Indigenous New Media and Critical Digital Humanities

The below is a transcript of a talk given at the University of Melbourne in December 2018.

Melbourne Talk (Slides in PDF)

Watch a recording of the talk here

See the Novel Alliances New Media reading list here

Indigenous New Media

I want to begin by acknowledging the Kulin territory that these events are taking place on. It’s my first time on this land and I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here.

The title of my talk today is “Recoding Relationality: Indigenous new media and Critical Digital Humanities” and the image I’ve chosen to open us up is a 1997 piece by the Mohawk artist Joseph Tekaronike Lazare called Dega 1. Dega 1 and a series of other digital works by Indigenous artists was commissioned by Skawennati as part of CyberPowWow, the first online, interactive, Indigenous digital art gallery. CyberPowwow is a project that I have a lot of passion for and I will be speaking to it in more detail later on today. I wanted to lead with this image because, at the time, it captured the moment of Skawennati and her Indigenous team embarking on this journey in the digital (a very William Gibsonian vision of the cyberspace).

But this slide also captures what I see as a contemporary resurgence in Indigenous new media and the remarkable, game-changing intervention that Indigenous programmers, digital storytellers, and new media artists are making in the field.

For instance, in the work of Jason Lewis and the Initiative for Indigenous Futures, Lisa Jackson’s Biidaaban universe, and Maize Longboat’s Terra Nova (just to name a few).

This is just some of what is going on in the field of Indigenous new media. In this talk, I want to share with you what I think are some of the foundational pieces in the field. I also want to articulate for you the approach to DH I think we need to be taking in Indigenous studies, which is what I am calling critical DH.

Here’s a rough itinerary of what I’d like to address with you today. I’m going to begin just by introducing myself and what my stake is in this conversation around DH and Indigenous studies. From there, I’m going to say a little about how I understand DH and the directions that I think it needs to be pushed. I want to do a little more of a deep dive on some of the research I’ve done in critical DH and illustrate to you why I think its important to think about DH and Indigenous studies together: how the two fields can act in reciprocity with one another.

Critical Digital Humanities

There is an urgent need to decolonize DH theory and practice. Many Indigenous scholars resist the digital humanities because of concerns raised by their communities about the expropriation of data. Tara McPherson has astutely asked, “why are the digital humanities so white?” (n.p) But perhaps we also need to pose the questions: how does DH replicate settler colonialism-and how do we, as researchers and teachers, address this problem while holding up Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing?

As I define it, DH is the study and application of digital tools as they pertain to academic pursuits in the Humanities.

This can mean the using technology to analyze “big data,” for instance the entirety of Shakespeare’s writing, or parse social media data.

It can also mean using geographic information systems to give us geographical insight into land and space.

It can be a way to organize data in ways that make it more accessible using the principles of information sciences

Or it can mean the thoughtful use of technology to disseminate and mobilize knowledge within and beyond the academy.

All of the projects I just showed you are projects I have undertaken at UBC: we did big research around the Cleveland Indians announcement that they would retire the their racist mascot, Chief Wazoo; I continue to work with Musqueam to develop a smartphone app that will deploy GIS as a means to unsettle UBC’s colonial history and point to Indigenous presences on campus; I worked with the Indigenization initiative to develop, with my students, an Omeka exhibition for their data, using Dublin Core meta Data standards, and unceded airwaves, a program with Salia Joseph in 2013 is now going into its 5th year of broadcasting/podcasting.

But, while I work with DH tools in my research, and while I train students and staff to develop tools, I do not see my primary job in DH as a developer.

I am interested in developing critical digital humanities, by which I mean, simply, a practice of critically interrogating technology via the fields my research is born out of.

Critical humanities is tool and technology driven, but it emphasizes people before programming; and community before code.

I am interested in a modality of DH that trains users to interrogate the colonial, patriarchal and labour histories of technology. That gives us the power to contextualize and analyze DH before we begin to mobilize it.

Critical digital humanities, as I understand it, is a thoughtful engagement with the intersections of place, power, and digital technologies. It foregrounds critical perspectives from feminist, queer, and BIPOC scholars toward the development and analysis of digital tools and methodologies. Along with DH scholars such as Miriam Posner, I believe that in order for DH to be sustainable—as a discipline of the Humanities—it needs to be accountable to people’s lived experiences, and thus the histories and power dynamics of the places from which we mobilize it.

I argue, vehemently, for DH informed by Indigenous studies because it is what our colleagues and students demand from it (and this demand was particularly palpable at this year’s DHSI). But also because, in its lessons about land, sovereignty, and self-determination, Indigenous studies makes DH a stronger field: a field with a more rigorous understanding of place and power that is versatile and agile enough to respond to lived experience.  

My approach to DH is simple and informed by Agile development processes: people before programming; community before code. Rolling out new digital tools without understanding the labour that the technology will demand—of the staff and students we ask to drive it—is unethical. Implementing an algorithm or developing an API (Application Programming Interface) without acknowledging the legacy of colonialism implicit to ICTs is counter to the humanist project. Advocating for open access without a deep understanding of the ongoing history of knowledge appropriation is violence.

In my opinion, DH needs to be about people and the rich traditions of scholarship and community engagement that we can bring to bear on our understandings of technology. That’s what I see as the future of DH. Galvanizing the humanities around our strengths as critical thinkers and making space for community-engaged research and Indigenous and BIPOC scholars.

In this sense, I am invested in DH initiatives such as Kim Christen’s Murutru, which challenges the exproprative tendencies of the open access movement.

I am compelled by researchers who use technology to push back against racism and white supremacy.

And I am moved, intellectually and emotionally, by makers that use technology as tools of resistance, and activism.

DH, particularly as it has evolved out of Canada, has leaned towards the apolitical, but like DH scholars such as Miriam Posner, I am invested in what the fields I am indebted to can do for DH to make it better to make it accountable.

Sometimes people frame calls for DH to engage more with race and gender as a kind of philanthropic activity; won’t you please consider the poor women and people of color?

But that is wrong. DH needs scholarly expertise in critical race theory, feminist and queer theory, and other interrogations of structures of power in order to develop models of the world that have any relevance to people’s lived experience. Truly, it is the most complicated, challenging computing problem I can imagine, and DH hasn’t even begun yet to take it on

Miriam Posner, “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities

In particular, I think we need Indigenous studies in DH because researchers of the digital can no longer adhere to the neo-cartesian myth of mind vs. body. DH, in all its facets, need technology that is accountable to place, to people, to labour, and to colonial legacies. DH needs developers and technologists who are sensitive to the systems of power that are at play in seemingly “objective” technologies. Indigenous studies makes DH better. However, I also believe that, used thoughtfully, DH can help to amplify and hold up projects that address sovereignty, self-determination, and decolonization. That is why I find myself sitting at the intersection of the digital humanities and Indigenous studies.

And it is precisely at these intersections that I first came across this website, God’s Lake Narrows, by the Swampy Cree artist, Kevin Lee Burton.

I was initially drawn to GLN for two interconnected reasons.

  • Because of the ways it contends with the translation of land, space, protocol, and storytelling from the material to the digital world.
  • Because of the way Burton composes digital sovereignty and self-representation in cyberspace.

Digital Sovereignty

What do I mean by digital sovereignty? It can mean a lot of things, depending on the context, but in Indigenous studies, we are basically using it to talk about Indigenous peoples right own, control, and access their own data. This, for me is the best summary data sovereignty

Data sovereignty is linked with Indigenous peoples right to maintain, control, protect, and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions, as well as their right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over these.

Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Agenda

So, like sovereignty as it exists in relation to land, digital sovereignty is about the ways in which a programmer, a web host, or an online community, maintains authority over, and self-determination within, a space.

And the stakes here are real. As Burton himself notes, Indigenous resistance to openness, “is a protective thing,a learned response to a legacy empire fueled by extraction and removal.

Kim Christen has illustrated that, historically, Indigenous peoples in settler colonial societies have lost control over the dissemination of their knowledges and cultural practices as they are appropriated into museums and universities and “separate[d] from the sociocultural systems in which they were and continue to be used, circulated and made meaningful”.

Open Access models often re-imagine colonialist practices by eliding Indigenous concerns about “culturally appropriate conditions for access” (Anderson 25-26) under the demand for unfettered access to information that benefits a colonial, neo-Enlightenment notion of the public domain.

Bringing an artist’s eye to the question, Burton recognizes the threat to Indigenous data sovereignty more generally, and to his community more specifically, and establishes and maintains engaged relationality as a means to protect his digital space while simultaneously offering hospitality within it.   

Websites are now vital places to store and share, language, history, and culture. They are sites of learning, and connection, and repatriation, amongst other things.

Burton recognizes the threat to Indigenous digital sovereignty and establishes and maintains it in his work in unique and informative ways.

But, I want to focus on one small element that escaped my notice the first few times I was engaging with this site.

So this is the opening slide to GLN. You’ll notice right here, that there kilometers plugged in to the slide (see below). If I was in Montreal, for instance, those numbers would of course be different.

What Burton is doing is using geolocation, or geotagging, HTML code that allows his website to identify your position on the map via your IP address. This is data that all website collect (all the more reason to have a VPN), but which is usually used for the host’s purposes, and goes unseen by the guest.

Burton’s piece used geolocation to identify me as 15,247km away from God’s Lake during my visit to Melbourne

The geolocation Burton uses here triangulates the user’s position spatially in reference to the nearest reserve and God’s Lake Narrows—asking users (most of whom are non-indigenous) to consider the relationship between storytelling and place, challenging them to critically engage with the ways in which technology can recentre Indigenous relationships to the land and call attention to colonial practices.

Digital sovereignty is at play here in the way Burton composes the user’s relationship to space and challenges extractive, colonial models of anonymity and access: the user participates in the space in relation to its community and with knowledge of the history of that space.

In the geolocation slide, in a very metatextual way, the user is given access to the back end ideas and information that provided for Burton’s website, but they are also made explicitly aware that consumption of this knowledge is a relational process that occurs in the space between guest and host and therefore also in the space between URL and IRL.

In this reversal of the gaze, Burton demonstrates that he is not interested perpetuating a model of openness that reifies and re-inscribes settler colonialism in the anthropological gaze, but rather invites users into the space to act in relation to the community as guests whose presence is authorized by Indigenous protocol.

What Burton is doing here is also an expression of protocol. According to the great Creek author and thinker, Joy Harjo, in naming ourselves and our places when we travel, we acknowledge the strengths and limitations of our readings and the margins of our knowledges; in doing so we also acknowledge the sovereignty of the territory—in this case the website—that we are entering and our position within that territory as guests.

Burton’s work made me think critically about the ways in which Indigenous peoples are engaging technology in service to their communities and knowledge systems, both challenging settler colonial frameworks of representation and claiming cyberspace as Indigenous space, or what Michelle Raheja calls the “virtual reservation.”

It was with Burton’s work that I started to wonder about the history of Indigenous New Media, and the folks who had cleared the path for Burton and other contemporary Indigenous new media artists.

So, I started to go back into the archives, both analog and digital, to identify a moment of emergence for Indigenous new media, which is where I began to compile my own research archive.

And as I worked I came across the year 1996.

The History of Indigenous New Media

Here’s sort of a hokey slide to get you in the mindset of the late 90s. There was a lot going on culturally that year, from Spice girls, to the Princess Diana and Charles divorce, but it was also an important year for technology: so, not only did we have more than one viable search engine at that time (anyone remember ask Jeeves?)

The dot com bubble was at its height 1995-2001 and 1996 was the year that the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasperov in a best of three chess match, which, as many of you know added to a cultural anxiety around technology, articulated in films such as The Matrix (Kasperov himself draws the links b/w deep blue and the Wachowski sister’s film in a CBC interview)

But it is also in 1996 that we two key interventions from Indigenous women into the cyberspace arena: the first from Metis/Cree filmmaker and critic Loretta Todd, in an article she originally published with MiT Press and then second from Mohawk artist Skawennati Tricia Fragininto, called CyberPowWow, which I want to get into a little more detail with you here.

However, before I move on to CyberPowWow, I do want to acknowledge and draw attention to the fact, that this key moment in Indigenous New Media history is led by two Indigenous women—which is not something we should take lightly.

