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CFP'93 - Ross

CFP'93 - Computer Technology, Telecommunications, and American Indian Art?

by Randy Ross

Vice-President, American Indian Telecommunications
Rapid City, South Dakota
Copyright (c) 1993

(Randy Ross is a tribal member and works as a Management Analyst for the Indian Health Service. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and not that of the Indian Health Service. UNPUBLISHED)

Globalized Network Communications and Indian Nations

As is particularly true for many urbanized metro areas of the country, there too is a great leap forward taking place in Indian country with regard to computer technology, but to a lesser extent, network communication services among Indian communities and the impact thereof, is yet to be fully realized. The emergence of global network communications on Indian reservations has been referred to as the "Network of Nations" by Dr. George Baldwin, Chairman, Sociology Department, Henderson State University, in Bismarck, Arkansas. This paper is written, in part, to open the ethical inquiries and to assure the consideration of competing frames of value that Indian people experience daily. But, in order for Indian Nations and attendant sense of nationalism to grow, the need for information and the ability to control and produce that information on a global basis is paramount to the very survival of Indian people and Indian culture.

Despite the lack of connectivity to the larger world through super-computer networks, PC technology has been present and available in various shapes and forms on Indian reservations across the country making adaptation to network linkages the "big" next step. However, this next step will require infrastructure planning, support, development, and training. Electronic infrastructure being the largest question to consider if information systems and policy are to be at the base of Indian economic, cultural, and educational advancement.

And, in as far as electronic infrastructure goes, the question of who will install new switches, routers, fiber optic lines, ISDN (integrated services digital network), gigabyte capacity data transfer services; and provide related infrastructure support and maintenance is kind of unclear as far as Indian country is concerned. Will it be the private sector? Regional Bell Operating Companies, or small TELCOs in various areas of the country?

How many Tribes own and manage their own telephone companies? And if so, to what extent are they prepared to engage refinements and upgrades to include 56 kilobyte dedicated lines?

And, in terms of jurisdictional claim, what impact does this have on PUC regulation under State and local government versus that of Federal/Tribal? Will electronic infrastructure be the task and responsibility of Indian Health Service or the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Is public data networks and information access actually a larger part of Federal trust responsibility to Indian nations? In as much as BIA is charged to provide roads, survey, and transportation needs, one might conclude a definite yes! And if so, will Federal Trust Officials as well as Tribal officials recognize this new equation of trust responsibility? Unfortunately, of the $100 million proposed by the Clinton Administration to the BIA for economic stimulus, $50 million of that will go to cover short falls in school operations. This might suggest that the matter of trust and responsibility are two distinct terms and meaning.

Indian policy-makers definitely have a new frontier to tackle, and they must adjust and make telecommunications policy in Indian country a priority, to adapt and re-adjust, and by whatever means necessary, bring themselves into the information age, or cyberspace. Talk about baby boomers, the age of the techno-babies is here and here to stay!! In my estimation, the old bureaucrats of the 50's and 60's who are hanging on in the 90's will be replaced by a new wave of technocrats and young Indian cyberpunks! With the promise of the Clinton/Gore administration to bring America into the information age, this necessary change will most likely be a government agency wide phenomenon. Can old dogs really learn new tricks?

The Clinton/Gore Administration is proposing a new budget proposal that will require definite terms of reducing federal spending if they are to be successful. And, unfortunately, the equation that Indian policy-makers and government service managers face is once again, how to do more with less! With advancing telecommunications technology government bureaucracy must make changes that make sense. For instance, the Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs for years have espoused large heavy staffed Area Offices (these as opposed to Regional Offices typically used by other larger federal agencies), staff reductions are eminent but what about efficiency through electronic means? The IHS does not even have an integrated accounting system, let alone one that is on-line! The IBM hollerith cards are still being used for payroll, card-key punched and run through an old stacker!

In principle, these Area Offices are products of the 1950's; and as such these 1950's management tools are now obsolete given the rise in technology and telecommunications. As far as technology advancement, it has been a half-way proposition however. The investment into IHS and BIA telecommunications and technology infrastructure has been largely haphazard and without a cohesive inter-agency planning or policy. None of the agencies are at the NREN policy table or working with elements of the National Science Foundation to better understand government network communications and infrastructure requirements from a global perspective. The hope now rests with Indian leadership to recognize these deficits in management and move forward to re-align agency capability with a new mix of technology in management.

