The More Things Change

David Shorter

In 2002, I began working on my first website that would feature ethnographic and self-representations of the Yoeme people in northwest Mexico. I had worked with family members in various Yoeme pueblos since 1992 and I finished my doctoral dissertation in 2002. I received a small grant shortly after that in order to develop a website that featured Yoeme performances and politics, ideally designed in a form that reflected Yoeme aesthetics. The challenge was daunting to say the least. And while much could be said about the finished product, I start with this history to highlight that in 2002, I could find no websites on indigenous languages. In fact, most tribal nations in 2002 did not have their own websites. I was aware back then that the Internet seemed to be, comparatively, devoid of native presence.

Of course, the Internet was a different place back then. Since that time, the World Wide Web has grown from engaging 9% of the world’s population to now just under 50%. We’ve gone from having about 3 million websites to now close to 600 million. In 2002, it took about 13 minutes to download a song. Friendster had about 3 million users, compared to Facebook’s current 1.65 billion. If you wanted a fast machine to connect via a cable to the Internet, you could get the then “fast” 700MHz iBook. Based on how primitive the 2002 web space might seem to us now, we should not be surprised about the lack of Indigenous websites back then.

Imagine my surprise then, when in 2015, as I was developing the Wiki for Indigenous Languages (WIL), I was searching for stock photos of Native people using technology and found literally zero. I tried every set of search terms I could think of: “indigenous technology,” “Native technology users,” “aboriginal digital media,” “Any frickin image of an Indian using a mobile phone!” I was able to find some pretty disturbing photos; those of you who study representations of Indigenous people can probably imagine these well. I saw cavemen staring at large pc monitors, a Plains Indian listening to a phonograph, and lots of photos of South American and African tribal members, usually in feathers or face paint, holding a camera someone had clearly just handed to them. Really Interwebs?! In 2015?

Luckily I had received a large grant to develop the WIL project and so I decided to create my own library of stock photos, those general images that one creates to convey a particular message. Stock photos seem to border between hilarious and prejudicial since they must convey something about a whole group of people or how someone/some people act in a certain context. I did not want to hire actual models because I have myself struggled to see my own life represented well in marketing campaigns. I hired a photographer who was able to collaborate rather than control. I sent out a call for participants and we had a very successful photo shoot, providing me with over 350 images of either indigenous people using technology, or non-Native and Native people in shared settings with technology. The models worked hard to create beautiful photos. The resulting photos provide a testament to the democratization of the Internet and of a shared digital culture. While they do not mean to suggest that all indigenous people have access to technology, or engage technology in similar manners, or even that digital technologies are somehow neutral in the processes of globalization, the images provide a visible presence, which suits the Wiki for Indigenous Languages of course, and more importantly a presence that is still lacking on the Internet.

I can’t help but ponder the larger questions of cause and effect. What causes the Internet to lack respectful images of Native people using technology? And what are the effects of this seeming invisibility? Surely these are the questions that could lead to a whole book-length manuscript, or more. And frankly, the answers are on one hand obvious and on another, still completely relevant.

Because Indigenous people are still imagined as trailing civilization in terms of progress and capitalist modes of production, they obviously would not stand at the cutting edge of technology. How would we be able to hold on to our precious mascots of Indians wearing headdresses if Indians were actually hunched over with bad backs answering Emails? Would the kids at Coachella still erect teepee tents if they knew most Native people find teepees the lesser option for iPad charging and that they had slow download speeds? What would we do if Indians didn’t live in our past, but instead shared the present with us, with all of its complicated technological and web-based promise?

The effects of not seeing indigenous people, literally not seeing their bodies and faces, are nothing short of a continued ignorance of indigenous materiality. This invisibility is part of the larger problem where non-Indians covet the right to express their theft of indigenous “spirituality” or “beliefs,” but not acknowledge the actual missing indigenous women, the children taken from homes, the rates of suicide on reserves, the rising toll of diabetes, the loss of land, and those Indians in the alleys and arroyos around reservations and border towns. You rarely see Urban Outfitters or Ambercrombie and Fitch represent Indian actuality in their marketing; stolen Indian designs and names don’t bum people out as much as what those designs and names signify (and on a more philosophical level, how those designs and names engender and create). On a more uplifting note, do we not get to see Indigenous people laughing, thriving, and living contemporary lives?

