Race & Ethnicity


3 August 1993


Dr. George D. Baldwin
Henderson State University

This paper is a historical and sociological discussion about emerging computer-mediated communication networks (CMC) used by Indian people and tribal organizations. Throughout the work social policy implications related to Indian access to the INTERNET and the public network information resources located within it. The writer asks your indulgence as he presents a thumbnail history of the role of communication technologies (film, radio, press, television and telephone) in the evolution of modern American Indian or Alaskan Native societies. By consulting this historical perspective readers may better understand the attitudes of Native people toward the emerging national information superhighway and what this means for the survival of tribal cultures in the future.

Communication Technology and Indian Culture

At the time of the European invasion, a system of communication existed among the Native people of the Americas. In North America intertribal communication was based on the spoken word or sign language and was transmitted by Indian runners. These Tribal Messengers functioned to carry news between tribes.

In Central and South America communication systems existed for the advanced civilizations that prospered there. These networks included data encoded symbolically by various means. Delivered by runners over well engineered roadways, the "moccasin telegraph" was a highly developed communication network. The networks of the past were far more complex than the smoke signals portrayed in Hollywood movies!

Tribal networks were augmented in speed and range by the adoption of a radical new transportation technology called "the horse". With the deployment of the horse the moccasin telegraph was extended in speed and distance, but communication was still primarily word-of-mouth. White expansionism, the Indian Wars, and the advent of the reservation system took their toll. Restricted movement and rural isolation effectively limited the communication that Indians received about themselves as well as the information they received about dominant society.

As the 1800's progressed, there was an acceleration in the distribution of text-based communications within the dominant European culture. Sources of media- generally newspapers- competed for specialized information markets and helped to create what we now recognize as a growing "culture of informa- tion". The lack of text-based information on reservations (i.e. newspapers and libraries) combined synergistically with the low literacy level of Indian people to create a society of information poverty. This form of poverty contributed to the tribes' long-term dependency on the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the management of their day-to-day relationships with the outside world. Poor communication connectivity, lack of information, and rural isolation conspired to prevent tribes from effectively organizing to resist the landslide of Western civilization.

Thus one can argue that the European invasion of the New World was successful, in part, to the rapid evolution of communication technologies and popular access to the information encoded there-in. Brown (1989) noted that in the late 1700's most information (in Western society) was communicated face-to-face where..."public information and learning generally flowed from the upper reaches of society downward to the common people- a hierarchical diffusion pattern" (p. 280). A change in the role of print and the way it was distributed improved the access that Europeans had to information.

Advanced transportation technologies (the horse, sailboat, train, etc.), combined with the advent of the telegraph to revolutionize the rate of information exchange across distances. However, face-to-face communication remained the primary mode of information exchange for Native people for several generations longer than found in the dominant culture.

Indian adaptation of western communication medium was actively resisted by the invading society. For example, the first reported use of a tribally owned newspaper occurred in 1828. A story in itself, the Cherokee Phoenix was more than just a newspaper; it (like Sequoyah) became a symbol of Cherokee literacy and cultural integrity. Cherokee literacy in their own written and spoken language soon exceeded that of white settlers in the same region of the Carolinas. It should be no surprise that the political and civic messages of cultural unity that were being delivered by the Cherokee press were found threatening by the surrounding anglo culture who coveted Indian land. Under President Jackson's administration the Cherokee Phoenix was destroyed by troops and Cherokee land given away by lottery. Forced on foot to the new Indian territory in Oklahoma, many lives were lost and literacy in spoken and written Cherokee has yet to be recovered to it's former level.

Radio and television came later to the reservations than to the rest of the country. The first "TV Generation" of Indian children have only recently reached adulthood; and many reservation communities and homes now have cable or satellite receivers. One might think that in today's more politically correct world Indian children would have escaped the stereotypical images drilled into all members of U.S. society by the western movies. Indian warriors attacking the workers who installed the telegraph wires; horseback attacks against steam locomotives and wagon trains; Wells Fargo and the Pony Express riders racing from certain death at the hands of murderous savages. It made for exciting movies but did little to promote positive personal identities for Indian youth ...or recommend career choices in the communication industries! Satellite distribution and cable T.V. have immortalized these movies with the invention of the "Western Channel". These images symbolized the European concept that "the West was wild" (like the Indians) and that modern communications were the tools for civilizing it.

In short, history shows that American Indians have not actively resisted the adoption of new communication technologies. In fact, just the opposite is true. Never-the-less, stereotypical images of Indian hostility toward communication technology still persist in the public's mind. Today we find that these images are still used and incorporated as political myth by the media campaigns of various special interest groups. Political actions groups create media campaigns which are used to manipulating public opinion and ultimately public policy.

Political myths are stories communicated by one's society that serve the functional purpose of conveying appropriate attitudes and behaviors to the members. The political myth embodied in the traditional media image of Indians focuses on the unchanging nature of the Indian's culture. By focusing the publics imagination on Indians as archaic history, the myth serves the function of discounting the significant social change that Indian culture has undergone... and the role that communication technology has played in this transformation. In this particular instance, the myth helps to gloss over the significant use that Indians have made in controlling their own communication and information technologies.

Special interest groups now manipulate the political myth for their own purposes. For example, the environmental movement bombards the public with video images of traditionally garbed tribal elders who stoically cry (one tear) while reflecting the pollution of our nations rivers. As politically correct as this image may seem, like State financed "Indian tourism" it foster a world view of tribal cultures that - in resisting technological change- either died or became an endangered species.

This stereotype clashes dramatically with the reality of tribal councilmen who are considering the use of reservation lands as storage for nuclear and medical waste. Or consider the tribal council that must choose between subcontractors who will design software that will integrate casino/ bingo operations with overall tribal budgets-- or the tribal planner utilizing a Geographic Information System to track development of tribal roads and industry.

Few of today's tribal leaders will disagree that the acculturation of Indian people continues; most of us working in communications fields would might even be hard pressed to explain how Native communications are "different" from the dominant media. Why should computer communication networks change any of this? Murphy and Murphy write "Indians have had to modify their culture by contact with the white culture, but they have not become absorbed. The adaptation of the "white man's media" to the Indians' needs is, yet another in- stance of such acculturation (p. 132). Computer networks are similarly being assimilated. Mass media communication theory predicts that in the act of media consumption (using computer-mediated communications) Native people will again find their view of self and society changing.

The very act of watching T.V. or listening to the radio is said to influence cultural change and self concepts. Native communication professionals insist that the message embedded in our minority media is (somehow) culturally different than that found in the dominant communication networks. Native communication professions assert that tribal people must struggle to preserve media content which reaffirms cultural values. The "electronic migration" of Indian people into our nation's growing infrastructure of computer communication networks thus presents itself as the latest chapter in the history of Native assimilation of communication technology..

Today information, which is the raw material of communication networks, is treated as marketable commodity. Stories about our ancestors, traditional myths, and particularly the cultural traditions related to protecting the ecology have become products for sale, as much as they are a force for social good. These stories, not surprisingly, are often written by non-Indian authors, scripted by non-Indian screen writers, and star non-Indians in Indian roles. Indian people, like Americans in general, have become consumers of information about themselves with few of us actively engaged in the production end of the economic equation.

The overwhelming presence of non-natives in the newsgroups and listserves of the INTERNET has made many Indian people passive viewers about conversations about themselves!


In stark contrast to this media image outlined earlier in this paper, today there are hundreds of tribally owned and operated newspapers, dozens of radio stations, and a growing number of Indian controlled communication compa- nies (see Murphy and Murphy). Computer networks are only now being recognized as a communication medium useful for Indian people. One must desert the fanciful thinking fostered by the "Western Channel" and see Indian people and organizations for what they are: readers must imagine Indian youth, academics, and scientists in locations all over the United States as they hover over glowing terminals, fingers flying on clicking keyboards.

Many of the Indian people communicate in this manner for hours each week. Some are collaborating with research teams, others are receiving in-service training for college credit, many are simply chatting with their friends at other BIA boarding schools. Collectively they have become active in an electronic "virtual ethnic community" which is worldwide in its membership.

Describing the boundary of this "virtual ethnic community" is difficult. The closest comparison that we have too it is the minority owned mass media, particularly radio and press. For example, tribally controlled papers and radio programs have been immensely popular with their audience, but must struggle to keep from being absorbed by larger communication corporations. Advances in computer communications have challenged the tribes to master even newer techniques for communication, and being "absorbed" in the chaos of communication still remains a problem.

Numerous listservs and bulletin board systems have developed distinct ethnic biases, a fact fairly well understood by those who use computer communication networks. The emergence of Jewish, Hispanic, Latino, Black, Gay and Lesbian as well as American Indian and Alaskan Native computer networks was, in retrospect, inevitable. Like radio and press, these communication formats must strive to maintain their ethnic identity and this is difficult within the politically open forum of the INTERNET and BITNET newsgroups and listservs.

The borders of these growing "virtual communities" are defined not so much by their geography, but by the interests of the participants, which in this case is focused on the real or imagined ethnicity of the user. Native networked communities include participants representing the children of the First Nations attending Canadian schools (Seaton, 1984) and Alaskan Native and American Indian junior high school students who attend reservation boarding schools. Graduate and undergraduate Indian college students and their professors from major colleges and universities are also on-line. Remarkably, tribal members relocated in urban areas or even Europe can communicate with their rural or reservation cousins!

The manifest functions of the majority of these CC networks has been to support education, research, and improve access to public data for tribal development. The latent function of these networks- as one "reads between the lines" is to promote and defend native cultural beliefs and values. Both of these functions can be discerned from the content of the written conversations. The participants, as well as their audience, represent a fascinating component of the pan-Indianism; the intertribal social movement where several tribes unite, usually to confront an enemy such as the federal government (Shaefer, 1990).

The content of the on-line discussions suggests that there is a growing agreement that the enemy to Native cultural survival is the increasingly ubiquitous Western world view promoted by the "transmedia intertextual phenomena of television, radio, press, and video games" (Kinder,1991). The phenomena of computer-mediated communication (CMC) networks as transmitters of cultural beliefs and values has not been studied as have been radio, television, and film media, but clearly minority groups are organizing within our nations growing computer communication infrastructure in a manner similar to earlier media.

Contrary to stereotypical images, American Indians and Alaskan Natives are not strangers to computer technology. Several social and economic forces have actually encouraged the growth of computer use in Indian populations. Perhaps the major force was the growth of an extensive government bureaucracy on reservations. The government offices acquired an infrastructure of PC's and mainframes and in turn these systems required trained clerks and managers to operate them. Federal funding supported both. As a result, tribes such as the Cherokee and Navajo has several mainframes each, and dozens of PCs. Numerous surveys of Indian organizations find that even our smallest groups invariably have a computer, printer, and telephone.

Indian boarding schools and reservation schools have a significant investment in computer hardware, primarily Apple II's (Pilz and Resta, 1991). The twenty-seven Indian colleges have even higher student-to-faculty computer ratios (American Indian Higher Education Consortium, 1992). These two studies tell us that the technological density (number of computers per person) is respectable in comparison to non-Indian schools.

The pedagogical use of these systems is generally not reported. As a consequence there are dozens of culturally supportive computer uses/projects nationwide with few of the Indian project directors aware of the work that others are involved in. There have been a few published reports on the pioneering uses of distance learning technologies for Native education. Most of these have not been as well documented and have been published by non-Indian organizations and principle investigators who received grants for demonstration projects which included an Indian school or organization as part of the required funding formula. Most grant writers intuitively understand the process of getting extra points in a proposal by including the statement "American Indians and Alaskan Natives". Such projects generally benefit the (non-Indian) institution that manages the grant and the non-Indian schools that make up the majority of the audience. Rarely is the curriculum material tailored to the Indian world view.

Some observes have noted that in the past policies which were intended to assist Indian/Alaskan Native to purchase information and communication technology were subverted and used primarily to benefit non-Indians. This has been referred to by one observer as "information carpetbagging" (Baldwin, 1992). One must wonder about the educational effectiveness of currently funded Star School Programs, the BIA's ENAN network, and the Mansfield Transcontinental Classroom... all of which have named Indian schools as beneficiaries in their projects.

As the National Research and Educational Network (NREN) develops, we can rest assured that a growing number of government services and information sources will be made available electronically. Like television, radio, and the telephone, computer communications will be necessary for commerce and education. If one ignores the access issue... which should not be ignored...How useful will these systems be for American Indians and their organizations? For example, FEDIX has become an easily accessible and usable 1-800 federal information service. Grants and funding sources are indexed for African Americans and women, but like most public database systems on the INTERNET nothing is indexed by the key term "American Indian or Alaskan Native". The INTERNET GOPHER will not find anything. There is, however, a number of listservs and one public FTP site at Cornell for storing and retrieving Indian information.

The act of using federal legislation as a tool to promote the use of communication technologies by minorities has occurred in a number of instances, for example the National American Indian Public Broadcasting Corporation and radio networks. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium was recently funded by the Dept. of Commerce to create a satellite video network. This approach to increasing the participation of Native people in communication media will likely welcome the pattern in the future. Bills which have been written for the general public may become modified by attaching an American Indian "entitlement".

