In October 1994, a team from the Oneida Indian Nation of New York visited Washington to view a new Internet site at the White House. The press release describing the visit is reproduced below to introduce the topic: how the Indigenous nations of the Americas are using the Internet to support their struggle for self-determination.
A Nation team comprised of Dan Garrow, Management Information Services director, Dan Umstead, Internet coordinator, and Brian Patterson and Marilyn John for the Nation Leadership, viewed the site, and reported it to be well organized with extensive access to a variety of general legal and government information. The White House’s Web site could be utilized on a regular basis for research and could supplement the Nation’s cultural and educational programs, they reported. They did note an absence of specific information in reference to Indian history or treaties, points which in American Indian viewpoint, are integral to the formation of the United States
… The Nation, in accordance with its government-to-government philosophy and recent White House initiatives to communicate directly with Indian Nations, is providing a direct-link access from the Nation Web Site to the White House Web Site for the ease of Internet users. (Oneida Indian Nation of NY, 1994)
Indigenous peoples and nations are now a specific presence on the Internet, and they have made the global computer network a site for information exchange, analysis and action on self-determination. This article will describe and attempt to provide a context for these activities.
Communications Support for Self-Determination Struggles
The Internet is being used to support political struggles in South, Central, and North America. Most of the 30 million Indigenous peoples of the Americas live in Latin America, where their political and land rights are only beginning to win recognition. The consequences of political recognition by the dominant nation-states become clear when one considers that Indigenous peoples represent more than 60 percent of the population in countries such as Bolivia and Guatemala. Despite centuries of brutal repression, Indigenous movements in these areas constitute a major political force. However, due to their uncompleted process of citizenry, Indigenous peoples remain marginalized as political actors. ( 1 ) A recent example is the Maya uprising in Chiapas, which has had a profound impact on the Mexican political system. The Zapatista leaders have been using the Internet to support this struggle, a novelty widely reported by the press. ( 2 )
In North America, most Indigenous nations have treaty relationships with Canada or the United States. The governments of both countries have been fighting land and treaty rights in the courts for more than a century. During the past two decades, significant legal advances have been made, and some nations have become key political actors. For instance, a barrier to the Quebec sovereignty movement is the opposition of First Nations in the province who seek guarantees of their own rights to territory and self-determination. Statements to this effect by the Mohawk, James Bay Cree, Innu and other nations in Quebec have been appearing on the Internet for several years.
The presence of Indigenous nations on the Internet is one facet of a growing movement to rekindle “international” communication and trade links that existed in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans but were suppressed under centuries of colonial rule. In keeping with this movement, the UNDP recently announced plans to set up a trust fund to provide seed money for trade and development projects between Indigenous nations in the North and South of the Americas. Significantly, confederations are solidifying across the political borders of nation-states. For instance, a pan-Mayan movement is emerging in Central America – across the boundaries of Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Southern Mexico – with a focus on self-valorizing strategies such as research and support for native languages, self-defined rural development, education, libraries, and pan-Mayan literatures. This pan-Mayan movement is linked by radio broadcasting, publications, telephone calls and faxes and, increasingly, by Internet e-mail.
The Indigenous nations of the Americas have a strong tradition of building communication and media networks to support their self-determination goals: In the US, Indigenous nations have been publishing newspapers since the early 19th century; in Canada, Indigenous peoples currently control more than 60 newspapers and almost 50 radio stations; in Latin America, Indigenous leaders recently announced plans to expand existing networks by training more Indigenous journalists. This strategy has been described as creating media networks run by Indigenous peoples for Indigenous peoples (Delgado, 1993). Indigenous media see their mission as serving the interests of the Indigenous movement in its historical struggle against the assimilationist policies of the dominant nation-states. Indigenous media – recognizing that self-determination requires peoples to be respected as belonging to different nations, with their own cultures and territories – perform the radical task of informing the public about experiences that are consistently manipulated by the mainstream media to discriminate against Indigenous peoples. These media networks democratize and serve as a complement to the distorted image of citizenry as it applies to Indigenous peoples.
This communications strategy has expanded to the Internet, where Indigenous nations and organizations are providing public information sites over which they have complete control and using existing Internet sites and networks for their own purposes. Significantly, initiatives are underway in North America to develop a full-service computer network owned and operated by Indigenous peoples.
Using the Internet to Develop Indigenous Nations
‘Using the Internet’ means using a computer to send and receive electronic mail (e-mail) or search for information stored on other computers (‘surf the net’), or to make information available by hooking up a computer containing data files. Every person connected to the Internet can send and receive e-mail but not all have the connection needed to ‘surf the net.’ An estimated 90 percent of Internet activity is e-mail.
The Internet is being used to support a wide range of activities, including biodiversity and resource management, arts and cultural activities, and others. The selected activities described below fall into three overlapping categories: research, education, and political networking – different but related strategies for nation-building.
The research conducted by Indigenous nations ranges from historical research for court cases on land and treaty rights, to general research to assist day-to-day operations. The Internet is being used to tap into information stored on computers around the world. For instance, the Oneida Indian Nation of New York noted the URL address of their World Wide Web site (the computer where their files are stored) in their press release; a computer can be directed to link with this site and then view and retrieve their treaty research files. Information files are located on machines controlled by Indigenous peoples and others set up specifically for their needs, such as the INDIANnet Census Information Computer Network Centre and the Fourth World Documentation Project. Universities have made their “Native Studies” information available. A comprehensive information resource is the NativeNet World Wide Web site; NativeNet also operates Internet mailing lists used by researchers to exchange information that will further their work.
The Internet supports education programs in various ways. Teachers use Internet mailing lists to exchange pedagogical information and they access information from Internet-linked computers when preparing courses. The Native Education Centre Electronic Library Internet site, for instance, contains the texts of historic speeches and relevant book reviews. Students can retrieve music from the Cradleboard bulletin board service, designed by Cree musician Buffy Sainte-Marie to teach Indigenous children about their heritage. The Internet offers particular advantages for distance education in remote communities. When online, “students are able to keep in touch with their instructors quickly and efficiently because Internet e-mail takes just minutes to send or receive anywhere in North America.” (Armstrong, 1994) A concerted attempt is underway to extend the NII (the US National Information Infrastructure) to all the Indigenous-run colleges and universities in the US. Specialized institutions are using the internet to connect with the larger community – such as the Native Literacy Centre in Oaxaca, Mexico, which uses computers as a tool for preserving Indigenous languages.
Reference: O’Donnell, Susan and Guillermo Delgado (1995) “Using the Internet to Strengthen the Indigenous Nations of the Americas,” Media Development (3).