The Impact of Digital Technology on Indigenous Peoples

If indigenously founded Internet resources and technologies are any indication of Indigenous peoples’ willingness to embrace the technological era, the answer is that many Indigenous communities see telecommunication and computer technologies as a way to improve, rather than hinder, self-sufficiency, preservation of culture, real sovereignty, and general economic conditions.[1] As noted in one 1999 Benton Foundation study, “[a]mong the tools recognized by tribes as essential to their future growth are telecommunications and information technology, and tribes are looking for opportunities to acquire the level of technological infrastructure that will ensure their place on the Information Superhighway.”[2]

Currently, Indigenous peoples are utilizing tools such as video conferencing technology, digitization of documents, and radio broadcast over the Internet.  The majority of these technologies are used to preserve and promote Indigenous culture, tradition, history, and human rights advocacy.[3]  Further, “[t]he Internet is used by [I]ndigenous groups for e-mailing, chat rooms, radio stations, video-conferencing, and simple information-gathering by looking at Web sites.”[4] Today, there are multiple organizations dedicated to the utilization of technology in Indigenous communities, such as educational programs promoting and addressing the technology needs of Indigenous peoples.[5]

World Summit on the Information Society

In December of 2003, more than 11,000 people from over 175 Native Nations assembled in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss “bridging the divide” between developed and developing nations.[6]  The United Nations and the International Telecommunication Union assembled the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) with Indigenous people’s particular needs in mind – seeking to gain equitable access to technologies while retaining “rights, cultural identities, traditional territories, [and] resources.”[7]  Indigenous peoples themselves, it was articulated, are best at deciding how and when they access and use new technologies.[8]

In March of 2004, the Aboriginal Canada Portal and Connectivity Working Group hosted another conference in Canada, where Indigenous peoples from around the world discussed and shared work they were already doing to make themselves a part of the information society.  This included "online applications for improving public health and governance, the role of new technology in Indigenous media and the arts, and the influence the digital revolution has on culture, gender, and the U.N. Millennium Development Goals."[9]

Finally, in November of 2005, the Phase II of the WSIS was held in Tunis, Tunisia. The purpose of the event was to continue the dialogue initiated in Phase I of the WSIS, and to “review actions to date in relation to international Indigenous connectivity, to share regional experiences regarding the same, including best practices and challenges, to explore the viability of, and issues regarding, an International Indigenous Portal, and to allow participants the opportunity to craft an International Indigenous e-strategy in the post-WSIS environment . . . .”[10]

Phase II of the WSIS concluded by issuing six recommendations: 1) An Indigenous-led initiative; 2) analysis of existing sites and portals;[11] 3) thematic focus of an international Indigenous portal; 4) information and communications (ICT) development and broader development issues; 5) cooperation between Indigenous portal initiatives; 6) international Indigenous portal architecture and content.[12]

Indigenous Cultures and the Internet

            The current era has been termed the “age of information,” and this term generally carries a positive connotation. In Native societies, however, a dichotomy exists between those who embrace the Internet as a tool to protect, maintain, and promote cultural diversity, and those who believe that the Internet serves only to endorse capitalist ideals and sanction products of the modern industrial society.[13] This dichotomy provokes the question, is the Internet friend or foe of Indigenous peoples?

Dr. Sharon Bohn Gmelch and Reuel Daniels[14] argue that “the Internet provides Indigenous peoples with opportunities that simply did not exist before,” which empowers Native communities to compete economically on the global level, but on their own terms.[15] First, Gmelch and Daniels argue that the Internet provides opportunities for Indigenous economic development by creating a global market for businesses and products; making possible the participation of Indigenous communities in the global economy – on their own terms; and enhancing long-term economic viability.  PEOPLink serves as an ideal illustration.[16] Working through local nonprofit organizations, PEOPLink provides “over 100,000 [I]ndigenous artisans in 20 countries with Internet training and web space,” allowing people in remote villages spanning the globe to trade and sell their crafts internationally.[17] Likewise, “[s]earch engines like permit people living in urban centers from Germany to Japan to learn of village-run rainforest lodges and native-led botanical tours.”[18] Second, the Internet promotes Indigenous self-determination and cultural diversity by contributing to the sense of organization and autonomous self-governance, even to those communities within repressive regimes, often through online bulletin boards, mass e-mailings, and general websites.[19] The Internet allows these communities “to share strategies, and mobilizes a world community of advocates and activists, who[se] exert political and economic pressure and lend other aid.”[20] Finally, websites and other web-based media create spaces where Indigenous peoples’ art, language, culture, histories, and traditions can be shared, learned, promoted, and distributed.  “No longer does such knowledge reside only in the minds of elders or in dusty tomes in distant libraries.”[21]