One of my fantastic graduate students, Temryss Xeli'tia Lane(Lummi), has been writing about the significance of indigenous people seeing themselves in the media, particularly in sports related media (in ways other than being a mascot). She introduced me to the works of scholars researching how media representations affect self-understanding. Lane’s thesis gains much from the writings of Leavitt, Covarrubias, Perez, and Fryberg (2015). And when I read these pieces in order to better understand my student’s claims, I saw in them something akin to Victor Masayevsa’s point in his 1992 film, “Imagining Indians.” Over twenty years ago, Masayesva (Hopi) was highlighting not just the problem of having stereotypes of Indians in Hollywood films, but also the problems of also having Native youth consuming these inaccurate images of themselves and their communities.

Similarly, in 2003 when I finished my first website with my Yoeme collaborators and I showed them a website where the default language was Yoeme, all the colors and designs derived from their ceremonial dress, the map avoided Spanish place names and represented their territory before colonization, and where the words (in Yoeme) spoke specifically of their struggles to defend water and land rights. While some of the political aspects may have been lost on the pre-adolescent kids, their eyes still lit up when they saw their own language and relatives on something as high tech as a website on the Internet. To see oneself included means that at least in a minimal way, one might belong.

For our photo shoot, we wanted to feature people who looked indigenous. But what does that mean? We had to explore how indigenous words on the classroom whiteboards would convey a space for indigenous language learning. I also wanted non-Natives in there as well to show the shared space and to convey allied perspectives. Plus, Indigenous language learning is something I truly feel is for everyone. I wanted to suggest indigenous identity with accessories and hairstyles, not simply with skin tone. But I also wanted the models to feel comfortable as they were. So I invited them to dress as they wish to be seen. After all, I wanted the photos to show real indigenous people as they engage technology normally. I aimed for a set of photos that helped the website, and that helped future generations.

Dr. Mishuana Goeman points to the significance of showing a wide array of how indigenous people look. Goeman (Tonawanda Seneca) brought her teenage son to the photo shoot and later expressed to me, “I like the element of surprise and the different shades of people represented that day. Representation of all nature might move us toward better esteem in our communities and youth more committed to indigenous issues. If youth were excluded because of the way they look, why would they feel moved to engage community in their delicate, most vulnerable years? We only hurt ourselves by excluding those who do not look like that ‘real’ Indian image.”

Clementine Bordeaux (Rosebud Lakota Oyate) perfectly accentuates the contrast between Indians represented as living in the past and the importance of understanding that future is Native: “The rest of society wants us to live in the past and be accountable to the historical images of Indigenous people and we want to be present day, futuristic, seven generations later indigenous people. I’m glad I could participate in that image making, it is not only Indigenous futurisms… but Indigenous every day.”

One of the models that day was an African American doctoral student studying the application of settler colonial theory to the choreographic practices and histories of labor across the South Asian and African American diaspora. Alessandra Williams (soon to be Dr. Williams) found an articulate and insightful way of thinking about her modeling with Indigenous people that day:

As an ally to the political struggles of indigenous people, I find the presence of non-native persons in the images to be a demonstration of the critical ways that non-native people can be engaged in work that focuses on indigenous visibility. By positioning non-native persons in spaces such as indigenous language instruction and technology, we begin to open our worldview to the fact that non-indigenous persons are best fitted to support indigenous self-determination rather than to be merely infatuated with indigenous people's spirituality. In the case of the Wiki for Indigenous Languages, this alliance leads to solidarity with indigenous communities' ownership and circulation of the kinds of knowledge frameworks that settler colonial politics intend to eliminate.

Clearly, some gracious and brilliant women surround me. And I have featured their full expressions, rather than snippets, to share how they understood the power of the photo shoot.

Including indigenous people in something as simple as stock photos enables us to share temporality, to share the conundrums and pleasures of modern life. To have our sitcoms, films, and theaters reflect not just the lives we lead but the lives we want to live, we have to insist that they show us in a variety of situations, including engaging capitalism and consumerism. The exciting work coming out in indigenous gaming, science fiction, and digital humanities will tell us much about the costs of exclusion and the real ways that visibility might foster vitality.

David Shorter is a professor and vice-chair of the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at the University of California in Los Angeles. In addition to his scholarly writing, he has made a documentary film and created several websites relating to indigenous cultures and language. Dr. Shorter has recently become the director of the Archive of Traditional Medicine, a web-based database for plants, songs, baskets, rituals, and foods that heal. 

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