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

“There aren’t many typefaces available for Native scripts — and nearly all of the ones that are widely available aren’t made by Native practitioners,” Type Directors Club Managing Director Samarskaya told Hyperallergic. “When there aren’t a lot of options we get really conservative, safe, and limited styles. There’s not a lot of visible dialogue about the possibilities, or about how people want to see their scripts evolve. I wanted to see what Native practitioners were making, I wanted to hear what they’re needing or wanting.”

“Ezhishin” is an Ojibwe word for “s/he leaves a mark,” something Samarskaya hopes this conference will help Native practitioners achieve. 

“If we look at the way fonts are developed to be used, 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 as they do. And those systems aren’t very ideal for complex symbols or other script ideologies. And the best way to start shifting that is by getting other people in the room, and by getting more dialogue. So I think there’s the opportunity to expand that visual language at each 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 have come from their desire for intentionality and a deliberate Indigenous voice. 

“There’s this part of your brain that tickles when you see a text work that not only looks aesthetically beautiful, but also very clearly communicates what its intention is,” said Harman. “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 petitioning for change. They will be giving a talk at Ezhishin about how Indigenous text-based works have been used, particularly in activist movements.

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

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

After studying photography, Smith III felt that having a vision and bringing it into the world was a more powerful form of activism than working in Washington. As he transitioned into design work, he began to view issues such as language revitalization and visualization as design challenges. In a time when the traditional ways of passing on Lakota have been disrupted, design can play a role in preserving and amplifying the language.

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

“How do you write Lakota, a language that has been passed down for millennia orally? Now it suddenly needs a written form to be able to teach and make sure that it doesn’t go extinct. It can go dormant if we lose our Native speakers,” said Smith III. “So how do you represent and visualize that language? Those are the challenges that we are facing in our community.”

Smith III will be presenting a talk about how he has approached graphic design work on what he calls “deep colonial projects,” such as language revitalization and blocking oil pipeline developments on homelands.

Artist Joi T. Arcand (Muskeg Lake Cree) is also examining how visibility keeps a language alive, reminding people that Indigenous presence is always there. She notes that as the conversation on Native fonts progresses, Indigenous artists must be at the forefront.

“As Indigenous designs, typefaces, and fonts become more popular, it’s essential that they’re designed by Indigenous people and that they adhere to the teachings and oral histories that may come with these ancient writing systems,” she said.

Sébastien Aubin (Opaskwayak Cree) is a designer and the Creative Director and founder of Otami, an independently owned Cree/Nêhiýaw graphic design studio based in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, as well as a current artist-in-residence at Concordia University. Aubin’s work has centered the computer as a method of communication and preservation for the Cree language.

“When I did my masters degree, I designed a Cree syllabic monospace font,” he said. “I developed that font to be able to code and create, because we code in English, and it’s very much a settler language. If we have a different language toward this inanimate object called a computer, or toward programming, we can maybe develop a different relationship with it. If we ever lose Cree in time for whatever reason, you could maybe find it in a computer in the future.”

For Aubin, designing for the Cree language isn’t just about visualization, it’s about regaining something that has been lost, and continues to face the threat of extinction. His participation in Ezhishin will address his personal and professional design practices, and the future of collaboration with non-Indigenous designers.

Kaylene J. Big Knife, “Cree Months” from My Cree Activity Book: Kindergarten Level (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 being a mother and that’s kind of driving me because I want my own children to be well-rounded 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 incorporate kindness and respect in our culture and identity in the way that they learn.”

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

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

“I want to know what other Natives are up to. Am I on the right path here? What are people doing with design? Their typography is who they are. This is mainstream. This is modern. This is us now. We are here, we are thriving, and we are creating,” said Duncan.

Samarskaya hopes that Ezhishin will demystify type design for those who are curious about getting involved, and that the conference is merely the beginning of a larger conversation.

“For a long time, type has been seen as this ‘nerdy’ thing where someone is off whittling away in a remote corner—as something purely official and technical, where there’s a right way and a wrong way of doing things,” she said. “But I see it more like food, or fashion, or culture. I see it as one of our cultural beacons that indicates how heritage and history are passed down. I want to make sure things like we’re doing with Ezhishin are not a one-off event. I want this to be an ongoing conversation.”

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

Ezhishin takes place virtually November 11-12, 2022, with workshops on November 13.

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Julianne Aguilar

Julianne Aguilar is an artist, writer, and narrative designer. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, Catapult, Take Shape Magazine, The Kitchn, and others. Her art has been shown at SITE Santa Fe, Vancouver...