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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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Chapter Four

Moccasin Telegraph Telecom

The moccasin telegraph is the way that things travel, by word of mouth in Native country - the Native way is to visit, and exchange gifts, stories and information. This slow but sure network is augmented by radio, television, print and now cyberspace. This section examines some things that are being gained and lost in historic and modern cultural exchanges through technology among Natives and others in Canada.

These show cultural exchanges, losses, and survivals at the same time. The current opportunity for cultural exchange in cyberspace is perhaps a last chance for exchange of perspectives, or a knell for assimilation.

In Cyberspace Smoke Signals, Larry Zimmerman writes that trade activities and communication crossed the continent long before contact:

Such activities required mechanisms for cross-cultural communication, and indeed, these mechanisms existed. On the Great Plains in the center of North America, there was a sign language effective for trade as well as giving locations of bison herds and positions of mutual enemies. In the Northwest, Chinook "jargon" became a lingua franca in the substantial trade systems along the coast, even incorporating white words after contact. Smoke signals from smudge fires allowed some groups on the Plains and in the Southwest to exchange information over great distances and across cultures.

Where synthetic forms of communication developed, they actually worked to preserve identity rather than break it down. At the same time, they aided in formation of some level of pan-Indian identity, a process nearly institutionalized with the coming of the Euroamericans. Both processes remain visible today, and new technologies have become the prevalent synthetic communication types (2002: 70).

Life on Turtle Island before the European invasion was very much an aural, and oral, experience. Native life is oral and kinetic; it is vested in sound and movement of the natural world rather than the written word which tries to describe and control nature. The voices of the indigenous people here carried legends, stories (history) and songs. Little was written. Native culture and knowledge lived through a constant communication, a circle including people and the earth, spirits and the natural environment.

Wireless crystal radio sets, accordions and fiddles were early forms of communications technology, precursors to the phenomenon of cyberspace, and Natives used them to continue these traditions. Adopting and adapting technologies are central to the cultural changes among Natives in Canada. Radio reached remote settlements and reserves long before TV and stereos (in many places, there was no electricity to run these devices until the 1960s).[17] This was a profound introduction to white culture and music. Much of that music was country and western, and it determined the sound of the new Inuit music for generations.[18]

The Inuit are a prime example of Indigenous people taking up technologies as they arrive, mastering communication and technical devices, from accordions and fiddles to the computer, adopting from the first whaling boats in the 1600s, wireless crystal radio sets in the 1930s to GPS today.

Jon Pierce tells a story from the Keewatin, of the white men (kuallinuk) who were camped in a raging snowstorm, a whiteout, in the middle of the tundra. "You couldn't see two feet in front of your face. Then out of nowhere, these Inuit pulled into camp on their skidoos. They just wanted to check to see the visitors were OK. "How did you find us in this storm," they asked, marveling at their Inuit abilities on the land. One guy grinned and pulled a GPS from inside his parka."

Adopting and adapting technologies are central to the cultural changes among Natives in Canada. Radio reached remote settlements and reserves long before TV and stereos (in many places, there was no electricity to run these devices until the 1960s). (via

The reality is that technological and other adaptations have had profound effects on Native cultures and norms, advantages and costs. From the beginning, though, resistance has been strong, in the sense that Native have always striven to make use of the new tools on their own terms.

Next: 4.1 The Fiddle and the Drum

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[17] Like the Net today, radio in the 1930s emerged (at least in the South) "with hopes of initiating utopian democracy" but was "conceived by its creators not as a public service but a consumer product;" the rhetoric of the promise of the Internet like radio before it "obfuscates any real understanding of the material place of the emergent medium in society and ultimately nullifies any potential for social change the emergent medium might have had." The "feeling of fulfillment offered by the surrogate space of radio was an essential element in the rhetoric of democracy and equality (and revived sense of community) that evolved around its promotion," but rather than ameliorating constraints of geography and economic status, radio was rather a means of merely "effacing real class differences" (Spinelli 2000: 268-69, 270).

[18] "Radio continues to influence (remote Northern) places as the Southern urban culture switches its attention to TV, MuchMusic and MTV, and CDs. Long before Anik brought television to the North in 1974, the Inuit could pick up WWVA, West Virginia's country heartland station, and most Inuit in Eastern Canada grew up with that sound.

Country and western is the most popular genre of music in the North and in other rural Canadian areas. A representative sample of some 20 Inuit albums in the School for Studies in Arts and Culture: Music at Carleton University are almost all country oriented, displaying genres as diverse as bluegrass, rockabilly, country rock and the slick Nashville sound" (Patterson 1995: 73).

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