The Anishinaabe game maker, Elizabeth LaPensée has gone on to demonstrate, through research and personal experience, that digital spaces are particularly hostile to Indigenous women, a point perhaps most clearly evidenced when she intervened to stop the 2014 re-release of the Atari platformer Custer’s Revenge, a game in which the objective is the rape of a Pocahontas fugure.

Which is to say, that it was no small thing then (and, as I know some of you in this room are already aware, it is no small thing now) for Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women, queer, and non-gender conforming folks, to make interventions into digital spaces).

As such, it is important to honour the labour of the women who have done, and continue to do, the heavy lifting that made future spaces, like God’s Lake Narrows, possible. And to continue to hold up the work that make conversations like this possible.


Developed and curated by Skawennati, CyberPowWow was, I argue, the first Indigenous territory in Cyberspace.

This is not to say that Indigenous peoples were not on the web before 1996, nor is it to say that Indigenous people were not engaged in advanced technological thinking before this but rather to say that Skawennati made a unique space that was imbued with relationality.

CyberPowWow was launched in four unique iterations, CyberPowWow, CyberPowWow 2, CPW 2K: CyberPowWow Goes Global, and CPW04: Unnatural Resources. It went dark in 2004, due to lack of funding and people power to make it run. But a “canned” version, housed at Concordia university, and a website with a small selection remained to mark its presence.

In 2015, I worked with Skawennati and her team to install a working version of the archive on a computer at UBC, which I used with my students as a way to train them in the practices of close reading and archival work in Indigenous cyberspace.

We also opened the archive up to the Western Front Gallery, with whom we launched the first live install of CyberPowWow in 13 years.

Quickly, here is a little bit of history on this important piece.

Skawennati built CyberPowWow out of a graphical chatroom platform called the Palace, developed by Programmer Jim Baumgardner using an in-house programming language called Idaho, and later purchased by Time Warner Entertainment.

The Palace capitalized on chatroom popularity and increased bandwidth capacity, to create one of the first online community spaces in which users could represent themselves graphically, using avatars and rooms they built with their own software and images.

See John Suler’s hypertext book, Life at the Palace if you are interested in the psychology of that particular space

What made the Palace unique was its “open source” what we would now call its open source infrastructure, which allowed users to download the software for free to construct their own “rooms,” which could then be made available to the public.

Many of these rooms were probably what you’d expect, taking the IRL dating scene and integrating barrooms, lounges, and bathhouses.

But the artistic community also made interventions into the space. Desktop Theatre, for instance, run out of the University of California Irvine, staged a production of Waiting For Godot in the Palace for the third annual digital storytelling festival in 1997

This is a slide from desktop theatre, quoting Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, which I bring up here because, I like the way it gestures to the intellectual thought that was happening in the Palace, but also it helps to illustrate the ways in which “the spectacle” was being taken up in graphic-based chatrooms—not necessarily as a degradation of human life, but as a mode of social interaction. I see this as germane to Skawennati’s own work and idea I will take up in more detail shortly. 

CyberPowWow started off as a virtual exhibition and chat space that would dispel the myth that Native artists didn’t (or couldn’t!?) use technology in their work. In addition to that, we wanted to claim for ourselves a little corner of cyberspace that we could nurture and grow in the way we wanted.


You can see in that last line quoted above, how sovereignty is being drawn out—that notion of demarcating an Indigenous space in a colonial landscape. But Skawennati also challenges settler colonial myths of the “vanishing Indian” in this short paragraph and handily dismantles the notion that indigeneity and modernity are mutually exclusive terms.

Given the semiotics of Empire that surrounded the software (which, I should add are not anomalous to the Palace, but rather an integral part of how the web is imagined) Skawennati’s intervention into the Palace was decolonial in intent, putting its tools in the hands of Indigenous artists, storytellers, and programmers. The “rooms” and avatars in CyberPowWow became canvases for artists to create art and the Palace itself a space to host Indigenous and allied artists and thinkers.

Under her leadership and support from a large community of Indigenous and allied artists and scholars, a multitude of artists from across Canada, the U.S. and Australia, joined CyberPowWow, including Archer Pechawis, Jason Lewis, Jolene Rickard, Lee Crowchild, Michelle Nahanee and Lori Blondeau , just to name a few.

