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.”

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

16 replies on “Native Activist Charges Art Students with Plagiarism”

  1. I would like to hear how this is not plagiarism. How exactly is the content “significantly different”? Pretty gross to steal from Native Americans, especially when what might have been stolen relates to the victimization of women. The potential exploitation here is just awful.

    1. One is a map of locations where Native American women went missing or were murdered, as reported in the news and other sources. The other is a collection of audio narratives about missing or murdered Native American women produced by participants of a community workshop, and then pinned to a map. The two are quite distinct, even if they are covering similar subject matter.

      1. Look at the two maps. One map is of locations where Native American and First Nations women went missing and/or were murdered. The other is of locations where Native American and First Nations women went missing and/or were murdered. They may have had intentions of making a map that connects to audio stories but that is not what is presented here.

  2. Lets face it not all art students are ethical or wholly creative; some are just lazy and take short cuts & use deception to get their way for recognition, or in this case financial reward. Surely, in an academic situation like this the students and art institution should know better and take responsibility for poor judgement. Make an apology and donate the $5,000. to the Save Wįyąbi academic researchers. Bad publicity and reputations for the Art School are at stake here along with clouding the importance of the objective of this study! As an artist I was always taught that you must only publish or create your own art!

  3. I hope they nail they’re lazy behinds. When you’re so lazy you have to steal other people’s work to get recognition you shouldn’t even be in an art class to begin with. It diminishes the true value of artist’s work everywhere.

  4. There might be more than plagiarism going on…copyright infringement, intellectual properties taken…Perhaps legal action next step?

    1. Does that apply? Unless they used their data? I mean, if one university makes a map about domestic violence does that mean no other one can?

      1. The Save Wįyąbi website clearly 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.” (see in above article)

        The students didn’t even cite the information nor did they make any other attempts in contacting the organization’s founders beyond the email attempts “they claim the email link “broken””. They needed to do their due diligence and they did not.

        1. Now the First Nation families of MMIW have started their own similar site to honor their lost daughters. A map and everything. Should they stop? Save Wiyabi trolls are attacking these families as racists now. It’s ugly.

          Patenting basic method of distributing information on the web is ridiculous.

          1. Actually ALL should work together to bring an end to the horrendous, terrifying, inhumane acts. Being united will bring justice. As for the intellectual property rights, it depends on the usage of others’ works.

          2. I agree. But the attacks on the families who have borne such losses? Wow. Smh Not okay from allies.

  5. ridiculous. pins on a map don’t mean plagiarism. and you it’s difficult to judge plagiarism from comparing a frame from a kickstarted video and a screen shot of a website with boring design. you can’t copyright the intent to help, or interest in a cause, or a universally applicable format such as pins on a google map, or the idea of visualising data gathered from the same source from one particular human issue (poverty in the developing world with UNICEF stats, murdered native women in canada with police records, correlation between food security and GMO presence in south america by net food import figures given by each country’s government, etc…)

    if they’re so intent on furthering a humanitarian cause, fighting over ownership of the mere idea to help the cause is ultimately a bit self-absorbed. the missing or murdered women are not at all the center of the argument anymore, which they should be, that’s the important thing. pretty much always. all seems more like sue-happy americana than logical, rational thinking with the best interests of the survivors of any tragedy in mind.

    plus, in this day and age, nothing fully original really exists anymore. everything has been done, remixed, thought of, reconstructed, deconstructed, homaged and reimagined. instead of being offended over similarity, the LOGICAL choice, with the best interests of the cause in mind, would be to join forces and amplify the effort. duh. obviously, the woman threatening to sue is not fully of the Internet generation and doesn’t quite understand the concept of share alike. and perhaps thinks a bit too highly of her idea and its originality.

    1. This is clearly plagiarism. In an academic setting you can’t simply take someone else’s work and claim it as your own. Save the ” but it’s the internet, everything has been done” bs. All they had to do was cite their sources and give credit where credit is due.

  6. I suspect they didn’t cite the original work because they knew anyone checking would see it is clearly plagiarism. That they tried to contact the author/creator but the links were dead sounds pretty weak. I agree with others, this was not only lazy but dumb. Shame on CCA — they had their students’ back but compromised academic integrity.

  7. I see how this can be seen as not plagiarism, due to the fact that they are using google earth to begin with (something neither parties own). They both used a third party program as a base pretty much. If this is considered plagiarism, then anyone using google earth to make map pointers of locations would be plagiarizing. Instead of arguing over it; it may have been better for the two parties to coll-ab and make a more in-depth map.

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