Such entitlements are often misunderstood by the American public, again this is part of the political myth that Indians must struggle with. Entitlements are not handouts, they are earnings based on returns from historical contracts called treaties. American Indians are the only minorities mentioned by name in the constitution and congress made treaties with the tribes that guaranteed health care, education, housing, and an entire range of services. Many Indian leaders assert that these treaty-based earnings, broadly interpreted, must include electronic access to government agency databases and documents: access to computerized network information services.

Computerized Network Information Services (NIS) are the most recent communication technology to influence the direction of social change experienced by American Indians (Baldwin, 1992). NIS systems deliver text, graphics, audio, and video in digital form over various kinds of telecommunication carriers. There are at this time only a few NIS operated for, and sometimes by, American Indians. Like Indian newspapers, radio, and television broadcasts they meet the special needs of Indians and those who are interested in Indian affairs. How will these systems impact Native culture?

Sociologists and anthropologist have long argued that exposure to media, be it print or electronic, can doing nothing but facilitate the assimilation of those who view it. The groundswell of enthusiasm for using communication technologies to promote the Native world view seems to have ignored this fact. Projects currently being proposed include INDIANnet (Americans for Indian Opportunity), the American Indian Higher Education Telecommunication Network (for the 27 Indian colleges), and the National Museum of the American Indian's "Fourth Museum" concept. How do American Indians and Alaskan Natives feel about the new technologies?

The Native Communication Survey commissioned by the National Indian Policy Center found that the majority of the respondents reported uncritical acceptance of these technologies and the communication technologies ability to support the tribal communities beliefs. The respondents answers implied that the values expressed in the media are entirely in control of the producers, independent of the technology that delivered the message.

Native communication professionals also agree that in an increasingly unregulated telecommunication market where text, video, and radio have merged, they must take action to protect their self-interests. There is a growing agreement that tribal autonomy and self-determination can only be served if Indian people own a share of the communication infrastructure and become active producers of the information. For this to happen, Indian people must write and produce their own stories and films. They must manage and control their own communication companies. In today's world of emerging NIS, they must compile, distribute and control the organizations that create such information industries. This is the business of economic development in the age of information. Such development will produce careers for young Native people, many of whom have already demonstrated a remarkable ability to utilize computer technology within the context of tribal community values.

The changes to society wrought by communication technologies are profound. It is imperative that tribal policy makers begin to develop a critical perspective for understanding Network Information Systems, NREN, and information policy in order that we possess our share of the technology and shape it to our own needs. One of the first tasks in this process is to have tribal developers, educators, and leaders address the impact of this new technology by articulating values ... about the basic purpose of and uses that communication networks can have for Indian people.

The concern expressed by Indian leaders familiar with the media is that the vast potential will not be harnessed to promote cultural and economic progress but will perpetuate the historical subjugation of Indian people. We have been passive consumers of information about ourselves for to long.


Baldwin, George D.
1992 Networking the Nations: The Emerging Indian Network Information Systems. Journal of Navajo Education. Winter.

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Carey, John
1969 "The Communication Revolution and the Professional Communicator", Sociological Review Monograph, vol. 13, January, pp. 23-38.

Kinder, Marsha
1991 Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. University of California Press.

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1990 Telecommunications, Values, and the Public Interest. Ablex Publishing Corporation.

McPhail, Thomas L.
1987 Electronic Colonialism: The Future of International Broadcasting and Communication. Sage Publications.

Mander, Jerry
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Mosco, Vincent
1989 The Pay-Per Society: Computers and Communication in the Information Age. Ablex Pub. Co.

Murphy, James and, Sharon
1981 Let My People Know: American Indian Journalism, 1828- 1978. Univ. of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

National Indian Policy Center
1993 Native Communications Survey. The George Washington University. Summer.

Office of Technology Assessment
1990 Critical Connections: Communication for the Future. Congress of the United States. U.S. Govt. Printing Office.

Piltz, Arlie and Resta, Paul
1991 Planning Document for the National Museum of the American Indian and the Use of Technology. NMAI, The Smithsonian, Washington, DC. December.

Schaefer, Richard
1990 Racial and Ethnic Groups. Scott, Foresman, Little and Brown.

Traber, Michael
1986 The Myth of the Information Revolution: Social and Ethical Implications of Communication Technology. Sage Publications. June 24, 1993

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