Traditional Innovation: The Turn to a Decolonial New Media Studies

li-time-traveller-852-Face-Off Skawennati. Time Traveller 852 Face-Off

As a teacher, one of the core issues I run up against with my students in Indigenous literature and Indigenous studies classes is what Thomas King calls “the Dead Indian” (55): the fallacious notion that Indigenous culture is not authentic if it intersects with the present or the future. Unfortunately, the fallacy of the dead Indian isn’t just an undergraduate error, it is a deeply rooted piece of settler colonial ideology that is refrained and perpetuated at a number of different levels, including academic literature. Take for instance Eric Kuper’s 2003 insistence that Indigenous is identity “is one that exists outside of the modern… It is one that must remain temporally fixed in an ahistorical past and geographically within non-urban locations, those created through treaty negotiations or dispossession by the settler state” (original emphasis. Qtd. in Johnson 220-221).

Thinking about what Indigienity means in the present and future moments should be an essential part of what Instructors do in the classroom. As King puts it, “all the Native people living in North America today are Live Indians” (61). Despite Kuper’s fallacious definition,  Critical Indigenous Studies is not purely a historical pursuit. Grace Dillon names the genre of literary criticism that contends with the future tense as “Indigenous Futurism,” “a growing movement of writing, both fictional and critical, that envisions the future from the point of view of Indigenous histories, traditions, and knowledges.”

Taking up Indigenous Futurism from a formalist perspective, my research and teaching examines the ways in which Indigenous artists and programmers use storytelling technologies in order to articulate the complex relationships between land and narrative. In the most MucLuhaesque sense, Indigenous cyberspace compels audiences to confront the challenge of the Dead Indian from the onset—insofar as futuristic “mediums” intersect with traditional “content” facilitating a critical dialectic within the piece itself. With the proper critical apparatus in place and even a low-level understanding of technology, Indigenous technologies open up productive and challenging spaces to further investigate key principles in Critical Indigenous Studies and provide students with interactive ways to engage with Indigenous knowledges and methodologies.

As a space without place cyberspace throws into sharp relief questions of sovereignty, agency, identity, and territoriality and asks particularly resonant questions about the digital “frontier” and Indigenous contestations of these storytelling spaces. For good reason, Critical Indigenous Studies and Indigenous literary criticism remains a land-based fields; yet cyberspace is traditionally conceived as placeless, “a world that is both everywhere and nowhere” (Barlow).  As Sophie McCall has argued, “the majority of critics of Aboriginal literatures have turned to the language of sovereignty and nationhood in an era of land claims, self-government agreements, and modern-day treaties”.

Cyberspace, and the deluge of sophisticated, evocative work conceived, displayed and disseminated in it, by Indigenous artists, asks us to think through issues of land in different ways. It asks us to be more rigorous, more vigilant and more discerning with our terms. Cyberspace is not a call to overturn the key tropes in Critical Indigenous Studies, it it a call to to make them stronger.  Indeed, because it appears to be so abstracted from land and community, cyberspace presents a theoretical difficulty for critics engaging with growing field of Indigenous literature and art that is created, curated and disseminated within it. So, how is Indigeniety articulated in a landless territory? And what can cyberspace tell us about Critical Indigenous Studies?

To be clear, the turn to cyberspace is not technological determinism. That is to say, I am not suggesting that technology is shaping Indigenous knowledges and storytelling practices, but rather—more radically—that traditional practices and knowledges are shaping technology and therefore author/audience engagement with land and place. Another way of framing this work is as Decolonial New Media Studies: a heretofore unrepresented analytic approach to new media and cyberspace that looks at the ways in which Indigenous communities contributed, and continue to contribute, to the material and ideological development of cyberspace.

I take my cue here from Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith, who argues that: “We [Indigenous people] don’t need anyone else developing the tools which will help us to come to terms with who we are. We can and will do this work. Real power lies with those who design the tools – it always has. This power is ours” (38). My argument for a Decolonial New Media Studies is that Indigenous peoples are not simply using new media to disseminate and preserve traditional knowledge, they are creating their own digital tools using these traditional knowledges—the power is theirs.

