If the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts' Executive Director Kim Peone  hadn't started playing the video game Fortnite with her children and grandchildren during the COVID-19 pandemic, NDN World might never have come to be.

In fact, according to Project Leader Steve Pruneau, the man behind the developers who built the three-dimensional virtual and interactive presentation that is NDN World, his team's original pitch was flailing until he asked Peone a simple question: How was she maintaining social relationships with friends and loved ones during the pandemic?

"'Fortnite,' she said," Pruneau tells SFR.

Indeed, as SWAIA announced earlier this year that the rise of COVID-19 would make it another victim of countless cancellations across Santa Fe's usually highly artsy summertime market season, Peone, a woman from the Colville Confederated Tribes/Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who took the organization's reins in April, and the rest of SWAIA worked frantically to create new avenues for artists suddenly faced with loss of sales. In many cases, Indian Market represents an entire year's worth of efforts and income for artists, but within a couple of weeks, SWAIA announced its answer—it was to go virtual like so many other events this year. Within four months, everything has changed.

The new SWAIA Virtual Indian Market is certainly sprawling. Through hundreds of virtual booths, photos, videos and links to new websites—SWAIA's PR agent Audrey Rubinstein says that prior to the pandemic, 77 artists had regularly maintained websites; it's now up to 450—it goes a long way to fill the cancellation gap.

But it doesn't end there. In fact, it's really more of a beginning, and NDN World is its first chapter. The platform launched on Aug. 13, two days before an awards ceremony that cemented the online affair as something incredible. And unlike the traditional live market that lasts three days, this one is never-ending.

Think of the experience like Second Life, the strange but popular gaming experience launched in the early aughts wherein users create completely digital social experiences within a fully-rendered digital environment. Its evolution was that of High Fidelity, a VR experience based in the same DNA that was, while similar, more akin to Minecraft in its users' ability to create, build and host worlds of their own.

There’s a sea of art to be found within NDN World.
There’s a sea of art to be found within NDN World.

"The thing about Minecraft and High Fidelity," Pruneau says, "is that anybody can put up a world. Second Life was more like a walled garden."

High Fidelity ran for about three years, but when it was shut down, head dev Phillip Rosedale allowed its open source code to be used by anyone. The Vircadia app was born. It's the same engine that runs NDN World, and a completely free platform in which to build; SWAIA's only cost was that of the team that created its environments—a dreamlike representative amalgamation of Santa Fe style, the Community Convention Center and a sea of walls bearing the actual artworks from artists featured at this year's market. Embodying an avatar, users can walk right up to the pieces and get information on when they were made, by whom, what awards they might have won at Market this year and so on. Elsewhere inside the experience, you can watch videos created by the artists, including histories, testimonials about winning awards and more—and it's all sorted into an intuitive and simple design, like a video game but with myriad implications that can't even be properly conceived of yet.

For example: Say an artist is too old to travel to Santa Fe for Indian Market anymore, or they can't afford it or simply don't want to make the drive—Pruneau says NDN World could host them in virtual form, creating an actual virtual booth within the platform where the artist could log in and "work." Taking that idea further, they could potentially hire a family member to "work hours" in the booth—think of what that might mean for disabled or homebound people looking for gainful employment.

Taking the concept even further, Peone and Pruneau envision SWAIA becoming more of a digital resource for any of the more than 200 nations the organization represents. It has already helped massively with websites, what if it could help tribal members build a version of their community within Vircadia? As Pruneau points out, you might never be able to visit every Native community in the country in the real world, but for a tribe to have agency over creating its own virtual and tour-able realm would not only mean incredible educational opportunities, it could essentially mean incredible opportunities for education itself.

What if SWAIA were to partner with IAIA or the Santa Fe Indian School to create broader tech education possibilities in the hopes of training up the next generation of devs? Tribes could hire from within, young folks would have new opportunities and anyone—literally anyone—with an interest would have the means to learn more about a culture from the very people who live it. It boggles the mind, frankly.

Chat works by proximity. In other words, if another user is near you, you’ll hear them—and from the proper direction if you’re using headphones.
Chat works by proximity. In other words, if another user is near you, you’ll hear them—and from the proper direction if you’re using headphones.

“We pulled off in four months what takes organizations two years,” Peone says. “The pandemic has been so unprecedented, and so many people have not known how to pivot…now we’ve created a new virtual space where we can create stories and create community—it’s one that’s global, and in reference to what we’re doing as far as bringing Native American arts to the world, which is our mission statement…all we did was bring everything in alignment with that mission statement, and we can use this to reach people we couldn’t otherwise.”

As an example, Pruneau recounts the inaugural night within NDN World, when award-winning artist Everton Tsosie's (Navajo) avatar approached Peone's. Though the two had never met in real life, they made a social connection. It's not the home-based and anxiety inducing sadness of Zoom. NDN World works almost like a digital form of alcohol; like the positive opposite of the ranting keyboard warrior, its one-step-removed-from-real-life nature lowers inhibitions.  Additionally, Pruneau says a high number of people were inside NDN world the evening Peone and Tsosie connected, and with a capacity of roughly 500 virtual visitors, there's sure to be more connections made.

Of course, it's not without its drawbacks. Computers older than three or four years reportedly struggle to run Vircadia if they can run it at all, and it's an app users must download. How that might affect tribal members in remote areas or without proper internet access remains to be seen.

“Every organization has to mentally get past that fundamental dilemma of do I wait for the moment when most of my organization can get in, or do I step forward knowing there will be some percentage of early adopters…but temporarily, most people will be left behind?” Pruneau says. “Some organizations don’t really want to do that, but some will be the ones who are really pushing forward.”

For now, NDN World is available to all SWAIA members (that runs a $25 annual fee, but, frankly, the experience is a lot cooler than many other cultural memberships around Santa Fe) and shall henceforth be a permanent, year-round component of its offerings. It'll also run on almost all home VR setups.

I’ve had no opposition at all,” Peone says of the adoption rates. “The only thing I’ve had to overcome is to continuously try to help people with their vision. It’s like stepping on invisible stones.”

Each piece of art “hangs” beside a placard with information about the artist.
Each piece of art “hangs” beside a placard with information about the artist.

That's an apt conclusion, actually. Just because we can't all see the implications NDN world might have on the future of SWAIA, Indian Market and even arts commerce, that doesn't mean they're not there just waiting to be discovered.