A Long Time Ago in the Future: Indigenous Media in the Digital Age

March 8, 2010

Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics by Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart, eds., Duke University Press (2008), 376 pp., $24.95 (paperback)


In 1997, when I taught at Northwest Indian College on the Lummi reservation in Washington State, I attended a presentation by folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) in Olympia, about 100 miles away. During her talk, she made the case that school lessons on Indian culture and history, distributed on CD-ROM to teachers around the country, could challenge stereotypes and change attitudes in public classrooms. Her Cradleboard Teaching Project, as it is called, was innovative at the time, even futuristic.

I persuaded Saint-Marie to board a small plane and return with me to visit the Lummi college to talk about media and education with local tribal folks. She toured the campus and paid special attention to the distance-learning facilities. The TV broadcast studio, she said, ought to be used more for film production than for the math, chemistry, and other academic courses that were then being delivered to reservation satellite campuses. She was bursting with enthusiasm about the possibilities for creative expressions of Indigenous identity through video and multimedia production and distribution.

Saint-Marie’s emphasis on media foretold how essential digital video would become for Indigenous endeavor, both in representing Indigenous culture and identity for youth, and for reporting on resistance struggles in the developing world. Today, her Cradleboard curriculum (cradleboard.org) is widely used, employing the whole spectrum of contemporary communications technology: e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, interactive Web sites, videoconferencing, and so on.

But in the early days of Indigenous participation in digital media, many elders and traditional people worried that sacred and protected knowledge would be degraded and stolen in media productions. Those concerns have not gone away, and for good reason: Indigenous peoples have a terrible history of being crushed under the machinery and tangled in the circuitry of modernity’s technological progress. The question of who controls the design, production, and distribution of Indigenous media remains.

While many elders, community leaders, and Indigenous scholars may still critique digital technology’s hegemonic properties, there is now an awareness among them that Indigenous communities must either represent themselves and create media that reflect their identities and desires or they will be misrepresented by a media industry that has processed and sold Indigenous knowledge as a commodity. Moreover, isolation can be dangerous for Indigenous groups in regions where military or paramilitary violence threatens their survival.

As the essays collected in Global Indigenous Media make clear, Indigenous peoples have been amazingly adaptive and creative with new media technologies, applying them to their own lifeways and maintaining cultural boundaries rather than simply assimilating into the dominant social order. Communities that survived the cataclysmic forces of colonization are now telling their stories and constructing new forms of cultural power in the digital age.

Indigenous groups, perhaps more than anyone, have realized there is no going back. Traditional culture cannot be maintained in isolation from an entirely interconnected global condition. In recent years, these communities and their allies have used the Internet and digital media to disclose conditions of oppression and the ecological damage being done to their lands by corporations.

The chapters of this book—providing a wide breadth of coverage, from Chiapas to Nunavut, Polynesia to Wales—show how Indigenous filmmakers, animators, multimedia artists, and political activists have seized the moment to create works that validate Indigenous reality, not as historical documentary, but rather as a way of living in a larger slice of time, merging traditional culture with contemporary global consciousness. Behind this surge of filmmaking and cultural revival through digital media, we find a united vision to decolonize Indigenous imaginations.

The book represents the “state of the art” of an emerging field. Scholars in visual anthropology, film studies, and communications have written about Indigenous media from a wide range of perspectives for more than a decade, but this collection shows a distinct set of conversations in common, a coherent new interdisciplinary field rather than a subfield.

Reflecting the scope of this emergent field, the book is divided into four parts, covering Indigenous media aesthetics and style, activism through media, identity and community building through media, and the interaction between digital technology and ancient forms of knowledge. The contributors tell stories of how particular projects came into being, including descriptions of both the final products and the community involvement that made them possible.

The chapters resonate with shared themes. For example, the concerns of First Nations animators in Canada who are countering stereotypical images of “Indianness” for children’s education are, in many ways, the same as the questions from Latin American producers on how to decolonize media practice and conventions in creating authentic Indigenous self-representation. Global Indigenous Media also shows how far the discussion has evolved in the 20 years since Indigenous media was just beginning to gain prominence at international film festivals and as a topic of cultural studies courses at colleges and universities.

