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University of Missouri

Storyteller, Nation Builder

Love of stories and culture have taken Joseph Erb from the classroom to Silicon Valley to the Trail of Tears.

Joseph Erb portrait

Professor Joseph Erb teaches documentary animation and beginning digital storytelling in the new Digital Storytelling Program. Photo by Rob Hill.

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“It breaks you,” Joseph Erb says, matter-of-factly. Whatever the reason — either the rain, which soaks through everything and clings to your skin; the miles, which burn in your legs and sting in your hands; or the diaries, which rend the heart — it breaks everyone.

For the past two summers, Erb, a new assistant teaching professor of digital storytelling, has led a group of about 20 Cherokee youths on the annual Remember the Removal bicycle trek. They retrace the steps their ancestors were forced to march nearly 200 years ago.

On Sept. 1, Erb will receive the Cherokee National Community Leadership Award from Principal Chief Bill John Baker for his cultural and language work and Remember the Removal leadership.

In the 1830s, tens of thousands of Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Cherokee were forced to migrate from their land in the Southeast to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma as part of the U.S. government’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Cherokee had assimilated much of the U.S. white culture of the day. They lived in cabins, went to college, played the piano, ran English- and Cherokee-language newspapers, and practiced commerce well enough to boast one of the richest men in North America among their nation. Some also owned slaves, which has been a source of great controversy in the nation’s history. In 1839, they were forced out of their lands. Disease and starvation killed an estimated 4,000 members of the Cherokee Nation along the several routes, some as long as 1,200-miles, known as the Trail of Tears.

It takes their descendants more than three weeks to retrace the journey by bike. The summer sun is hot; the air is humid; the hills are long. Some of the people they meet along the way offer cookies and apologies for the wrongs done by their forebears. Others offer only their middle fingers and their contempt.

Rite of Passage

No matter what happens during the day, at the end of it, the young Cherokee gather to read the journals of those who made the journey, including those who didn’t live to finish it. They know from genealogical research how they are related to the people whose names appear in the pages they read.

This is often where the breaking happens. Already weak from the physical and emotional strain of the day, the young travelers find that the burden of the memories in their hands is a step too far. At some point, everyone comes to tears. And in that moment, they find each other.

“They are children when they leave — worried about themselves and what they’re going to do,” Erb says. “When they get back, they’re worried about each other. They understand what it means to be part of a people.”

In living and learning their ancestors’ stories, the group creates its own story. They see how it fits in the long history of their nation.

In this way, the ride fits perfectly with the rest of Erb’s life work.

Digital Heritage

Erb started out at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a master of fine arts in digital media. An early computer animation class there caught his attention. Like his mother’s parents, he is a member of the Cherokee Nation, and his heritage has always been important to him. As soon as he saw the artistry and possibility in computer animation, he knew he wanted to use it to tell traditional Cherokee stories.

So he took his Ivy League degree and moved back to Oklahoma to teach Cherokee children how to make their own videos.

In the early days, he would make copies of his students’ final projects on VHS tapes. When online distribution came along, it offered a larger audience and much less headache, but it also posed a new challenge.

Cherokee long has had a written alphabet, but the language had only recently been added to Unicode, which is the universal encoding system that computers use to represent written characters, and it still needed a lot of work and new vocabulary to be a viable language for operating systems.

If the Cherokee wanted to keep their language alive in the digital age, they had to be able to use it with new technology.

“We were working with kids from age 3 to speak Cherokee,” Erb says. “We worked so hard to do that. Then texting came in, and they all switched to English.”

Erb made meetings and spoke to corporate leaders of Apple, Google and Microsoft. He became a non-voting advisory member on the Unicode board. As a result, Cherokee is available as a default language on the most popular software and hardware available. Today, members of Cherokee Nation can use Google, iPhones or Windows 8 entirely in Cherokee.

Higher Education

From the beginning of his career, Erb knew he wanted to be a college professor. He thought he’d teach children for four or five years and then jump into academia. His five years ended up expanding to 14, but nevertheless, here he is.

Mizzou’s digital storytelling major intrigued Erb because, while it is based in technology, it is focused on storytelling. Merely teaching someone to manipulate a technology didn’t interest him. But a well-rounded program rooted in journalism, art and English that develops the full person and teaches self-expression through digital media? That is different. “The better you get in all areas of life — the more well-rounded you are — lets you tell stories that deal with humanity itself,” Erb says.

The digital storytelling program launched last fall. Already, more than 65 students have chosen it as their major. Erb joined the faculty this past January. He teaches beginning digital storytelling and beginning animation.

“I love the medium,” he says. “There’s a realism to it that’s really neat.” In animation, everything is under the control of the creator. Every character, prop and backdrop looks, moves and sounds the way it does because of a creative choice. The result, Erb says, is that “you’re seeing how someone sees the world. You get to see who they are.”

For someone who is trying to tell stories and preserve culture, that’s the whole point.

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail


Joseph Erb co-produced a 23-minute documentary for the U.S. National Park Service about the Trail of Tears. The film is shown at park sites along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail.