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:
...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.
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
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:
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:
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).
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
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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