For Indian reservation based emerging technology, will there be special funds from new Congressional appropriations? What will the role be of private sector? How will corporate foundations as well as private non-profit community respond who mandate assistance to Indian nations? How will Indian people become players in the role of technology policy and telecommunications infrastructure development in rural areas? Despite these fuzzy notions of responsibility for serious telecommunications network services on Indian reservations, technology in education has existed in K-12 Indian schools during much of the past decade; and more recently, most American Indian Colleges have been inspired to add an entire range of computer sciences to their base of educational offerings.

The role of Technology in Indian Education, accessibility and style

In many K-12 schools on Indian reservations, one would find a great presence of the Apple and Macintosh technologies in general abundance. These machines are being utilized in a variety of ways to support academic achievement to include math and science, language, geography, and creative applications from games to Printshop graphics. The available technologies for classroom network support are rapidly advancing in the reservation based school systems. Many of the Indian colleges are now housing multi-user multi-tasking systems in a variety of configurations. But, network communications, electronic library services, and distance learning are still foreign matter for many reservation end-users.

Moreover, in the recent past, there has been a great deal of study in the area of holistic learning to include right brain dominance in learning styles by Indian children. Does this mean that graphic interfaces provided by computer companies such as Macintosh and Apple; make Indian children better end-uses of their products? Or, does the linear world of IBM DOS and linear command structures make computers less attractive to these cultural learning styles? Without a doubt, the academia and scholars who have advanced holistic learning will soon spin-off their works, theory, and research writing into right brained computer-assisted learning experiences, at least that is a prediction from this writer. Thus, does this mean "mouse, graphics, and windows" environments will be beneficial to right brained creative learning styles of Indian children?

There are various Indian education scholars who have written much about the right brain dominance learning theory in Indian populations. In the works of Dr. Allen C. Ross, "All Our Relations", Dr. Ross defines the basis for the claims that Indian learning styles are very much a right brain function, as if "living in the spirit world, the world of creativity". This theory describes that children with right brain dominance thinking tend to have more difficulties in left brain functions, which are normally termed as "eurocentric" learning style, linear, logic, narrow, non-creative, non- artistic, rigid, etc, etc. This may or may not be the reason why there are not many Indian scientist, physicists, computer programmers, medical doctors, mathematics and science in general have been in a deficit stage in Indian country!

Unfortunately, in the world of computerization, dominant left brain learning, teaching, and thinking style would appear to be highly desirable to be an achiever in this field, perhaps not. And, does this mean that Indian people are going to be poor subscribers to the linear logical and numerical world order of computers? If Indian culture, language, religion, and music are all supported by the right brain, does that mean computers will foster a new kind of culturalization or impose acculturation? Cultural experts in the field of Indian education continue to search for these answers and technology will definitely throw a new spin to the objectives of defining culturally appropriate methods for teaching and learning.

And, what is rapidly advancing around the country is distance learning through public data networks; and an increasing number of BBS (bulletin board system) resources available to Indian reservations. For other areas of the country, these BBS systems (many of them DOS based) can be found within the community and are operated by individuals or perhaps can found in the schools themselves. The potential for Indian reservation schools to host BBS's through networks such as FidoNet; dial-up access to internet commercial service, and gateway services through commercial providers like CompuServe is growing. And, Indian higher education institutions are now looking at uucp connections (UNIX-TO-UNIX-COMMUNICATION PROTOCOL) which make the potential for internet accessibility an even greater priority for discussion and strategy. And, the really big question, what does internet connection mean to Indian reservations?

Technology as a means to advance cultural, education, and economics for a new democracy among Indian people

What does all this activity mean for Indian art or Indian computer Art? The general acceptance of computer technology and adapting it to the cultural needs of Indian people is still being figured out. What is a culturally acceptable use of technology when cultural practices are being considered as a part of the computerization? This part of the story is not yet fully told and is probably unraveling as this paper is being word-processed out on a ZEOS 386 laptop while being driven home in a four wheel drive suburban van through western South Dakota. This trip home from Bismarck North Dakota takes us through 2 of the largest Indian reservations in the country, the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation and the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation. Of course, this is not an advertisement for ZEOS, but it demonstrates the paradox of reservation life in the 1990's. Indian people are spiritually and culturally rich! But, many times, resource poor and physically and mentally impoverished.