            Similarly, Dr. John Afele[22] argues that Native peoples “should aim to digitize the oral cultures of [I]ndigenous groups, who are the majority after all, and identify complementary knowledge from global resources.”[23] Assuming that Indigenous peoples can actively assert dominance over the reflection of their own knowledge, in a primarily western-dominated medium, Dr. Afele asserts that “there is ample room for all cultures to be represented on the Internet.”[24] Realizing the untapped potential that these areas present, technology-based corporations are increasingly expanding into Indigenous communities.  Accordingly, “there are no longer technological barriers to deployment of information technology anywhere in the world today; it is political will and imagination of institutions that will determine how much a culture benefits from the Internet.”[25] Dr. Afele argues that it is up to Indigenous peoples themselves to assert dominance in this area, and realize the exceptional ways in which this media can be tailored to local situations.

            Robyn Kamira,[26] on the other hand, argues that the Internet serves only to reinforce negative stereotypes that have plagued Indigenous communities since their first encounters with what has now become the dominant voice in society.[27] According to Kamira, “[g]overnment databases collect abundant data about [Indigenous peoples] with no predetermined purpose, and publish it with little regard for context or benefit to [those people]. Instead, [Indigenous peoples] are subjected to research findings from these databanks that continue to reinforce the most negative stereotypes.”[28] As such, because colonizers are the ones with the resources to be in control of this information, the Internet, for the most part, is only a modern tool for further colonization.  And, there is always the risk that others, who have no stake in Indigenous peoples integrity or survival, will circulate stories, histories, cultures, and traditions devoid of respect for the principles underlying the veracity of those principles.  Although there may be reason to believe otherwise, history has shown that the stories of “[I]ndigenous peoples worldwide . . . have been told and manipulated by others, only to be reduced to fantasy, novelty, myth, and untruth. [Indigenous] knowledge was validated, discarded, or modified to suit a strategy of colonization, conquering both geography and knowledge systems.”[29]

            Which view is correct? Assuming that the Internet does present a threat to the value of Indigenous peoples’ culture and tradition, is there a way to prevent the devaluation indicated by Kamira? Or, does the benefit conferred to Indigenous communities, as indicated by Gmelch, Daniels, and Alefe, outweigh the harm that the dispersion of sensitive information may cause? Are the values even commensurable? If they are, what values should be assigned where? Indigenous communities vary vastly around the world, culturally, physically, religiously, linguistically, and economically. Is there one resolution to this quandary? Can there be? Shouldn’t it be left up to Indigenous communities, themselves, to decide whether to become caught up in this “age of information”?

Websites for Indigenous Cultures and the Internet

What follows is a general review of internet electronic media tools contemporarily used.

1)      American Indian Resources:  A general list of resources from the South Dakota State Archives.

2)      The Aniu Museum:  This website features background about Japan’s indigenous Aniu population. Illustrated essays discuss traditional diet, maintenance of sustenance, agriculture, clothing, housing, religion, marriage, and family life.

3)      Aniu of Japan:  A small collection of annotated links to resources about the Aniu culture. Part of a series on world indigenous cultures from the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

4)      Aniu: A Spirit of Northern People:  A website featuring images, text, and audio covering topics such as spiritual traditions, trade, homes, arts, language, and other aspects of Ainu culture.

5)      At-LA North American Cultural/Ethnic Resources:  General links to American Indian Studies/Canadian First Nation/Native American resources.

