title banner: Making Online Spaces More Native to American Indians: A Digital Diversity Recommendation, written by Angela M. Haas




Although popular opinion and news report writing dictates that the digital divide is narrowing, this claim is difficult to substantiate when some groups of people (and their access to the Internet) are rarely studied—and the studies that do exist are outdated. Such is the case with American Indians. Some reports, such as the Pew Internet & American Life (2003) America’s Online Pursuits report, acknowledge that their report could not be inclusive of all demographics, due to the lack of respondents who took part in the study.1 Yet other reports exclude mention of American Indians altogether, such as the Bush administration’s first study of American Internet use, A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet, conducted by National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA). This data exclusion results in a failure to provide a current measurement of information technology deployment progress among American Indian communities, one of America’s most underserved demographic groups.

Although these more recent studies exclude the online pursuits of American Indians, some dated sources have estimated the access of this demographic in 1999. According to the Benton Foundation report (1999), “Native Networking: Telecommunications and Information Technology in Indian Country,” 26.8 percent of rural Native American households have access to computers, which is much lower than the national average of 42.1 percent and only 18.9 percent of Native Americans have access to the Internet, compared with the national average of 26.2 percent. Though these numbers are troubling, worse yet are the figures provided in the U.S. Economic Development Administration's 1999 study that determined only 9 percent of Native households had personal computers and of those only 8 percent had Internet access (Welfare Information Network). Although these statistics could be more recent, they still illustrate a disparity that cannot be corrected in six years, and only the larger government-sponsored reports make it to the mainstream press, from which public support and grant monies are often garnered. Thus, as Kade Twist (2002) from the Digital Divide Network and Benton Foundation posits: “Clearly the absence of American Indians from the NTIA reports and the limitations of the Census Bureau's current population surveys mean that American Indians are not adequately counted and are not sufficiently included in public discourse relating to telecommunications and information technologies issues.”

However, just as the stories of the American Indian “have nots” are not reported in the government-sponsored reports on digital practices and literacy, neither are the stories of the “haves.” To explain, some Indian tribes have employed online survivance2 (survivance + resistance) strategies for preserving their culture, memories, histories, and languages. For example, the Cherokee Nation based in Tahlequah, Oklahoma has crafted an “Official” Cherokee Nation site that offers its users access to information regarding current and archived Cherokee news, Cherokee language courses, Cherokee history and culture, community calendar, the monthly newsletter (The Phoenix), Cherokee services, the Tribal government, employment opportunities, contact information, affiliated associations, and much more.

Other tribes have accomplished similar success as the Cherokee Nation in crafting online spaces, but the majority do not have the resources to build sites as complex as the Cherokee Nation site. Consequently, I posit that despite the extent to which American Indian communities are at a distinct technological disadvantage in comparison to any other demographic in the United States (and the lack of the public discourse regarding this), many American Indians have employed survivance tactics to appropriate the promises of the Internet for the preservation of community. Thus, in partial response to Twist’s call to include American Indians in the current public discourse surrounding information technology issues, and to draw attention to the technological progress that has been made in some Native communities despite technological barriers3, this essay aims to highlight the benefits of crafting online tribal spaces through examining the official Cherokee Nation website as a case study of a digital rhetorical sovereignty4, or a tribe's inherent right to claim its own communication needs and determine the rhetoric of its identity in digital spaces.5 Engaging with and employing digital rhetorical sovereignty addresses several cultural and communication concerns of indigenous scholars, including, but not limited to, the need to:

  • preserve language, culture, history, and identity;
  • demystify Nativeness and combat stereotypes and fetishism by providing more alternate, accurate and diverse representations of “Nativeness”;
  • provide “contact zones” for Natives and non-Natives to foster community and alliance-building.

Finally, I suggest that our attention to the rhetorical and cultural value of online digital rhetorical sovereignty can help to ensure that American Indians are included in subsequent reports on the digital divide, digital literacies, and digital practices. Such investigations into the digital rhetorical sovereignty practiced by American Indian communities can tell us more about how indigenous people are planning, organizing, building, distributing, and engaging with digital cultural rhetorics—and in ways that that are unique to American Indians. The complex and dynamic online tactics employed by American Indians constellate the current dominant cyberscape with "new" and distinctive online practices, places and spaces, all of which have implications for computers & composition, digital rhetoric, online documentation and usability studies. Consequently, I will address some of these implications by concluding with suggestions for how digital rhetoricians may act as agents for digital rhetorical sovereignty to encourage digital diversity that is inclusive of American Indians6.

1 However, I find it difficult to believe that studies couldn’t ensure representation if they were really concerned with online Native practices, as there are at least 81,000 Cherokees in the Tahlequah, OK area alone—and this number doesn’t include those who are not registered, nor the Eastern Band of Cherokees, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, not to mention other Indian tribes.

2 For more on survivance, see Gerald Vizenor's (1994) Manifest manners: Narratives on postindian survivance.

3Davis and Trebian (2001) describe some of the barriers that continue to slow the adoption of technologies by Native American communities:

  • Distrust of specific new technologies
  • Geographic remoteness
  • Weak economic bases in tribal communities
  • Lack of private investment on tribal lands
  • Poor targeting of specific government policies for improving technology infrastructures in Native American communities
  • Lack of Native American intellectual property rights protection on the Net.

4 This concept builds on Scott Lyons (2000) theory of rhetorical sovereignty.

5 Again, I recognize the progress that many other tribes have made; thus, I am not promoting the Cherokee Nation site as the only model for employing new media to promote Native agendas; however, I focus on the Cherokee Nation site, as consistent examples from one site can provide a fuller description of what one Nation, tribe, or tribal college can do with a website.

6 For more on pedagogical suggestions for addressing race, computer literacy, and the digital divide, see Monroe (2004) and Banks (2005).

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