Technology and technology policy is moving fast, perhaps too fast, but what about the traditions, culture, beliefs, and spirituality that encompasses the lives of many Indian people living in some of the poorest counties in the United States. A recent U.S. Census Bureau Survey indicated that South Dakota has 3 of the poorest counties in the nation, with the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian reservation being the number one poor in measured terms of poverty. The first in oppression, the first in poverty; what a merit award to have hanging on the walls of U.S. history!

The other day, I noticed in USA Today (reading the on-line version of Gannett Information Network Service), that President Bill Clinton was appalled at the state of communications at the White House. What have the Republicans done or not done? It was reported that Dwight Eisenhower's switch board combined with Jimmy Carter's phones are what prevailed. There was not even e-mail capability!! The upgrading of communications in the White House was bashed by Rush Limbaugh as a boon-doggle. But I wonder if the Conservative Chronicle is available in digital format? But, in any event, America needs to sort out the real possibilities.

Now that Bill Clinton plans to put e-mail capabilities in the White House does that mean the 6th grade Sioux Indian student from the Red Scaffold Indian community in South Dakota can send a message to: BILL@WHITEHOUSE or even better, HILLARY@WHITEHOUSE and then be able to directly tell the new President and first lady what is on her mind especially given the 90% unemployment, prevailing poor housing conditions, or mention of the numerous health problems that afflict Indian people daily, and of needed educational opportunities beyond what is given by the BIA. Such open dialogue on-line is hoped to be the case of the future, working towards an electronic democracy!

Cultural Freedom and Ethnic Fraud

When I titled this writing endeavor, it was supposed to be about American Indian art and the world of technology. But, that's the problem. One cannot separate Indian people from cultural expression, tribal art, and aesthetics which are beautifully blended into the landscape of the people that have lived there for centuries. Cultural expression through computer technology is a new frontier for Indian artists, but one that is gaining the attention of Indian educators, scholars, and community leaders!

In addition, cultural and religious freedoms have been, and always will be, a major concern for tribal leadership; and for the average American Indian family. This leads to the need for better or more clear understanding of the impact of technology on Indian tribal values. In the book titled, "In the Absence of the Sacred: The failure of technology and the survival of the Indian nations", Mander outlines the wrath that broadcast technology through primarily television and satellite had on the previously "untouched" villages of northwest Canada. It is a sad story, but this process of modifying values, attitudes, and beliefs through the all mighty corporate controlled (and to a lesser extent public controlled) "boob-tube" is a problem for America, not just Indians of America. A single example if found is broadcast mass communications through Network televised sports programming. The syndicated network broadcast programs features national sports teams with names that offend Indian people and serve only to perpetuate cultural disrespect. An effort must be made to ensure that public data networks do not simply repeat what has happened with public broadcasting and network television in this regard.

How does public electronic data networks compare to mass communications and broadcast technology of the 50's, 60's, and 70's? A very good question to ask the many bright Indian social scientist that are now in abundance in the field. But, basically, the hierarchical flow of information is no longer an upside down pyramid or a one-way down flow or the larger power thinking cascading in the smaller power thinking, one get's the point I'm sure. Anyway, with communications network services, there now appears to be an opportunity for that pyramid to be reversed, whereby the information is created and generated to flow upwards and outward, instead or from the sky down.

There is a great question of who is producing information about Indians and why. What is the motive, what is the thinking? Through electronic communication, how do we address cultural integrity? It seems to be published is the standard for truth, or righteousness. Indian people come from oral traditions having no history of orthographies, written language, archives, or source documents other than perhaps winter counts, hide paintings or symbolized drawings on caves, wood, or sand.

Obviously, for decades specialized writings provided by historians, anthropologists, ethnologists, musicologists, archaeologists, and any other kind of "ologist" one can think of, has been both good and bad, but in many instances, the writings of and by non-Indians have also served to be very damaging to the very fabric Indian culture and hurtful to the spirit of being "Indian". And in some instances, on the flip side, the bad writings are unfortunately produced by Indians themselves or worse by so-called pseudo "Indians" who are, for instance, keenly trained in the various fields mentioned above, but are far removed from authentic cultural or spiritual experiences that form the foundation of being "Indian". As with other peoples of the world, people can have the race but not the culture, and at times vice-versa. And then, there is the outright question of ethnic fraud!! In Indian country, ethnic fraud is seemingly becoming a much larger problem.

