European museum (the Haisla G’psgolox Pole) but Parent hopes that the Niss Joohl Pole will be the second—the process starts next summer, with an exploratory visit to the museum by a committee of Nisga’a citizens from the House of Niis Joohl. She noted that she is appreciative of support from the Canadian public and government officials to help repatriate the Niis Joohl Pole.

Finally, the RNL project will commission a new pole by emerging Nisga’a artists, and the carving of that pole will be captured on video and become a part of the virtual reality experience. “The poles are reminders of our title to the land since time immemorial, and our relationship with all living beings,” says Parent. 

She champions the strong oral memory within Nisga’a culture as the foundation for her work, and is grateful for all of the Matriarchs and Chiefs and Knowledge Holders who have worked altruistically to maintain it. “This project really wouldn’t be possible if it hadn’t been for decades of activism and tireless work that has been done by many within our nation to continue keeping our culture and our language alive,” she says.

“We’re going beyond the white gaze now,” says Parent. “We are a self-determining people, and so our purposes should be foremost to support our self governance needs—and to support the next generation to live well and prosper.” 

You can learn more about the RNL project at