Evangeline Giaconia (she/her) is a master's student in museum studies at the University of Florida. Her research pertains to ethical considerations in the use and distribution of Indigenous oral histories. She is also an avid reader and writer of young adult literature. To learn more about her research, check out her website on archival ethics and Indigenous materials.
Storytelling in A Snake Falls to Earth
“A Snake Falls to Earth” by Darcie Little Badger is a young adult novel about the intertwining lives of an Indigenous child and a young snake. The story stars Nina, a Lipan Apache girl who tells stories online and Oli, cottonmouth boy trying to find a place to belong, set against the backdrop of climate catastrophe.
It is a story that itself revolves around stories, told throughout the novel by Nina.
Nina records her grandmother on her deathbed telling a story in her native language. However, due to generational language loss, neither Nina nor her family know the language the recorded story is preserved in. It takes Nina years to translate the story using Lipan and Jicarilla Apache dictionaries to create her own digital translators. Ultimately, this recording turns out to be the story of her family’s connection to the Reflecting World, the home of spirits and monsters—the central story around which the book revolves.
There are many more stories-within-stories that surround Nina’s tale. Nina’s main hobby is video storytelling via an app called St0ryte11er. The app is a platform for anyone to reach and grow an online audience, although it is dominated by its most popular storytellers.
When Oli, a cottonmouth snake animal person from the Reflecting World, comes to Nina for help, she thinks her storytelling app is the answer. Animal people can transform between human and animal forms, but retain traits that give away their true identities. In the Reflecting World, the health of its animal person inhabitants reflects the health of species on Earth. Oli’s friend, a Dallas toad, is near death following a natural disaster on Earth that nearly wiped out the species. Nina’s solution: raise money for the species’ survival by going viral on St0ryte11er and selling her video rights to the app's most famous user, Thou Own Dave.
To Tell or Not to Tell
Throughout "A Snake Falls to Earth," Nina must decide which stories to publish and which to keep to herself. Her online hobby is a continuation of her family’s oral traditions, allowing her to share stories that were passed down from grandmother to granddaughter, such as the tale of the coyote girl who trapped a ballad in a locket.
However, she recognizes that some stories are too sensitive to reveal to the outside world, and that even if she keeps her story entry private and password-protected, nothing online can be 100% safe.
Nina deletes the first story she planned to tell when her father warns her that it could drive away or endanger the animal people. And when she and her friends from the Reflecting World decide it is worth the risk to get Thou Own Dave’s attention, a duplicitous contract means her viral success only earns $58.
Oral Histories and The Digital World
Nina’s choices in “A Snake Falls to Earth” intersect with many of the ethical considerations discussed by archives that hold Indigenous oral histories. I work at the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries on a digitization project called The Archive of Native American Oral History (ANAOH). Led by the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums , the goal of this project is to create a shared online database of Native American oral histories held by many different repositories.
Indigenous oral histories can have a deeper cultural significance than a casual reader may expect. As described by The Native American Oral History Manual, Indigenous oral tradition “represents years or centuries of knowledge woven into indigenous cultures and passed down orally from one generation to the next”. In cultures with primarily oral traditions, storytelling is the main way to down history, tradition, and sacred knowledge. The process of telling stories, therefore, carries much more cultural weight.
When it comes to digitizing knowledge—stories, oral histories, songs, and more—many people assume that it’s always a good thing.
What could go wrong with making information accessible to as many people as possible?
Indigenous knowledge, however, must be treated with far more consideration and nuance due to traditional cultural protocols and a history of knowledge exploitation by outsiders. In Indigenous communities, access to certain knowledge may be restricted in some way–by gender, age, seniority, or time of year. When information is put online, these cultural protocols are often disregarded, making potentially sensitive information open to anyone.
Furthermore, there is a long history of Indigenous knowledge being exploited and used to profit non-Native researchers. The Hopi Music Project, for example, is dedicated to redressing the harm caused by Laura Boulton, an anthropologist who unethically recorded sacred Hopi songs and used them to produce a music album.
These are only a few examples of the many challenges associated with digitizing Indigenous knowledge. Choices about digitization and how to do so ethically must be made with extreme care. In “A Snake Falls to Earth”, Nina decides which stories to publish and which to keep private in similar ways.
Many ethical questions have arisen in the ANAOH digitization project. For example:
- How do we treat information that is sensitive, ceremonial, or spiritual?
- What about information that is traditionally restricted in some way—by gender, age, season, or seniority?
- How can we prevent information published online from being used for others’ profit?
The ANAOH project has answered these questions through collaboration and research. The most important element of making ethical decisions is respecting Tribal preferences about their own histories. Research is also critical: looking to other projects that have dealt with similar questions.
As a non-Indigenous researcher, I always prioritize Indigenous voices when answering those questions. When thinking about Indigenous oral history and storytelling, that includes works of fiction. “A Snake Falls to Earth” is a wonderful book, and deeply meaningful in many ways. In the context of my research about the ethical digitization of Indigenous oral histories, however, I began to see it in a new light. I started to ask:
What can “A Snake Falls to Earth” tell us about Indigenous knowledge sovereignty and the power of oral history?
Nina, by sharing some stories online and keeping some to herself, learns to navigate many of the ethical considerations regarding digitizing Indigenous knowledge. On one hand, digital technologies are powerful tools for recovering her family’s knowledge. Without them, she would never have been able to record and eventually understand her grandmother’s last story.
On the other hand, Nina recognizes that putting sensitive information online can place her family and friends in real danger, and she herself falls victim to a predatory St0ryte11er user.
At the climax of the book, as Nina and her friends wait for a hurricane to make landfall, Nina records one more story—but not on her St0ryte11er app. This is the story of why Earth and the Reflecting World were separated, a story not meant for outside ears. Nina saves it onto a thumb drive, ensuring that only her family will be able to access it.
What can “A Snake Falls to Earth” teach us about Indigenous knowledge sovereignty and the power of oral history?
Digital technology can be a powerful tool for preserving and reviving Indigenous knowledge.
Like Nina’s years-long endeavor to understand the meaning of her grandmother’s last words, many communities are using digital tools to facilitate language learning—such as the FirstVoices project.
Digitization can also lead to serious harm, especially if sensitive material is made accessible to all.
Nina knows that digital information is never 100% safe from outside eyes—and that it is impossible to retain total control over information published online. Digitizing Indigenous knowledge is a balancing act between accessibility and privacy. Some information is best protected by traditional knowledge-keepers, like the story of Nina's family and the Reflecting World.
Nina shows us that digitizing Indigenous knowledge must be approached with nuance. We must think about how knowledge can be used and misused, about ownership and control, and protecting sensitive knowledge.
More than anything, Nina's story shows us the power of stories themselves, and how they shape our understanding of the world.
To learn more about the ethics of digitizing Indigenous oral histories, check out my Native American Oral History Interviews resource guide and website. You can find reading recommendations and a number of organizations and initiatives doing similar work.
 Trimble, Charles E., Barbara W. Sommer, and Mary Kay. Quinlan. 2008. The American Indian Oral History Manual: Making Many Voices Heard. Walnut Creek, Calif: Left Coast Press.