Sioux Indian history in South Dakota shows that Frenchmen came up the Missouri River doing their hunting and trapping thing, and married into the Sioux tribes. They were called "squaw-men" (a derogatory term), and they spoke the Sioux language, and in some instances practiced the religion. The french were busy making sense of life and loving Indians, but the English and other Europeans were bent on killing and conquering Indian people. Actually, the french were achieving the same, but through peaceful means as profiteering off the land and conquest was still the name of the game. But, they were French who had acquired another culture as a means of human expression. The true extent of that cultural acquisition, perhaps even through generations, is arguable in terms of full immersion. This point is interesting from my point of view given the French ancestry in my own tribal blood lines. My grandfather never spoke of the French relatives very much!

Nevertheless, as a result of the French outlook on life with Indian people, they were taken in and given Indian names and added in the rolls for tribal membership to include an allotment of land under 1887 Dawes Act. Are these men Indian? And, what of their descendents who look as pale as the moon but are officially enrolled members of the tribe and bear french surnames. There are also stories that even though they were French, some of these guys were of north African heritage, perhaps Algerian or Moroccan mixed with french blood. Whew! The lines of who is an Indian and who is not can appear to be easily blurred, but tribal identity is a constitutional right strictly reserved by the Indian Tribes and nations under the law.

Well, the same principles and process of cultural integrity should hold true for public data networks. We don't really know who is Indian that is operating on-line. Who do they represent? What do they represent? What are their cultural teachings, practices, beliefs, values, and heritage? Authenticity and genuineness become a problem in determining what is real and what is "memorex" and offenders can easily confuse the misinformed! What measures need to be taken to prevent ethnic fraud? Mixed ethnicity is something that is going to be prevalent among many Indian Tribes to include mixed tribal or mixed racial, but ethnic fraud occurs when no documented trace or proof of affiliation can be neither proved nor disproved.

Even at this extent, the claiming of Indian heritage when that individual holds nothing, nor gives nothing back to the tribal community to which he/she claims, it would seem that the individual would have to ask, is he/she really an Indian? This, of course, argues the ties back to trust responsibility and in particular to those Indian tribes who still retain millions of acres of land of which tribal community status makes the difference in the success of the people as a tribe or nation. Cultural grounding, even within the context of tribal membership, can be fuzzy. There have been cases of prominent tribal leadership speaking against and openly referring to the "cultural crap" going on in various quarters of Indian religious and cultural rights battles. But, these people are still tribal members and tribal membership status rights are afforded to them accordingly. Even in the cultural rights battle, at times, the worst adversaries are from within given the theory of colonialization and imperialism, that is to set people against themselves.

As public data networks unfold, the need for adapting cultural concerns and empowerment becomes more and more crucial to the very survival of the Indigenous groups involved. There is the concern that public data networks will add to the dilution of "what is already appropriately Indian". I add there is already too much confusion out there as to what is "traditional" Indian a termed highly misused and poorly understood, at times, by Indians themselves. Nevertheless, cultural policy that is adaptable to on-line etiquette, or laws that govern intellectual and cultural property rights are key considerations when working with Indigenous peoples. The concept of sovereignty must be interpreted to include access to on-line public data networks. Tribal society whether it's the clan, the village, the tiospaye, or whatever cultural unit standing must have a place to say who is a member of their people, and who is not! A self-determining process.

As an example, if a Sysop (systems operator) or conference moderator, or user of a native network steps forward and says they are Indian, and the Tribe they claim on the other hand says, "No, they are not a member of our Tribe", the decision and weight must go with the Tribe. Moreover, as conference moderation becomes the norm, it can become more and more problematic when non-Indian moderators rise up to control the spirit and direction of on-line discussions by other Indian people.

