Online Place-Making in Virtual Communities: Digitizing Indigenous Resistance

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Global resistance movements for today’s Indigenous communities are well attuned to the geopolitical terrain of sovereignty as one “submerged beneath the settler colonial world.”1 Yet, an emergence of digital resistance to colonial violence provides a creative pathway to acknowledge how Indigenous lifeways are being (re)invented across online networks, resulting in strategies for decolonial, cross-cultural development. Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew writes in “Drumbeats to Drumbytes” that the digital realm provides Indigenous communities with an autonomous platform to assert an online presence in the face of colonial catastrophe:

To govern ourselves means to govern our stories and our ways of telling stories. It means that the rhythm of the drumbeat, the language of smoke signals and our moccasin telegraph can be transformed to the airwaves and modems of our times. We can determine our use of the new technologies to support, strengthen and enrich our cultural communities.2

For example, Facebook check-ins, Twitter hashtags, Instagram stories, YouTube channels, blogs, vlogs, zines, and listservs all function as some of the most publicly accessible place-making platforms that (re)center and (re)circulate Indigenous issues into the public consciousness. In 2016, more than one million people used Facebook to “check into” Standing Rock to stand with water protectors in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction on sacred Lakota Sioux lands; approximately 650,000 followers of Brazil’s Indigenous activist network, Articulacão dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil, consistently respond to online signature campaigns to protest President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous, pro-agribusiness political agenda (For reference, in 2015 Bolsonaro stated, “There is no Indigenous territory where there aren’t minerals. Gold, tin and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world. I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians.”);3 and in Australia, more than 9,000 miles away, the country’s Stolen Generations4 have organized a multi-organizational network of social support as survivors work to relocate their families across ancestral lands.

In these examples and beyond, organizing across digital spaces demonstrates a creative agency that is reflective of a reclaimed self-determination – a self-determination that is both defined by and affected by relationships to space and place. As Indigenous lands are invaded, occupied, and re-settled by imperial and colonial forces, Indigenous peoples have found ways to make place and place-make in alternative spaces of being and communing. The emergence of new technologies allows for Indigenous adaptability and resistance as media environments become virtual spaces of autonomous control. The digitization of resistance indicates how Indigenous groups are actively incorporating the virtual world as a methodology of creative production. Digital technologies provide an opportunity to “promote, renew, and enrich”5 Indigenous ideologies, meaning that these networks provide new platforms to exert a virtual sovereignty.

I argue that Indigenous communities who engage in these types of digital place-making practices contribute to a unique space of virtual organizing; a concept constitutive of a “digital diaspora.” Though this term is not a new phenomenon, its theorization is quite sparse. Jennifer Brinkerhoff, a scholar of public administration and international affairs, is one of the few theorists to explore digital diasporas, defining the term as “immigrants who still feel a connection to their country of origin [and]use the internet . . . to improve . . . quality of life in the host society and contribute to socioeconomic development in the homeland.”6 Brinkerhoff’s work makes clear that digital diasporas are intended to be temporary coalitions, or ones that will eventually dissolve as diasporic communities are integrated into the hostland. However, within a critical rhetorical perspective, digital diasporas provide new insight into the digitization of postcolonial theory and the fight against Empire. Shifting our understanding of digital diasporas away from its presumed reliance on the hostland and towards its own self-determined existence renders the term as an electronic unit of dissent that actively works to communicate resistance across a borderless space. Diasporas are by definition a group of displaced peoples, so it’s tremendously important to think about digital platforms in relation to the invasion of physical lands, and the symbolic reclamation of digital space.

Analyzing digital diasporas as a theoretical concept reorients the rhetorics of decolonial resistance towards the digital realm, looking to technology as a way to record and broadcast Indigenous narratives across a new space of occupation. As these diasporic groups congregate across virtual hubs for ideological networking, Indigenous groups partake in what Cherokee sociologist Eva Marie Garroutte terms “indigenism” – the communal influence one another towards substantial decolonization efforts.7 Thus, Indigenous groups may leverage their digital connectivity to serve profound ends, resisting and dismantling settler power structures that disrupt and threaten their community lifeways. Cheryl L’Hirondelle reminds:

As we move forward into virtual domains we too are sneaking up and setting up camp — making this virtual and technologically mediated domain our own. However, we stake a claim here too as being an intrinsic part of this place — the very roots, or more appropriately routes. So, let’s use our collective Indigenous unconscious to remember our contributions and the physical beginnings that were pivotal in how this virtual reality was constructed.8

Indeed, indigenous-led resistance movements must be strategic in the ways in which they share, analyze, and learn from one another. Indigenism encourages the entwinement of ideological positions in a responsive framework of re/action so that a unified global resistance movement may emerge; one that is informed by Indigenous networks that quite literally move across the digital ether. These diasporas serve as evolving bodies of knowledge that inform both large-scale social change as well as micro-political regional movements, such that we can see how ideologies flow and circulate in response to social injustices.

Recognizing and circulating these Indigenous practices, vocabularies, and rhetorical concepts is absolutely essential, especially as we work towards the active decolonization of our field. This, too, is critical for my own identity as a White Westerner and a Global North settler. Recognizing my power as a “dominant” and “majority” scholar, I find it particularly important to note how my positionality affords me both privilege and power to (more) freely critique various modes of structural oppression, especially within the realm of social justice research. On a disciplinary level, this unearned privilege means that non-marginalized allies must grapple with their colonial histories as academics as well as political citizens. If we are to be fully complicit in the struggle against Empire, then we must, first, recognize our positionalities as a type of radical self-reflexivity before moving towards accomplice-building work that foregrounds BIPOC9 rhetorical practices as normalized, critical interventions. As Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy confirms, “The only thing worth globalizing is dissent.”10

Footnotes:

(1) Adam Barker, “Already Occupied: Indigenous Peoples, Settler Colonialism and the Occupy Movements in North America,” Social Movement Studies 11, no. 3/4 (2012): 329.

(2) Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, “Drumbeats to Drumbytes Origins,” Drumbytes, last accessed March 30, 2019, http://drumbytes.org/about/origins-1994.php

(3) Antonio Marques and Leonardo Rocha, “Bolsonaro Diz Que OAB Só Defende Bandido e Reserva Indígena é um Crime,” Campo Grande News, April 22, 2015, https://www.campograndenews.com.br/politica/bolsonaro-diz-que-oab-so-defende-bandido-e-reserva-indigena-e-um-crime

(4) The Stolen Generations refers to 190,000 Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families and placed into institutional foster care systems by the Australian government between 1869 and 1975.

(5) Editorial Board, “Digital Technology for Indigenous Empowerment,” Christensen Fund, September 5, 2012, https://www.christensenfund.org/2012/09/05/digital-technology-for-indigenous-empowerment/

(6) Jennifer Brinkerhoff, Digital Diasporas: Identity and Transnational Engagement (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), i.

(7) Eva Marie Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

(8) Cheryl L’Hirondelle, “Codetalkers Recounting Signals of Survival,” in >Coded Territories: Tracing Indigenous Pathways in New Media Art, eds. Steven Loft and Kerry Swanson (Calgary: Calgary University Press, 2016), 160.

(9) Acronym for Black, Indigenous, People of Color

(10) Arundhati Roy, The End of Imagination (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 193.

About Author(s)

" Rachel Presley is an Assistant Professor of Rhetorical Theory in the Department of Writing Studies and the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. As a critical rhetorician with training in cultural studies and political philosophy, her primary research interests engage issues of social movement and resistance rhetorics, (trans)national citizenship and belonging, and postcolonial/decolonial/anticolonial theory."

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