The authors are Indigenous scholars, filmmakers, and researchers who have had enduring and respectful relationships to Indigenous communities. Many are centrally concerned with what Faye Ginsburg—a scholar who has provided much of the theorizing groundwork in this field and is referenced throughout the volume—has called the “Faustian contract” of Indigenous media. Indigenous producers, Ginsburg observed, must negotiate the competing realms of commercial interests, community values, and truthful identity configuration as they struggle for creative and editorial control. Decisions about how they represent their distinctive cultures are made in a complex and contradictory arena in which Indigenous media must succeed commercially but also represent the genuine aesthetics and politics of the community.

Moreover, productions must respond to both the cultural intimacies of the Indigenous communities and to the dominant societies that rely on cues and reference points from stereotyped images. Traversing this tricky ground, many Indigenous producers have developed a principle of “strategic traditionalism.” Indigenous communities recognize that these decisions about the presentation of traditional knowledge and identity are dangerous and delicate contracts with an outside world that continues to exploit and colonize their lands.

Above all, the editors and contributors of this book are wrestling with the concept of Indigeneity. What does it mean to be Indigenous in a globalized condition in which both nationalist and anti-nationalist movements are simultaneously pushing forward? Many Indigenous groups have strategically asserted that they are sovereign nations while also resisting the term nation-state as a modernist idea that does not correspond to traditional and pre-contact forms of Indigenous governance.

Their orientation as nations within nations frames their histories of opposition to the authority of colonizing nation-states. In this sense, the assertions of Indigenous identity are about reframing official national narratives while carefully claiming an Indigenous sense of nationhood. Ruth McElroy’s chapter on Welch-language television and Indigenous cultural identity pushes the boundaries of this discussion.

Are the Welch an Indigenous people equivalent in some way to other Indigenous groups colonized by the British Empire? McElroy admits that conditions for the people of Wales are a long way from those that Maoris or Aborigines in Australia encounter daily, but she shows that minority language struggles in the context of nation-state dominance can serve as a marker of Indigenous identity. Scholars tend to agree that Indigeneity is inescapably connected to the legacy of empire building and the regimes of colonization, but which of these histories is a story of Indigenous peoples and which is something else?

The debates about who and what is authentically Indigenous become mired in questions of whether peoples were colonized by settlers from overseas, as in the United Nations’ “saltwater thesis,” or whether Indigeneity is a broader category that refers to minoritized nations within the borders of powerful nation-states. This thorny discourse is mired in interpretations of history, culture, and whether subjugation, conquest, and discrimination were at the hands of people from other parts of the world or from neighbors.

All these chapters are concerned with the efforts of Indigenous producers and communities to control the framing of identity and reality in opposition to a multinational hegemonic media. The most compelling category for delineating Indigeneity can be drawn from the relationship a people have to their ancestral territories. In short, at the end of these dense discussions about authenticity, there is still the land and the people living on the land.

The languages and traditional knowledges still derive from the relationships Indigenous peoples have had and continue to have with the physical landscape that has sustained them. Many of the authors in this book are engaged in projects to develop a cinematic and cyber landscape that can help to preserve and protect the traditional territories of Indigenous communities.

The stories of these efforts in an era of dizzying global transformation take on a kind of “back to the future” quality. Although there is no going back to a more isolated condition in a more protected cultural environment, old traditional shapes of art and life are appearing in unexpected places; roadside cultural messages and markers on the cyber-highway. For Indigenous communities, healing and prosperity can only be acquired from the cultural knowledge of the past, yet they are engaged in a project to make this ancient knowledge do its work in the digitized science-fiction present and future.

It’s worth noting in closing that this book continues the conversation on Indigenous media beyond the groundbreaking collection Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain, edited by Ginsburg, together with Lila Abu-Lughod and Brian Larkin (University of California Press, 2002). Appropriately, Ginsburg writes the last chapter in Global Indigenous Media. Her essay, titled “Rethinking the Digital Age,” expresses cautious optimism about the prospects for Indigenous cultural revival and transformation toward community goals through digital media.

Indigenous media, she argues, offer prospects for a more imaginative view of futures that contain both the traditional knowledge of ancestors and the contemporary dreams of communities that are taking control of the technology to represent themselves on the world screen. It is as necessary for Indigenous peoples to participate in global media as it is for the rest of the planet to listen carefully to what they have to say.

Michael Marker is associate professor of educational studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he directs the Ts”kel First Nations Graduate Studies program. His most recent publications have focused on the politics of Indigenous knowledge in classrooms and transnational identities of the Coast Salish.


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