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Indigenous Identities Online

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2001 at 03:52 AM CT

Today is the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. Sarah Marriott examines how indigenous groups are using the Internet to preserve their cultures, share knowledge and save their lands.

An indigenous South American woman in brightly coloured clothes stares out from Telecom Éireann's advertising poster. "Hello, world" is the slogan - "How will you be using us today?".

The spread of information and communications technology means the woman in the poster could be on her way to a telecentre in her mountain town to email relatives in the US, to exchange health advice with other women via a bulletin board, or to campaign against an environmental threat to a nearby river.

Many of the world's indigenous tribal people have survived despite enormous social, political, environmental and economic pressures, and now many are utilising the Internet to continue their struggles. Although the majority are in developed countries such as the Native Americans in the US and the Inuit in Nunavut, Canada, groups in developing countries are also fighting to overcome digital isolation to join the "global village".

Native American nations have a strong online presence and, despite problems of access by tribes in remote locations, generally view the Internet as a positive force. The first to claim territory in cyberspace was the New York State tribe, the Oneida Indian nation, with a website which receives over 4,500 hits a day. "The webpage . . . has been invaluable to save parts of our history," believes Dale Rood, special projects technician, and representative of the Turtle Clan. "To be able to tell the history that one can't readily get in any schoolbook or in any other written documentation - we are able to tell our own story . . . We are not only preserving our culture for the current generation, but also for future generations to come."

"Since many nations and tribes are involved in a whole variety of efforts, from legal land claim struggles to attempting to create better educational systems for their youth to economic developments, this is a real opportunity," enthuses Paula Giese, a member of the Native American Ojibwe tribe.

Already, email (combined with cell phones) has proved essential in the mobilisation of coalitions made up of over 500 tribes which are protesting on environmental and land issues. Interactive distance education, provided by tribal colleges, is proving popular with those in remote locations. One college, of the Confederated Salish Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation in Montana, provides 30 courses over the Internet, with strong personal support to attempt to counteract the high dropout rate of Native Americans who attend non-Indian colleges.

The Internet is a boon to indigenous people who have been dispossessed of their lands and are scattered around the world. The Assyrians, who began their emigration from Iraq, Iran and Turkey to the US, Australia and Europe 100 years ago, have created a new cybercommunity. "The Internet is finally uniting these Assyrian communities in diaspora, regardless of their geographic, educational and economic backgrounds," comments Albert Gabrial, the founder of an Assyrian website, Nineveh On-Line, which receives 100,000 visitors a month.

Indigenous groups who are still fighting for their lands are beginning to gain the skills and technology to communicate with the outside world. Ethnic minorities in the border areas of Burma are using email and the Internet, although these are banned within Burma itself. Ethnic groups such as the Mon and the Karen have their own homepages which document the regime's use of forced labour and the plight of the refugees in the border camps. "The Internet has given (them) an opportunity to explain their cultures and their demands for minority rights, both to Burmans and to the international community," explains cultural anthropologist, Christina Fink.

Mobilising support from the international community and strengthening links between indigenous people are the priorities of the Internet activist group, NetWarrriors (slogan: "Survive and resist genocide"). Their email list, on one day recently, carried a newspaper report of racism against the aboriginal people of Taiwan, an action call to protect a sacred Native American site under threat of destruction, and (unofficial) transcripts of the sessions of the UN's Working Group on Indigenous Populations which met last month in Geneva. Although only 1,000 delegates attended the UN sessions, NetWarriors provided on-the-spot reports for list subscribers and made emailed statements from indigenous people available for delegates and governments.

However, what could be termed cybercolonisation is taking place, as nonindigenous mediators, such as academics, missionaries, governments and commercial enterprises set up websites on indigenous issues. Paula Giese is concerned about the credentials of those launching websites on tribal matters. Although they may be put up by people with a lifelong interest in Native Americans, or by children studying a particular tribe, she believes: "they tend to weaken the idea of nationhood and national sovereignty". In one case, a site called "Tribal Voice" is operated by a software company and has nothing to do with Native Americans. Two "supersites", Nativeweb and Nativenet, provide links to legitimate indigenous websites, chat rooms, journals, mailing lists and tribal homepages, as well as archives of historical, legal and cultural information.

Accuracy is another issue: the website of one Swedish university about the Samis (the indigenous people of the Scandinavian Peninsula in Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia), provides cultural information which is incorrect, according to Sami website developer, Aanta Forsgren.

He points to a further problem: "The Internet is and will be dominated by the English language. All but a few native peoples fight, not only for cultural survival, but also for the survival of their languages." The websites of many indigenous groups are in English, to reach as many "netizens" as possible - and yet in some cases, they are excluding their own people. Despite the development of new fonts and websites for some languages, which can help the younger generation learn (for instance, Hawaiian), Forsgren believes the Internet will hasten the demise of those languages which are spoken by few people.

As more indigenous people are wired, the social impact of the Internet will be huge, according to James Hrynyshyn, of Northern News Services in Canada's Northwest Territories. Despite an English-language monoculture, the Internet will not destroy indigenous cultures: "Global culture does not mean an end to local culture," he believes, as the multimedia mix of the Web is ideal for the oral story-telling traditions of Aboriginal cultures.

Others are less certain. "Information storage doesn't necessarily preserve a culture, lots of cultures are perfectly preserved in museums but they're dead," comments Jim Bell, editor of Nunatsiaq News (the bilingual Inuktitut/English newspaper in Nunavut). However, even cybersceptics such as Bell accept the Internet is not as negative a force as television: "The Internet provides you with a way of fighting back, a way to send information the other way . . . (it is not) the great river of alien cultural influences that is going to wipe out Inuit culture." Or, it is hoped, any other indigenous culture.

Native links

Nativenet, a "supersite" created by indigenous groups:

Nativeweb, bulletin boards and links (currently under renovation):

CASKE 2000, a comprehensive list of contacts:

Cultural Survival, research and publications:

Centre for World Indigenous Studies, documents on indigenous issues:

indigenous political activists:

Free Burma, information and links: http:/ /

Oneida Indian Nation, preserving culture:

Nineveh On-Line, the Assyrian community:

Nunavut.Com, cultural and political information on this newly established territory:

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