Digital natives and Native digits
  • Prompted by @adelinekoh, I'd like to follow up on @ssenier's question about the ethics of digitizing indigenous artifacts, and their implications for museums and other collecting institutions.
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  • I've heard numerous horror stories of museums and archives appropriating indigenous artifacts in ways completely at odds with their cultural significance. Here are some successes.

    First, two projects (lead developer @CraigDietrich) that respect Native norms for sharing artifacts, which in this case privilege social connection over disconnection:

    Mukurtu Archive
    Plateau People's Web Portal

    The Mukurtu Archive is a CMS based on the Warumungu community "dillybag," an archival alternative to DRM that respects non-Euroethnic cultural protocols. The Plateau People's Web Portal extends that respect for community norms of sharing to natives of the American West.

    The structure of the Mukurtu database is no pidgeonholing of Native culture into familiar museological categories, but an embodiment of the nuanced Warumungu social fabric in digital form. To American eyes, it may seem that restricting access to a given photograph by gender, locale, or clan is exclusive. In practice, however, as accessed via the Tenant Creek terminal in the Australian bush, the Archive's constraints actually spur increased social contact. If an aboriginal creator were to upload a photo to Flickr under a Creative Commons license, she would have no way to find out who viewed or reused it. But if a village elder has a photo in the Mukurtu Archive, her grandson will ask her to join him at the keyboard so he can see images of relatives he might not otherwise be able to view.

    Related projects include the Wiki for Indigenous Languages, coordinated by David Shorter, and the  Passamaquoddy Living Language System, developed by Ian Larson and Sam Hunting with @JolineBlais.

    Blais describes the connection between digital practices and the sharing ethic of many indigenous peoples in her essay "Indigenous Domain: Pilgrims, Permaculture, and Perl."

    As legal scholar Wendy Seltzer puts it, "Rather than fight copyright norms with bad code, we should learn from the Warumungu and build code (and law) to support social practice."
  • These are such smart, ethical approaches. Thanks for sharing, @jonippolito. This is not my area of study, so I'm curious to know whether there are digital projects that are replicating culturally problematic museum/archive approaches towards indigenous peoples. Or, is the digital a kind of democratizing (that's not really the right word I'm looking for) or open space to be flexible/inventive outside of the institution of the physical museum or archive? What your description of the Mukurtu Archive reminds me of is that sometimes we can accomplish through manipulation of digital forms that are not practically achievable (or, perhaps are simply not going to happen) in meatspace. 
  • Is anyone else bothered because the colonial implications of the term "digital native" haven't been sufficiently problematized? I find it problematic because it is so often used in discussions aimed at K-12 teachers and Higher Ed instructors as a constant reminder of how "they" (our students) are different from "us" (as instructors), and the assumption is we not only need to meet "them" on their terms, but that then we will somehow enlighten "them" with our Luddite knowledge or ideas despite "their" laziness or over-reliance on "their" tools? I find this patronizing to both students in general and native peoples who are somehow implicated in this bizarre rationalization.
  • Unfortunately, @rrisam, I think museums have pursued plenty of problematic approaches to archiving indigenous culture, though I believe they long predate the digital era. Mounted in a glass vitrine against a white wall, a Maori canoe prow in the Oceania wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art becomes a Modernist sculpture rather than an emblem designed to scare the bejesus out of Maori enemies.

    While I've seen them misused for colonial ends, digital media afford a both/and logic that makes them attractive to anyone who wants to multiply rather than restrict interpretations about objects. For example, I believe augmented reality, whereby you see data overlaid on an object viewed through the camera on your mobile phone, can offer more perspectives than a wall text. Plus you can turn it off :)

    @VivianHalloran, I hear your frustration. I believe the term originated in John Perry Barlow's claim (from the 1990s?) that "We are immigrants to cyberspace; our children are natives." Despite its questionable connection to actual indigenous people, I read Barlow's metaphor of the digital native in a positive light, as a way to acknowledge the talents our students bring to the classroom.

    Of course our students can learn from our experience as elders. But I am saddened to see how many of my colleagues refuse to give students their due simply because they haven't read Derrida or taken a proper Computer Science course. The Wabanaki people in my region build their longhouse around the children--not just to protect them, but to let their genius shine.

