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Media and Digital Tech Empowering Indigenous Survival
Emily Gertz, 5 Aug 05

CSQ v29n2 coverHere on Worldchanging, we've tracked projects that use new technologies to empower indigenous cultural survival -- from digital applications using Inuktitut, the Inuit native language, to the Aboriginal Mapping Project, which harnesses the power of GIS to help indigenous peoples manage their lands and resources, to the networked reindeer tracking of Saami Networked Connectivity Project.

Happily, these mentions only scratch the surface of the intersections of new -- and some older -- technologies with indigenous determination to both endure and prosper. The latest volume of Cultural Survival Quarterly is devoted to Indigenous Peoples Bridging the Digital Divide. While uniformly optimistic, the articles trade the breathless technophilia one sometimes encounters on the activist tech scene for clear-eyed assesments of both barriers and progress, and reporting on-the-ground results.

Indigenous peoples are using both digital and narrative media to preserve and express their cultures and beliefs. Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace recounts the history of a near decade-long project, the CyberPowWow, to carve a native space out of the supposedly neutral online world:

...if Aboriginal peoples learned one thing from contact, it is the danger of seeing any place as terra nullius, even cyberspace. Its foundations were designed with a specific logic, built on a specific form of technology, and first used for specific purposes (allowing military units to remain in contact after a nuclear attack). The ghosts of these designers, builders, and prime users continue to haunt the blank spaces.

...From the start, artists from both Canada and the United States were part of CyberPowWow. We decided to invite Australian artists, whose colonial history and artistic concerns were so similar to ours in North America. And, for the first time, we asked non-Native artists to participate. "Now that we have marked out our territory, built a Palace and furnished it, it is time to invite in our neighbours: digital artists in the non-Native world,” Skawennati Tricia Fragnito wrote in her curatorial essay. “These friends, collaborators, and kindred spirits can talk about the very topic that we are engendering: Aboriginal meets non-Aboriginal."

Jeremy Torrie covers indigenous perspectives from behind the silver screen in the article An Epic Battle of Whales, Rabbits & Warriors. (Great title.) In my view, he gives a bit too much emphasis to assessing a movie's impact based the revenue it generates (although admittedly a fascinating subject if you're into the business of entertainment). But Torrie makes a good case that for native stories to flower on film, indigenous people need to step up to the plate behind the scenes with financing, and that distribution is the next great frontier:

We ask: Why does the death of a Native girl pass almost unnoticed while the death of a white girl draws outrage in the media? Why is one life more valuable than another? We need to correct the imbalance. If we can put these stories on movie and television screens, then perhaps someone will see them and act...

...[U]ltimately, the people who have the money and control over distribution are the ones who dictate what is made into a film and how widely it is released. The challenge is for those with the fiscal wherewithal to step forward and embrace indigenous artists.

One intriguing aspect of these stories, from my outsider's perspective, is how often they involve adapting media and technology to what the people need, rather than pushing them into a pre-digested or "mainstream" model of what they ought to do with technology.

If you're looking for underreported perspectives on collaborative and emergent technologies for progressive social change, make sure you read this issue of CSQ.

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