SENSIBLE CULTURE

sensory, material, & digital anthropology

Remixes and Revolutions: Review of The New School’s Indigenous New Media Symposium

The School of Media Studies at the New School, NY, hosted an Indigenous New Media Symposium on February 21, 2014. The symposium brought together indigenous activists and media creators with the intention of interrogating the role of media within Native American and First Nation communities today. Speakers unpacked ideas of creative political practices and tangible social impact, exploring how media can (1) facilitate internal knowledge sharing and political organization, (2) challenge and deconstruct dominant colonialist discourses and histories, (3) provide spaces to reconstruct indigeneity, and (4) help develop positive representations of what it means to be Native.

Buying out of stereotypes

The first two speakers, Adrienne Keene and Jessica Metcalfe, run blogs that critique mainstream representations of Native culture. Keene’s ‘Native Appropriations’ systematically deconstructs the ways indigeneity is represented and repackaged for non-Native consumption, from the ‘hipster headdress’ to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. Some of these appropriations are especially problematic, like ‘Trail of Tears’ fireworks or Paul Frank’s powwow-themed Dream Catchin’ party in 2012, where guests were given glow-in-the-dark war paint and tomahawks so they could playfully scalp each other. Metcalfe joins Keene in critiquing these particularly abrasive cultural moments in her blog ‘Beyond Buckskin,’ but she divides her focus between tearing down misrepresentations and building up on the work of Native fashion designers. Metcalfe interviews and profiles Native artists like Matika Wilbur and Caroline Blechert, and in 2012 opened ‘Beyond Buckskin Boutique,’ an online store that sells high-end jewelry, clothing, and accessories made by Native designers. This offers an alternative to buying into mainstream stereotypes of Nativeness, giving indigenous artists the chance to define what ‘Native’ looks like.

Native Appropriations and Beyond Buckskin both underscore the power of a few voices speaking out against the mainstream. As they deconstruct representations of First Nations culture, they raise awareness about these often overlooked and highly problematic cultural appropriations. At the same time they encourage others to speak out, teaching people how to articulate why these images feel so wrong and providing them with resources and support to join the discussion. As Keene and Metcalfe demonstrate, speaking out can influence the decisions and behaviors of corporations. Over the past several years, companies from Victoria’s Secret to the Gap have responded to online criticisms from Native activists by issuing formal apologies, removing content or stopping a campaign, and, as in the case of Paul Frank, asking to collaborate with Native artists.

‘Everything we do is political’

Jarrett Martineau, co-founder of ‘Revolutions Per Minute’ and head of the blog ‘Decolonizing Media,” moved the discussion more squarely into the realm of political activism. Martineau opened with a quote from DJ NDN from A Tribe Called Red: ‘As First Nations People, everything we do is political.’ In this context, indigenous art is ‘always a contestation of colonialism,’ and the roles of indigenous media lie in foregrounding the Native experience of being a colonized people. Drawing upon Eduardo Nava’s remix theory, Martineau explored the political implications and impacts of remixing culture, citing Sonny Assu’s Coke – Salish as an example (the piece remixes the Coca-Cola logo to comment on processes of ethnic commodification, consumer capitalism, and pop culture among First Nations peoples).

http://collection-online.moa.ubc.ca/collection-online/search/item?item=37702

Sony Assu’s Coke Salish (2006). Image courtesy of UBC Museum of Anthropology.

As Native art is inherently political, so is indigenous social media. Not only do digital platforms provide new spaces for creative political remixes, but they also offer new pathways of circulation. When members of the Elsipogtog First Nation protested before a fracking project near New Brunswick, Canada, in October 2013, a picture was taken of a young woman holding out a feather before a line of advancing policemen. After the protest turned violent, this image was circulated online and was remixed widely, with many people changing the image to make it their own. These works range from beautiful to tongue-in-cheek, but all make a political statement, reasserting Native presence and strength in the 21st century. 

http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/yourcommunity/2013/10/anti-fracking-protest-images-spread-far-beyond-new-brunswick-origins.html; http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/11/21/woman-eagle-feather-photo-heard-round-world-152357

Images from Elsipogtog protest in New Brunswick, Canada, October 2013. Courtesy of the Candian Boradcasting Corporation and Indian Country Today.

