Native Activist Charges Art Students with Plagiarism

Cohere: Mapping Voices Across the Silence
Cohere: Mapping Voices Across the Silence (screenshot via Kickstarter)

A Native activist and organizer is claiming that a group of students at the California College of the Arts stole her work for a project that received a monetary award from the school’s Center for Art and Public Life.

Lauren Chief Elk is the co-founder, along with criminologist Laura M. Madison, of the Save Wįyąbi Project, an advocacy group centered around an online database and mapping project that tracks disappearances and murders of indigenous women in Canada and the United States (“Wįyąbi” is Assiniboine for “women”). With the help of hacktivist group Anonymous, Chief Elk and Madison launched Save Wįyąbi in 2012 under the original moniker of Operation Thunderbird; they did so in the wake of the hate-rape of an indigenous woman in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and an unsatisfactory response by local police. Save Wįyąbi crowdsources its data, allowing anyone to submit a report by tweeting or filling out an online form.

Earlier this month, a project called Cohere: Mapping Voices Across the Silence successfully funded its campaign on Kickstarter. Cohere is, according to that campaign page, “a [sic] oral history workshop and multimedia archive for the families and friends of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women.” The multimedia archive component is “an interactive online map that will visually link the stories to the sites of disappearance and serve as an archive that they can add to over time.” Cohere’s website is listed as under construction, having been taken offline sometime in the last two weeks. A cached version from July 14 identifies the organizers as five alumni and current graduate students of CCA: Dani Neitzelt, Natalie Catasús, Jorge Torres, Hachem Mahfoud, and Marissa Bergmann.

Still from Cohere's Kickstarter video (screenshot via Kickstarter)
Still from Cohere’s Kickstarter video (screenshot via Kickstarter)
Save Wiyabi map (screenshot via
Save Wįyąbi map (screenshot via

Cohere’s map isn’t yet operational, but Chief Elk alleges plagiarism based on the language of the project — particularly their identification of the media as failing indigenous women and their communities, an issue she wrote about earlier this year for Salon — and the design and function of the map as shown in the Kickstarter video. “The whole design and layout is exactly the same,” Chief Elk told Hyperallergic. “They took language — that it’s specifically created outside of the government because that has been identified as a problem in terms of tracking all of this — even them saying what their purpose is, they took directly from us. All this language, it’s almost word for word.”

Earlier this year, the students behind Cohere entered their project into the running for the CCA Center for Art and Public Life’s 2014 Impact Social Entrepreneurship Awards. According to an official blog post, they received an honorable mention; according to their cached site, they won an award. Chris Bliss, CCA’s vice president for communications, explained to Hyperallergic that Impact Awards are typically $10,000 grants that go to three organizations. This year, because one of the winning groups requested less funding than expected, a prize was split between Cohere and another project, with each group receiving $5,000.

Image from Cohere's Kickstarter video (screenshot via Kickstarter)
Image from Cohere’s Kickstarter video (screenshot via Kickstarter)
Save Wiyabi map (via
Save Wįyąbi map (via

On July 13 Chief Elk wrote to the president, provost, and other staff members of CCA detailing her claims of plagiarism against Cohere. They responded to her email and organized a conference call, during which Chief Elk again laid out her case. According to Chief Elk, during that call CCA representatives finally admitted to her that the Cohere students had tried contacting her, but claimed they couldn’t get through because the link to her email was “broken.” She also says she was told “at least five times” to “put plagiarism aside.” The conversation ended with CCA promising to investigate the accusations.

Over the next week, an investigation “was conduced by the provost’s office, and the Cohere team submitted a report as well,” Bliss told Hyperallergic, adding that this kind of internal investigation is standard for academia. “They [Cohere] supplied a report to the provost’s office basically defending the points raised and giving illustrations.”

On July 22, the college called Chief Elk to tell her their finding, which they then made public in a statement the following day: “In examining the visual and written material and the ideas expressed, the college has determined that the students did not plagiarize.”

In a phone call last week, Bliss confirmed to Hyperallergic that the Cohere students were aware of and had attempted to contact Chief Elk. “I think the students who were working on the project had heard about [Save Wįyąbi] and had seen the website and had tried to contact them and were not able to connect because there were dead links on the website,” she said. “They were made aware of that project and tried to reach out and were not successful because the links were dead.”

The Save Wįyąbi website contains a note at the bottom that states:

If you duplicate our work for academic credit or paid projects where you receive private (foundations, crowdfunding etc) or government money or grants for your work you MUST request direct permission from Save Wįyąbi academic researchers to duplicate or re-map these works in any form. This entire database and works herein are considered academia. Referencing and appropriate citation is required to avoid academic plagiarism.

The cached Cohere page does cite a host of other organizations, among them two now-defunct groups, the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry and Sisters In Spirit, but Save Wįyąbi is not listed or linked anywhere, including in the sections labeled “Other Organizations Addressing this Issue” and “Inspiration.” Hyperallergic reached out to a member of Cohere (four of the organizers have websites listed; three were set to private last Thursday, while the fourth has gone private sometime since then) but has not received a response.

One of the stated criteria for the Impact Awards is “Innovation”: “Illustrate how the project offers a unique or expanded solution to a need.” Asked whether the revelation of a project similar in nature to Cohere would affect its receipt of the Impact grant based on this criteria, Bliss stated:

While both projects deal with the same subject, the actual content is significantly different. The Cohere project was envisioned as a storytelling/archive project that would use a website to share oral histories and other content. Storytelling and mapping are two tools that they are using; these methods are ubiquitous in academia.

Chief Elk has now launched a campaign on Twitter using the hashtag #GiveItUpCCA. There she’s mentioned protests and demonstrations planned for next month in front of CCA and “all collaborating institutions.” Her goal is “for them to take the money back, cancel the project, and apologize,” she said. “Really, that’s it.”

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