There are a number of places to begin this argument. Major contributions in the 1990s and early 2000s, from artists and critics such as Todd, Leroy Little Bear, Skawennati Tricia Fragnito, Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun fundamentally changed the ways in which the relationship between cyberspace and Indigenous tradition are conceived. Conferences and workshops, such as the Art and Virtual Environments Project (1991) and 4Cyberconf (1994) played fundamental roles in articulating Indigenous presence in cyberspace. Maskegon-Iskwew’s Drum Beats to Drum Bytes (2003) broadened the scope even further, establishing new media as an unavoidable element of Indigenous art and Canadian culture.[1] The researchers, teachers and students at AbTeC (Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace) are currently changing the ways in which tradition and innovation intersect using sophisticated video game platforms and online virtual worlds, such as Second Life.

One of the most compelling examples of Indigenous contributions to cyberspace is from even earlier: the semiconductor boom in the 1960s. As cyberspace scholar Lisa Nakamura illustrates in her latest archival research, from 1963-71 Navajo women, in Navajo territory (Naatʼáanii Nééz, the largest Navajo community in the Navajo nation), were the primary circuit weavers for the Fairchild Corporation Semiconductor Division. Fairchild made the first integrated circuit that could be produced commercially and were a fundamental contributor to the development of the personal computer and the cyberspace which that machinery would eventually produce. Indeed, the plaque on Naatʼáanii Nééz commemorating Fairchild’s contribution states that Fairchild’s “innovation helped revolutionize ‘Silicon Valley’s’ semiconductor electronics industry, and brought profound change to the lives of people everywhere.”

Nakamura’s research illustrates the complex ways in which settler colonial ideology and Navajo cultural practice is implicit to the history of computer technology. This is an excerpt from a 1969 Fairchild brochure that she cites:

Weaving, like all Navajo arts, is done with unique imagination and craftsmanship, and it has been done that way for centuries….[for] “building electronic devices, transistors and integrated circuits, also requires this same personal commitment to perfection. And so, it was very natural that when Fairchild Semiconductor needed to expand its operations, its managers looked at an area of highly skilled people living in and around Shiprock, New Mexico.

As Nakamura illustrates, the romanticized notion of Indigenous peoples being “hardwired” to do the work of cyberspace is yet another iteration of the ideology at the core of settler colonialism. This logic presupposes the inevitability of “progress,” while eliding the violence and dispossession inflicted on Indigenous peoples on that path. However, it is important not to let this line of argumentation dismiss the contributions of Indigenous peoples to Industrial development. With Fairchild it is necessary to unearth, as Nakamara so skillfully does, the foundational contribution that Indigenous peoples, culture and territory played in the development of technology. As with so much of the settler state, the labour, resources and traditions of Indigenous peoples are, here quite literally, woven into the fabric of the “technology.” In this sense Indigenous people and traditions are not outside of the modern, they are integral to what makes the modern possible.

Indigenous culture and knowledge is alive and well in modernity and on the Internet, click on any of the links provided above for evidence of this. To assume that technology somehow subsumes tradition is to radically underestimate the strength and technological savvy of Indigenous peoples and the resilience of their stories. It is to perpetuate the lie of the Dead Indian. As Jolene Rickard puts it, “there is no doubt that First Nation peoples are wired and ready to surf and chat.” It’s time that the criticism caught up.

See the Novel Alliances New Media reading list here

[1] Maskegon-Iskwew work, which coalesced Indigenous new media artists in the beginning of the 21st century, employed “new technologies to, strengthen and enrich Native cultural communities by establishing a nation-wide computer-based multimedia telecommunications network for Aboriginal and Indigenous artists working in digital media” (Loft).

One comment

  1. […] “As a teacher, one of the core issues I run up against with my students in Indigenous literature and Indigenous studies classes is what Thomas King calls ‘the Dead Indian’ (55): the fallacious notion that Indigenous culture is not authentic if it intersects with the present or the future.” (x) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: