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Indians in Cyberspace
by Mike MacDonald

Who is
by Cheryl L'Hirondelle

First Nations in Cyberspace
by Mike Patterson

Image Credit: NASA JPL-Caltech E. Churchwell University of Wisconsin


First Nations in Cyberspace: Two Worlds and Tricksters - Where the Forest meets the Highway

by Mike Patterson

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7.2 The New Communities

I believe there is a general issue here with worldwide loss of unequivocal clan/tribal affiliations. That which replaces it asserts individualism to the exclusion of other values, and pushes for the widest denominator (English on the Web; US$ in the pocket, massive retaliation as an international norm of state behaviour). Has not the nation state, hand in hand with industrial capitalism, destroyed tribe and the web of family obligation and duties? Only the wealthiest make clan compatible with modern life, for instance the ruling Saudi circles, the English elite... (the state is) offering organized religion as a substitute reintegration factor... the content of which they can control (C. McKie personal correspondence, summer 2002).
...Nous vivions, à cette fin de siècle, une vague d'agrégations tribales spontenées et nomades où la technologie numérique interactive a un rôle fondamental...La cyberculture... fournit une renaissance d'interactions sociales tribales (Lemos 2000: 89).
...Cyberspace represents a more ominous phase of Western colonialism, the homogenization of knowledge and, in tandem, the elimination of local knowledge systems (Lal 1999: 140).

Cyberspace is a strange place, real yet disembodied, a place that brings space and time whirling together in new ways, and Western and Native and other cultures and worldviews into sharp perspective and contrast (more than Two Worlds). It is now a largely North American middle class construction and phenomenon, but holds the promise of enabling universal access. But just as we have reproduced many mainstream values on the Net (patriarchy, capitalism), we are reproducing social problems (exclusion, monopolism, new power elite).

Like the stock markets that society once created, cyberspace is an artificial system that holds increasing power over its creators, as we head further into the digital age and the Knowledge Economy. More than the market, it also has the power to change the way we think, and think about ourselves, while offering the techno-elite more say in how we run our lives. It is a personal and social transformative tool, one which is changing exponentially.

Cyberspace today can be seen as a "kaleidoscopic jumbling together of partial and fragmented visions of reality, where each one is hegemonic in its own domain" (Sardar and Ravetz 1997: 10); but each also visit the other as the global touches the local, and the technology changes the discourse (McLuhan et. al.).

Can cyberspace be a place on Turtle Island, or, more to the point, how will it affect what happens here? In "Earthing the Ether," Nigel Clark explores associations between cyberspace and the ecological movement, not the least of which being the fact that early hardware developers and counter-culture minded programmers, working out of their California garages in the mid-70s, had visions of "electronic villages cradled in a natural environment," sort of Whole Earth Catalogue meets cyberspace (still a white middle class vision), a process that continues with the "greening of cyberspace" as ecological dialogues become mediated by the technology. "Ecology is not immured from the prevailing techno-cultural condition In the current climate, it is no longer enough that natural beings are seen or encountered, henceforth contact must be extended into an ongoing dialogue" in cyberspace (1997: 92), this is not unlike Latour's calling for a "parliament of things," urging us when "half of our politics is constructed by science and technology, the other half is constructed in societies" to "patch the two together, and the political task can begin again" (1993: 144)

To make a further analogy, the plight of Peary caribou and polar bears in the Arctic is attributable to climate warming, caused largely by greenhouse gasses. Hudson Bay-area bears are dying like "canaries in a coal mine" because ice floes melt too soon and they can't get food (seal pups); scientists are predicting extinction for the bears within 40 years if trends continue (Boswell 2000: A10). Cyberspace puts us in the coal mine, or Gibson's "infinite cage:" we are as much subject to it as to the real physical environment, the fear that helps us survive in the forest, in many ways, exists there too, but can we find it and use it?

In Native teachings bears are the go-between, between the bush and the village, always circling and crossing over where the forest meets the highway. They take messages back and forth between two worlds such as human/spirit (Anishnabe, Onkwehonwe) or human/machine. If cyberspace is the infohighway we are on, but we actually physically live in the forest, then these bears, like sociological "indicators" of this coexistence, reflect the human hope and frailty that is vested in cyberspace.

In summer 1998 I was at Rabbit Blanket Lake by the top of Lake Superior, travelling through. I had my laptop with me, an innovation at the time, but couldn't get through to cyberspace because there were no cell phones, no phones, just radio phones in the area. This is the 'lack of infrastructure' stretching across our country, particularly in the north.[23]

I finally found a camp ranger who would let me try to get through to the Net on his radio phone, miles to the local transmitter, to a satellite station. People had said it wasn't possible; you had to dial and then pop the knobs on the phone, and the system was analog, not digital, but we made it work, between the digital codes and the hammering on the knobs.

His father had been a developer at Northern Telecom, he told me, but he had been taken up by the woods as a youth and followed the road of forestry, forest management, the forest. He liked my Toshiba, and the woods, and the place we were at. He had no problem making them work together. This was an early meeting of Two Worlds.

The forest and the highway form a reflexive circle just as do cyberspace and real place, but we are the indicators, not just the designers, of this place called cyberspace. The effects are as real as a truck on the highway.

We are witnessing a fragmentation in modernity and modernization, and witnessing a "sense of disconuity of time, the break with tradition" in which modern man (and each Native in Canada) "constantly tries to invent himself" in the face of "industrialization, the growth of science and technology, the modern nation state, the capitalist world market, urbanization and other infrastructural elements" (such as cyberspace) (Featherstone 1988: 199, 201).

There are further breaks with Native ways as kinship is replaced by personal relationships and interests, local community gives way to "abstract systems as a means of stabilizing relations across indefinite spans of time-space," and Native spirituality or worldview and traditions meet the "future-oriented, counterfactual thought" of modernity (through cyberspace) (Giddens 1990: 102). The Native awareness ('fear') of nature, of bears, of the land, is transformed in cyberspace to "threats and dangers emanating from the reflexivity of modernity" (ibid.).

This points to the need to be aware of the contradictory possibilities of cyberspace, its Trickster nature, such as its promotion of the English language while promising Native language retention through telelearning, or its fostering new cybercommunities based on affiliation, at the expense of locale and community. John Sherry's 1995 study with the Navajo showed their preference for face-to-face talk was further marginalizing them in face of the "modernist predilection for discursive redemption through precise, written logic" of computers (Hakken 1999: 139).

Zimmerman argues that:

There can be little doubt that new technologies play a role in the establishment and maintenance of American Indian ethnic boundaries, but their role is not entirely clear. At some level they may simply be extensions of already extant traits and processes of boundaries maintenance. Certainly, the rapidity of their acceptance by Indian people is remarkable, but even that may be an extension of (pre)historic processes that required the development and use of synthetic communication devices. (2000: 85)

What he calls "Tribal pages" are now allowing Nations to demonstrate their "sovereignty and unique characters," while "some pages that deal with pan-Indian issues may simply reinforce already existing boundaries (among Nations)," and there is "an even broader issue of a further lumping of Indian people with other indigenous groups worldwide as a category of 'indigenous,' 'tribal' or 'traditional.'" (ibid.).

Many Native websites, especially the portals, are linking Native sites and issues from offshore, such as Australian (Aborigine), New Zealand (Maori), South American or Finland (Sami).[24] This type of site "would simply reinforce existing categories, but at an even broader level" says Zimmerman (2000: 85), but I believe it goes beyond that. In the strong movement toward North-South indigenous dialogue, and circumpolar dialogues, and also global solidarity, cyberspace and the mega-sites will prove to be central in sharing information and agendas. For although cyberspace is growing rapidly, with its promotion of mainstream values, it is growing against a long history of resistance:

Global change is scouring the face of the planet, but we have lived with it long enough to know that it is not going to scrub away the 5,000 languages on the globe. The particular is just as tenacious and resourceful as the global. We seem to be retribalizing: the more globalism makes our consumption patterns converge, the more insistently we defend the particularities of national differences which remain. And sometimes we defend our differences and our identity with global tools on the Internet, using software provided by such avatars of globalism as Bill Gates (Ignatieff 1998: D10).

Cyberspace "is changing so rapidly that it is difficult to predict its future impacts on ethnic boundaries. Certainly some computer companies and web sites are pushing a notion of 'one world, one culture' (cyberculture, we suppose!). That idea, however, lacks an understanding that synthetic communication has a push-pull effect that works to push groups apart at the same time it works to pull them together" (2000: 86).

I don't believe that access to information on Aboriginal groups of all types will serve to "push groups apart," the more information Native people can share, the better. Pan-Indianism may be a threat to individual Native identities (i.e. the adoption of the Plains powwow in the East, use of Dream Catcher traditions by non-Ojibwe, use of the Plains drum everywhere), but I believe it has been far more powerful in bringing different Native people together in a sharing of traditions, and issues and concerns. Mohawks did not lose the water drum when they adopted the Plains drum for powwows and other events, Natives do not necessarily lose their traditions by adopting others. Pan-Indianism may appear to be a 'generic' Indian style at powwows and gatherings, supplanting local customs, but Natives themselves know the differences between their own (Mohawk, Ojibwe, Hopi etc.) traditions and those that have spread and evolved over the Powwow Trail in the last 20-30 years.

This powwow is continuing today in cyberspace. Individuals, Nations and organizations all have their own websites, reflecting their individual culture. At the same time, they have the opportunity to visit other people, and Nations, and learn about theirs.

As the economy moves ever more clearly toward being information-based, Native communities are striving to ensure they are not once again marginalized. Information economies transcend specific regions and can help Native peoples overcome the economic deprivation that has inflicted many communities since the inception of the reservation system... Do new forms of communication offer a way to overcome the distances associated with regional and economic isolation? New media may allow the development of shared visions without sacrificing specific ties to place, the sense of rootedness that comes not only in living in a particular location over time, but through sharing a common understanding of humans' relationship to nature and cosmological place in the universe with other community members.

Through media (video, film, computing, telecommunications), indigenous peoples can develop a sense of community in imagiNative new ways while still maintaining continuity with traditional communication forms and the values that these forms embody... Ultimately, issues related to the self-governance of Native communities - power, control, authority over one's own destiny - are seated in the authority to represent one's self that forms the essence of indigenous media (and communications) (Leuthold 1997: 192).

We need an MC, and a powwow committee, to help bring this powwow together. The people get lost at mega-sites such as Yahoo; there needs to be a better map to the territory. But just as it took thousands of years to develop the trade routes, territories and alliances among Natives across Turtle Island, it will take time to do so in cyberspace as well.

Next: 7.3 Native N-Geners

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[23] I had been on the road across the country for two weeks. I was using a laptop powered through electrical inversion from the cigarette lighter from all through southern Saskatchewan and before that over the Great Lakes north of Superior. I was constantly looking for ranger stations, parks, campgrounds, gas stations, anyplace to plug in and do my work in cyberspace (Webmaster), but encountered lots of resistance to my machine, and the Net. I was two days west of Ottawa, north of Lake Superior, when I managed to get through to the Net. In the long stretch past Wawa and Marathon, I found a campground at Upsala that would let me plug in my laptop. "But it won't work," the lady in the store said, "because we ain't got no Internet here." The farmers coming into the café looked at me like some new kind of threatening animal. "The school is talking about getting the Internet for the kids," she later told me, "but a lot of people don't like it."

[24] Bill Henderson, a non-Native lawyer from Toronto who has represented Native groups for 25 years, maintains such a pan-cultural and cross-border (Canada-U.S.) site at

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