6)      Australian Indigenous Peoples: Aboriginal and Torres Straight islander Inhabitants of Australia:  An extensive collection of links to websites related to indigenous populations in Australia.

7)      Digital Librarian: American Indian Studies:  Links to general resources.

8)      First Nations Development Institute:  “Founded in 1980, First Nations Development Institute is a national American Indian-led 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Through a three-pronged strategy of educating grassroots practitioners, advocating systemic change, and capitalizing Indian communities, First Nations Development Institute is working to restore Native control and culturally-compatible stewardship of the assets they own – be they land, human potential, cultural heritage, or natural resources – and to establish new assets for ensuring the long-term vitality of Native communities.”

9)  News, information, and entertainment from a Native American perspective.

10)  Indigenous Australia:  This site includes links to information regarding storytelling, cultures, and histories of Australian indigenous peoples. Features timelines, audio, and video about cultural heritage, spirituality, family, land, and social justice.

11)  Indigenous Peoples:  A library of over 500 documents relating to indigenous peoples throughout the world, including Native American tribes, the Maori, Australian Aborigines, the Sami, and others.

12)  Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources:  Links to “information, news, articles, and resources for those concerned about, and for, indigenous peoples around the world.”

13)  Indigenous Peoples Ligature:  An archive of cultural material by the indigenous peoples of the world, ranging from literature and music to prayers and history. Contains a listing of tribes, chiefs, and the complete texts of key documents, such as tribal constitutions.

14)  International Indian Treaty Council (IITC):  A site featuring news, action alerts, treaties and related documents, and materials such as prisoners, racism, and human rights. The organization is dedicated to promoting indigenous “sovereignty and self-determination . . . and the recognition and protection of indigenous rights, treaties, traditional cultures, and sacred lands.”

15)  Iowa State University – American Indian Resources on the Web:  Links to indexes and abstracts, general resources, and electronic journals.

16)  Island of the Spirits:  Website of the 1999 PBS Nova documentary on the Aniu indigenous peoples of Japan. Features cover the origins of the Ainu, Aniu legends and beliefs (about animals such as the crane, the bear, and the flying squirrel), and animal migration.

17)  Minneapolis American Indian Resource Center’s Resource and Referral Center:  A website designed to help Native people and social service workers find Native cultural and social services. “The system currently lists over 230 organizations designed to assist Native people and the list continues to be updated and expanded.”

18)  National NAIDOC:  General information on the National Aborigines and Islanders Day. The holiday is actually held throughout Australia during the first full week of July to “celebrate the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander People.”

19)  Native American Resources:  A list of internet resources available. Includes links to locally hosted URLs, Native American organizations, tribal homepages, Indian education and learning resources, government resources, and native art and culture.

20)  Native Maps:  GIS maps that "window" Native information about Pre-contact Native North America. Active State maps for reservations in MN, WI, MI, CA, AK, ND, SD, NY, AZ (linked-to AZ is historical background of Navajo-Hopi Black Mountain land dispute and page of links on this dispute), NM, WA, OR; Canada treaty maps; Canadian Bands-by-provinces, contact info; Material culture maps; Pre-contact housing information.

21)  Native Web:  “Information from and about indigenous nations, peoples, and organizations around the world.” Includes an annotated directory of related websites, job listings, and a discussion forum.

22)  Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory: Indian Education Resources:  Links to general Northwest Native American resources.

23)  Oklahoma Department of Libraries: American Indian Resources:  Links to websites from the U.S. Government, Oklahoma’s Congressional Delegation, Oklahoma’s Federal Information Libraries, historical publications, informational brochures, “today in history,” and special collections in the Oklahoma Depository Library.

24)  Oregon State University, American Indian Initiatives:  Links to American Indian information, American Indian organizations, and news and events throughout Indian Country.

25) Traditional Knowledge Digital Library  Thousands of years’ worth of traditional Indian remedies, medicines, cures, and practices have been put on the public domain and, it is hoped, out of the reach of western biotech companies.

26)  Virtual Library – American Indians:  Website providing “information resources to the Native American community . . . . The information is organized, insofar as possible, to make it useful to the Native American community and the education community.”

27)  Linda Woodward-Geiger:  Cherokee Indian Resources.

28)  The World Wide Web Virtual Library: Indigenous Studies:  A virtual library site directing visitors to sites about native peoples of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Central and South America, Europe, North America, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia.

29)  University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law: ArizonaNativeNet:  ArizonaNativeNet is a virtual university outreach and distance learning telecommunications center devoted to the higher educational needs of Native Nations in Arizona, the United States and the world through the utilization of the    worldwide web and knowledge-based and technical resources and expertise.  It is a vital   resource for Native Nations seeking to strengthen their nation-building efforts through telecommunications-based higher education, leadership and management training, and distance learning programs.

30)  University of New Mexico School of Law: Indian Law Resources:  “This resources page provides links to many established Indian law organizations and institutions, as well as links to various on-line Indian law research materials.”

31)  University of Wisconsin American Indian Resources on the Web:  Includes general links, gaming, genealogy, health, history, culture, archeology, museums and historical societies, treaty rights/law, and Wisconsin Indian information.

32)  The U.S. Gen Web Project: Native American Resources:  General resource list. Includes mailing lists, general resources, state/county projects, and state resources.

                [1] See generally AJ Johnson, A New Understanding of Culture and Communication: The Impact of Technologies on Indigenous Peoples, (last visited May 11, 2009).

                [2] James Casey, Randy Ross, & Marcia Warren, Native Networking: Telecommunications and Information Technology in Indian Country 7 (1999), available at

                [3] Id. See Christine Zuni Cruz, Shadow War Scholarship, Indigenous Legal Tradition, and Modern Law in Indian Country, 47 Washburn Law Journal 631 (2008).

                [4] Id.

                [5] See id.

                [6] Jamie Brown & Tara Tidwell Cullen, Indigenous Peoples Bridging the Divide: Indigenous Peoples at the World Summit on the Information Society, 29 Cultural Survival Q. 13, 13 (2005).

                [7] Id.

                [8] Id. “Some American Indian tribes, for example, refuse to put information about their cultures online because they believe that traditional knowledge should be passed on in specific ways to specific peoples . . . .” Id. at 14.

                [9] Id.

                [10] Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society, Report of the Second Phase of WSIS Parallel Event, Final Report 1 (Nov. 14, 2005), available at$file/Final_report.pdf.   

                [11] A “portal” is defined as “a web presence or other services that promote universal connectivity and offer a broad array of information and resources.” Id. at 2.

                [12] Id. at 3-4.

                [13] See EarthWatch Institute, Diversity in the Age of Globalization, [hereinafter EarthWatch] (last visited May 11, 2009).

                [14] “Dr. Sharon Bohn Gmelch is a former Earthwatch scientist and professor of anthropology at Union College. She has conducted cultural research in Ireland, Newfoundland, Barbados, and Alaska . . . . Reuel Daniels, an anthropology major at Union College, wrote her senior thesis on the impact of the Internet on [I]ndigenous peoples.” Id.

                [15] Id.

                [16] See generally PEOPLink – E-Commerce Linking People, About, (last visited May 12, 2009).

                [17] See Earth Watch Institute, Diversity in the Age of Globalization, (last visited May 11, 2009).see also United Nations, Bureau of Development Policy, E-Commerce for Development: The Case of Nepalese Artesian Exporters, available at

                [18] See Earth Watch Institute, Diversity in the Age of Globalization, (last visited May 11, 2009).

                [19] Id.

                [20] Id.

                [21] Id.

                [22] “Dr. John Afele, originally from Ghana, is director of the International Program for Africa at the University of Guelph, Ontaro . . . and director of Village Telecom in Ghana.” Id.

                [23] Id.

                [24] Id.

                [25] Id.

                [26] “Robyn Kamira is from the Maori tribal groups of Te Rarawa and Te Aupouri. She works with [I]ndigenous communities in New Zealand on issues in information technology, and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Aukland University on the subject.” Id.

                [27] See id.

                [28] Id.

                [29] Id.