‘Make Mother Earth your home page’

The final panelist was Chase Iron Eyes, social activist and founder of the blog ‘Last Real Indians.’ Chase Iron Eyes was the only speaker to directly interrogate the meanings of ‘indigenous’ and ‘media,’ offering an expansive definition of both concepts. For him, ‘indigenous’ refers to anyone who receives gifts and knowledge from the natural world, while ‘media’ encompasses any way of communicating meaning or connection, from contemporary digital media to more traditional forms like song, dance, animals, seasons, and dreams. Bringing these concepts together, he argued that ‘indigenous media’ are media that strengthen connections between body and mind. In today’s consumer-driven society these connections are constantly weakened, emphasizing the significance of indigenous media not only for Native communities, but for non-Natives as well. It becomes a way to reconnect spirit and body and make what we do online meaningful by restoring the human stories and connections that bring us together. It’s about ‘making Mother Earth your homepage,’ although Chase Iron Eyes was unclear about how that can be done.

Clayton Thomas-Muller, organizer for Defenders of the Land & Idle No More, was also scheduled to speak, but arrived at quite literally the last minute, held up by flight delays. In the spirit of the conference, as the symposium was under way, he sent in a short video he recorded on the plane. In addition to noting how social media has been revolutionizing indigenous activism through movements like Idle No More, he noted that media is normalizing conversations through the US and Canada about our controversial colonial pasts.

Emergent Themes

Throughout the symposium, it was unclear what distinguished ‘indigenous new media’ from ‘new media.’ Is it that indigenous new media is being used by indigenous people, or that it serves as a tool to benefit Native communities? Does it have to do with flows of communication between online and offline forums? Or is it something more, perhaps linked to Chase Iron Eyes’ call to restore human connections through more meaningful use of media? Each speaker implied a different set of assumptions around the theme of indigenous new media, but community, representation, political activism, and challenging the mainstream emerged as common threads.

1. COMMUNITY: New media provides platforms for indigenous communities to forge new connections both nationally and globally. In addition to this expansive (and difficult to define) ‘global community,’ new media supports more focused communications between Native activists and allies.

2. REPRESENTATION: As Keene and Metcalfe showed, mainstream representations of Native identities are usually produced by non-Natives, often with (unintentionally) offensive effects. Although new media can’t fix this on its own, it is a powerful tool that First Nations peoples can use to reject stereotypes and take control over their own representations. It can also be a powerful platform to educate internally, providing people with resources and support to contend these representations.

3. POLITICAL ACTIVISM: New Media is also a powerful tool for activism. Organizations like Idle No More have shown how online networks can provide forums for Native activists to organize offline protests and rallies. Additionally, Keene noted that she feels more comfortable having difficult conversations or calling someone out online. This speaks to the power of social media to create safe spaces for political dialogue and to empower people to speak out.

4. CHALLENGING THE MAINSTREAM: On a deeper level, indigenous new media challenges underlying issues of colonialism and Western dominance. New media can offer ways to circulate counter-narratives and alternative histories within Native communities, and can also start generating conversation at a national level. Although generating conversation is certainly not enough, the speakers emphasized the importance of national dialogue as a first step to challenging colonial structures of power and representation.

Forward Directions

By the end of the conference, the speakers had positioned indigenous new media as a powerful tool to advance indigenous issues and raise awareness in both Native and non-Native communities. But the future of indigenous new media remains unclear, and panelists and audience members alike raised many questions about the directions in which it’s heading. Is there an end goal for indigenous media? Several panelists noted the power of new media to contribute to a new norm, in which Native issues can be openly discussed in mainstream media, and topics like colonialism and land rights can be directly addressed. Other panelists reminded us that indigenous peoples are still fighting for basic rights and freedoms in North America, and new media is part of this effort. In South Dakota, every year hundreds of Native children are still being forcibly removed from their homes. And struggles to reclaim lost land are ongoing across the country, as with an Indiegogo campaign to reclaim Pe’Sla, a Lakota Sioux sacred site. New media can help raise awareness around these cases and build networks of Native and non-Native allies for support. Moreover, as with Idle No More, they can catalyze offline events and protests, leveraging the fluidity between online and offline indigenous communities. In the end, perhaps it is these themes and causes that distinguish ‘indigenous’ new media, giving it an urgency and purpose that are absent from the mainstream.

Finally, the overwhelming sentiment throughout the symposium was ‘we need more.’ More blogs, more forums for community organization, more events to bring people together, more everything. While each speaker echoed this idea, Jessica Metcalfe expressed it most powerfully through a metaphor she remembered from her childhood:

“In a field, if one blade of grass grows taller than the rest, the wind hits it harder than the others, but if many blades of grass grow tall, they make it easier for each other to brave the wind. When one person stands up alone, you are like the blade of grass, but when we stand together, it’s a powerful thing.” 

by ELIANA RITTS

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