    Does this jibe with your experience as an instructor? Have you seen ways that students' fluency with digital tools can help or hurt the learning process?
  • @Vivianhalloran, I have felt the same way about digital "natives," though from what I understand, it's being used in the linguistic mode (native speakers), not with colonial intentions, FWIW. It still gives me pause and sets my colonial language detector off. I really like your analysis of the us/them narrative that "digital natives" encourages. I would add that the rhetoric of "digital natives" makes a lot of presumptions about class (and, in turn, race - given the relationship between socio-economic disparities and race in the United States). For example, I am about to start teaching at an institution that's very different from the place I did my PhD - going from a private university to a state university. When I consider the sorts of digital work I might incorporate into my courses, I wonder if I can presume that each of my students will own a personal computer (or that it'll be working or have an up-to-date operating system). A lot of my students are working their way through college, so what kind of access will they have to the university's computer labs if they don't have their own computer? I didn't think of these things very often at my PhD institution where most of our students lived on campus with 24/7 walking distance access to computer labs or the library. Aside from these material concerns, my anecdotal experience is that we may be grossly overstating the "digital native" experience. I agree, in some respects, with the argument that facility with technology is something our students or millennials have grown up with and that it's irrefutably changing the way they think, write, and process information (of course we can bring the class/race critique back in to ensure we're not presuming a white, middle to upper-middle class experience of all our students). On the other hand, at my PhD institution, I found that most students weren't on the cutting edge of technology, weren't early adopters, and hadn't heard of things like Twitter or Google Docs - apps that are very ordinary to me because I use them all the time. Since I'm a prof of English education as well as world literature (and a bit of a pedagogy geek), I've been thinking a lot about the issue of how students learn and how its affected by technology, both at the secondary level and in higher ed. I often think the rhetoric of "digital natives" is perhaps getting it wrong.
  • reply one: on the phrase "digital natives." (on the substance I agree with Roopika's comment above wholeheartedly).

    part of what really concerns me about the portrayal (or the background assumption) of the digital world as socially progressive, or hospitable to the left, and so on, is its easy adoption of terminology that many of us working in these areas prior to the digital have worked so hard to resist. not just "native," but "literacy," "development," and quite a few others. it reminds me of the cruel use of "gay" to mean "unacceptable" or "bad" or "not masculine" in so much of culture (especially youth culture) today. these are indicative of backwards movement in the cultural sphere, not forward. That is not to say that today's youth are more homophobic than young people were two decades ago--I think there is statistical evidence suggesting otherwise--but there is something very troubling about the easy acceptance of such negatively-charged terminology.

    I will reiterate that I said "reminds me"--I don't think that those who say "digital native" have anywhere near as overtly cruel a mindset as teenagers saying "gay" to mean "bad"--but it's somewhere on the same spectrum.
  • reply two: on the question of indigenous resources in DH.

    This is part of the topic of my DHPoco blog post, "Postcolonial Studies, Digital Humanities, and the Politics of Language," I agree with much of what Jon Ippolito writes, but I think it misses a bit of the major crux that this issue raises for DH. What we normally call "humanities" work is being openly done as a part of ordinary digital resource development in many indigenous communities worldwide. In addition to the resources Jon mentions for Australia, one might also look (among many, many others) at indigenous government sites (, the ABC Indigenous site (, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Islander Studies (, and the many links these lead to, some created by the communities, some created by other interested parties.

    None of these, or the resources Jon mentions, are labeled DH as far as I can tell.

    This is why the "definition" problem in DH is so troubling. Because DH is, in my opinion, more a marketing/labeling movement than an actual academic discipline, what "counts" and what "does not count' has much more to do with labeling than with the nature of the actual work. Humanities work in aboriginal and indigenous communities worldwide has many other funding streams than DH. In most cases, they simply do not need us. We need them, mostly to make our label look less white, male, etc. That is really ugly, and it's a consequence of how (at least some of) the people who created DH chose to craft their enterprise.

    I am interested in proposals for how to "fix" this situation, as I don't really see what to do about it without a radical reframing of the DH project (which I advocate anyway, & which DHPoco is trying to do).  
  • @dgolumbia - you have much more masterfully articulated what I was trying to say last week about "what counts" in DH. 

    I think that even thought they can do "just fine" w/o DH, can DH do "just fine" w/o them? What I mean is less about DH appearing less white, but about DH becoming hardened (and thus my comment about not being open). I do think DH needs pocoDH more than we need them, but for different reasons: diversity of perspective and approach matters. 

    AS for your comment about Digital Natives, the rejection of the label can be a source of identity for youth, as well. For example, where I work (which sounds a little like the situation Roopika is about to enter, although WAY more Southern and rural), many students reject social media and other forms of technology "on principle," kinda like embracing the term redneck as a giant middle-finger from middle America. Rather than being ashamed of not being able to afford a computer or coming from a place where high-speed internet doesn't yet reach, these students embrace it as part of their identities, who they are and where they come from. 

    But also these students have seen first-hand how badly tech can be used, as well as how much drama it can bring. Rarely has technology been used in a creative or engaging way in schools, they haven't had access in the home, and what access they may have (social media through their phones) have lead to much, much drama that they are looking to avoid or escape when they change their place and head to college. 

    Not sure how this fits into the question of "race" (as the region my university serves is White as White can be), but it does raise some interesting questions about identity formation and what we expect from "youth" of different socio-economic and (as Roopika as points out) racial backgrounds. Is forcing our students to use technology doing them a service or forcing our own techno-utopian vision for them onto them? I don't want my students to remain "ignorant" (for lack of a better word right now) of the possibilities of technology, but most of them are looking at this from a strictly cost-benefit analysis, and if they are returning to the same economically depressed area w/o wifi, then what purpose does learning all these fancy tools serve? 