The days of gatekeepers and Trader control are over, but we cannot afford to repeat the horrible past through electronic colonialism in the cyberspace of today or tomorrow. So, how do we implement principles of tribal sovereignty in much the same terms as determining and defining who is an Indian artist, or for that matter, an Indian? This single matter alone is going to be one of many concern of Indians in cyberspace in terms of policy development in this electronic frontier. As one Indian spoke, "they've taken our land, the buffalo, the water; and now they want to take the religion even the identity of Indian people".

The question of trust responsibility must be asked if a legal question can be appropriately directed to determine the place of "Indians" in cyberspace. The U.S. government has a broad-base responsibility to Indian nations, but how does this work when the interest of government trust is extended to data networks and access to those networks become public policy. Tribes must begin to understand the impact of technology on their future, but putting the head in the sand or simply concluding that "Computers" are for the "Wasicu" (the White man) ways and not for the Lakota (Indian), is probably not the answer as well. Alcohol and firearms both had detrimental impact on Indian nations, signs show of even today, but will computers and technology be another type of infringement on maintaining cultural integrity?

The future of computerized Indian Art

The Black Hills Pow-wow and Indian Art Market, and other Indian art market shows, are looking at the possibility of harboring national juried Indian art competitions. Right now, there are no known established Indian computer art shows, exhibitions, or juried competitions. There is one thing that holds true for Indian people and their culture, they are able to adapt and literally make an item or concept, eurocentric as it may be, into something that is distinctly "Indian".

The use and adoption of beads for instance is a widely viewed example. No we have bingo dobbers that are beautifully beaded, there are baseball caps that have colorful beaded brims. As for star quilts, it's a matter of time before color computer images are used to develop new creative designs and define color coordination? What will those ethnologist and anthros of the next century think of the culture of Indian people? For one thing, no culture is static, if it is static, then it will die! I don't think that computers and Indians, or the combination thereof, means the death of being "Indian".

To emphasize the two-world concept, I will tell the recent story of a Indian college librarian who during a discussion of computerization of library services, spoke up and indicated that a "mouse" was the problem with his system. Urbanized conference participants asked him what kind of interface or peripheral device driver was he using; and to which he replied, "No, it's the design of the CPU in the back-slots, it has a 1" hole of which a mouse (live rodent) entered into the machine and made it's nest next to the power supply". The Indian college library at this reservation college is an old broken down trailer house.

We must remember and respect the circumstances and situations that impact people of culture and color. The ramming of technology downward upon them as though they are "technopeasants" who need a lift up is not the way to approach Indian nations. It is better to walk beside them and understand their circumstances and needs before unraveling all the marvels that technology can do to improve life on the reservation. The natural creativity of Indian people will be enhanced by computer technology; as well as technology will be gifted by the grace of Indian artists who choose to adapt their expressions in electronic form to share in cyberspace.

In terms of tribal sovereignty, it is very important not to confuse freedom of expression or censorship with the over-riding needs or constitutional rights for Indian people through their recognized tribal status to define what is culturally appropriate and who is an "Indian" by their own terms and right. Any policies made that involve cultural rights and laws, must be referred to Indian tribes and nations for consideration. A recent report commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts entitled the Centers of Color outlined the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act provisions as an undue administrative burden; but failed to clearly outline the arguments and foundation of tribal sovereignty. The protection of Indian artists was mentioned; but the key to the success of that Act is based upon remediation of tribal sovereign law and regulation through which the protection of Indian artists shall then occur.

In summary, American Indian leadership must form their own policy leadership in the area of electronic information policy and telecommunications law. The National Indian Policy Center of George Washington University, National Congress of American Indians; and the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution will have their work cut out to become viable entities in the face of NREN policy and to ensure a voice in the unfolding of federal telecommunications and information policy impacting Indian nations.

American Indian Telecommunication is one of the first private non-profit Indian organizations set-up to assist with policy and advocacy in the field of telecommunications and is available as a resource on the Dakota BBS at 605-341-4552 8N1. The DBBS is pending arrangements to get an internet connection with a local higher educational institution.

For additional information:

Randy Ross
3612 Chief Drive
Rapid City, South Dakota 57701
605-348-1900, Ext. 270
internet e-mail:
CIS, 70400,2606 CompuServe
Dakota BBS: 605-341-4552 8N1

Other Sources for reference:

Networking the Nation, Dr. George Baldwin
All My Relations, Dr. A. Chuck Ross
In the Absence of the Sacred, J. Mander

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