A young woman with flowing, fuchsia-tinged white hair falls from the sky, her pregnant belly visible. Her seemingly endless fall is finally halted by a large goose flying by, who carries her to the back of a turtle floating in a landless ocean. There, animals including a beaver, a muskrat and an otter visit her. The otter is able to dive deep enough to return with soil in which the woman plants seeds she has carried with her. These grow into the plants that nourish us and help form our world, which is known in many Indigenous cultures as Turtle Island.
This dramatic scene is from “She Falls for Ages,” a sci-fi retelling of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) creation story of Sky Woman’s fall to Earth created by the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) artist Skawennati. This 21-minute machinima—a digital movie created in a virtual environment that takes its name from the words “machine” and “cinema”—is the first such work in the NMAI collection and a significant addition to the museum’s growing number of new media artworks. Skawennati creates her machinimas within Second Life, a virtual gaming platform where she, with the help of a small team, designs the avatars, sets, costumes and props used in her films.
Skawennati’s story is set in a futuristic, utopic Sky World that is powered by the glowing Celestial Tree at its center. When the tree begins to die, Otsitsakaion (Ancient Flower) realizes the sacrifice she must make to ensure her peoples’ survival. Leaping through a hole in the ground beneath the tree, she leaves her family and home in search of a new world.
Though she began her career as a textile artist, Skawennati recognized the internet’s potential as a vehicle for depicting Native people and stories in futuristic settings and has been creating innovative works in cyberspace since the mid-1990s. In 2020, she became a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow to study Haudenosaunee ribbon shirts, wampum belts and beadwork in the Smithsonian’s collections.
“I fear that if Indigenous people cannot envision ourselves in the future, we will not be there,” Skawennati said. Rather, she hopes to inspire them to be “active agents in the shaping of new mediums and new societies.”