    We need to step back, I think, and start asking, what would YOU like to do, and then figure out a way to help them accomplish it using tech. Maybe that's what we're already doing (I'm sure a lot of us are). But is it enough? 
  • A couple of quick comments...

    For those who use it, two FaceBook groups of possible interest here:
    This is the IFLA SIG on Indigenous Matters
    A group seeking to build an Ethnic Studies Digital Archive

    and lastly,
    The Postcolonial Digital Humanities Group

  • Jon mentions Mukurtu (which I first learned of at last year's IFLA conference and the SIG on Indigenous Matters), but one must remember that when we look at the question of Native practices, there is no one all-encompassing set of practices.

    That has been a lesson I have been learning this past year in Alaska. The diversity of Native cultural practice displayed here has become evident in the manner in which oral histories are handled at my institution. Put simply, not all Native groups see what Euroethnics describe as "culture" in the same manner across the Native groups. That is to say that groups in Southwest Alaska do not necessarily view the use of culture in the same manner that groups from the Southeast or North Slope do ...

    We need to be careful in crafting solutions that they are as localized as possible ...
  • Eesh! I just wrote a loooong comment and hit delete by mistake! I will see if I want to rewrite the entire thing, but for now let me say that I find this discussion very very useful and provocative; a lot of good things can come of it.

    Roopika and A: As DH scholars, maybe we should have a "save" function on the comment box! I cannot believe that I just lost a paragraph just like that...poof!
  • My bad! sorry for not noticing the "save draft" right before my eyes. qualified am I to be part of DH?!
  • @ReadyWriting I have a habit of commenting on your posts. Thank you for giving me so much to think about.

    I have to agree with your assessment of the term "digital native." I find that this term can be very problematic, particularly because it creates an insider/outsider dichotomy that are often inaccurate. For example, a young person may not have grown up with access to internet/media/etc, but an older person (like my very tech savvy grandmother whose career was to do all the data entry for my grandfather's insurance firm) may have expansive knowledge of using digital tools. Yet, based on our cultural perceptions, we would likely label the young person a "digital native" and the older person a "convert" or "non-native." Not only does this skew our cultural perceptions (perhaps reinforcing the latent ageism that makes up the American social ideology), but it does seem to suggest that the "digital natives," whoever that may be, are "enlightened" individuals who need to "reform" the "savage" practices of non-natives.

    In fact, the term "digital native" reminds me of our conversation regarding the word "Caucasian": both are loaded terms that are overused and ambiguous. It seems that we use both terms to create divides between insiders and outsiders, but the labels are more a product of perception than of reality.

    Moreover, the term "digital native" ignores issues such as access:"\\ It seems, therefore, that the term "digital native" is a way of masking, rather than addressing, the larger problems with digital culture.
  • Navigating these issues can be tricky. Anyone who treads in indigenous media runs the risk of offending ethnic group X or overinvesting in technology Y. Despite my own missteps, I've concluded that it's better to stumble through hours of awkward dialogue rather than ignore indigenous communities and the lessons they have for me.

    For some scholars, "digital humanities" seems to be a marketing term designed to attract funding to undernourished parts of today's universities. I don't really care, as long as I can use this vapid phrase to pry complacent bookworms out of their armchairs and into action. Likewise, I'll wield a throwaway term like "digital natives" if it forces hidebound academics to recognize the inspiring work of young people, whether it's Aaron Schwarz opening JSTOR to the world, or Ian Larson helping unite Passamaquoddy elders and grandkids, or Adam Liszkiewicz giving tenants access to fair housing.

    I have not had the experience of "forcing technology on young people" that I hear others sharing in this thread. I work with poor students in a rural state who haven't got a chance in hell in competing with ivy leaguers when it comes to writing essays on Chaucer. They may not have my conceptual grasp and historical purview of digital media, but each and every one of them knows something about these tools that I don't. And all of them know more than the former roommates I met at a recent reunion for my fancy-pants college, most of whom can't figure out how to work their smartphones. My job is to help those 20-year-olds see the big problems around them and use their aptitudes to design solutions for their local and global communities.

    So when those communities include indigenous groups, how do we encourage ethical, rather than colonial, engagement--for young and old?

    One approach is the Cross-Cultural Partnership, a legal framework that draws on both Euroethnic and indigenous law to build bridges across cultural divides. It's flexible enough to apply to musicians who want to sample Cree chants, health providers who want to use Amazonian medicines, or anthropologists who want to study villages in Papua New Guinea. Just as the GPL offered a license that enabled open-source software to thrive amidst hostile copyright precedents, so the Cross-Cultural Partnership provides a framework meant to encourage sharing in the context of distrust.

    Does anyone know of other ethical standards for boundary-crossing, and their advantages and weaknesses?

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