But again, to reiterate, Cyberpwowow is such an important turn in Indigenous cyberspace because it generated cyberspaces (Web 1.0 cyberspaces) that were rich with relationality.

For Skawennati part of “indigenizing” cyberspace was to give artists and guests an online space that enabled them to interact with art and share knowledge as a community. By allowing participants to gather in real time in spaces designed by the community, using avatars designed and mobilized by indigenous artists, The Palace offered dynamic interaction that built on and extended existing traditions.

Indeed, when I first talked to Skawennati about the possibility of installing CyberPowWow at UBC, making it “live” for the first time in a decade, her primary concern was that an install, at this point, would fail to capture what the project was, that is a relationship, as opposed to an art object.

In this sense, to borrow from Peter Dickinson and the field of performance studies more broadly, the CyberPowWow archive is infused with “ephemerality” and is thus “interesting less for what is in it, than for what one does with it.”

Using performance studies as a reference point, this is precisely how we tried to address Skawennati’s concerns about remounting CyberPowWow at UBC. It is also how we pushed back against the notion of CyberPowWow as an archive of extinction and instead attempted to demonstrate the vibrant, resurgent presence and futures of Indigenous peoples IRL and URL.

My work with Skawennati has been, up until this point, to determine how CyberPowWow, as a DH project, can, 22 years after the fact, create community while holding up Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous futures.

In fact, that is the practice that I’ve tried to incorporate into all of my work in DH and new media, and I learned it, and learned it well, from Skawennati and her team: the tech is only useful insofar as it holds up people.

And I think that is precisely where we need to be with digital humanities at this moment. I am drawing from Miriam Posner, who lucidly argues that we need to put the humanities back in DH, which means acknowledging the neo-liberal tendencies of the field and (re)centering inviting critical discourse.

For all of its vaunted innovation, the digital humanities actually borrows a lot of its infrastructure, data models, and visual rhetoric from other areas, particularly from models developed for business applications. In some ways, that’s inevitable, because the business market is just so much bigger, and so much better funded, than the market for weird, boutique humanities tools.

Building from Posner, who also speaks to the dire need to critical race studies in DH in this same essay, I argue that we are at a point in which DH has lost some of its connection to foundational research in the Humanities. The DH method that I encourage students and researchers to take up is deeply critical of technology, but it also rejects the deficit model wholesale: that is to say, while we must be vigilant to the imperial effects of technology, we must never do so at the expense of Indigenous ways of knowing in those spaces. As Angela Haas convincingly argues in her amazing essay, “Wampam as Hypertext,” technology is not the domain of the colonizer. There is potential for resistance, resurgence, sovereignty and self-determination in DH—we need to make space to hold it up.    to technology Indigenous approaches to knowledge and knowledge dissemination. In this sense, my students and I take up pieces like CyberPowWow and God’s Lake Narrows through the lens of what Eve Tuck identifies as desire-based research. That is close reading and critical analysis that foregrounds hope and future-oriented thinking. That rejects the notion that indigeneity is singularly historical and foregrounds Indigenous knowledges and deeply and complexly technological.

I want to end today, with a quote from Loretta Todd’s foundational essay “Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace.” She read this section when I hosted her at Green College at the end of November, and I’ve been thinking about it since in relation to this talk:

Will cyberspace enable old knowledge to be experienced and expanded or will cyberspace create the present anew each day, so that there never again is tradition or a past?

The “new” of new media, or the “digital” of the digital humanities, are so often the things that draw us in as researchers, and that draw our students in as learners and makers. Many of us here are energized by new technologies and the glimpse into the future that they afford. As digital humanists, I think we need to mobilize that energy as a means to loudly critique ongoing systems of settler colonialism and amplify Indigenous voices. I also think that we need to listen to Lorretta Todd. The “new” of new media is a modernist conceit that threatens to elide the advanced, technological thinking that Indigenous people brought to life on these territories thousands of years before the first website was pinged.

As a DH researcher and practitioner, I don’t see my work as creating anew, but as working with community, colleagues, and students to unpack technology as it unfolds across our shared pasts, presents, and futures.  

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: