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First Nations in Cyberspace:
Two Worlds and Tricksters
Where the Forest meets the Highway
By Mike Patterson
Ph.D. Dissertation for the Department of Sociology/Anthropology
This dissertation examines both the literature and my personal experiences regarding the implications of cyberspace, with a view to contemporary Native and First Nations peoples in Canada, particularly in light of the Seventh Fire Prophecy of coexistence and cooperation (Patterson 1995).
I examine the role of Information Technology (IT) in the emerging First Nations cybercommunities in Canada, also the ways in which IT impacts on people’s lives. This dissertation seeks to determine what is being gained and lost in exchanges between people and computers, people communicating in new ways via IT, and in new global dialogues.
I then describe some visions for the future use of cyberspace, with a caution to be aware of its contradictory possibilities, concluding that First Nations in Canada should take a proactive approach to this new territory still in the process of creation, to refine and redefine Native and non-Native priorities with regards to cultural survival, self-determination, and mutual recognition.
Table of Contents
Over the last 15 years, I have seen first myself, then friends and family, and now all of global society gravitate more and more to the new place called cyberspace. This is a place “where the forest meets the highway” (Patterson 2000), where land-based people such as Natives1 in Canada meet the landless world of e-commerce, dot-com and global change.
I speak in this dissertation as a person of mixed ancestry mainly Irish, French, English, and also, most likely, Mohawk. Although most of my ancestors are Irish and French, I was told since childhood that I have Native blood. I don't know how much Native blood I have, as the stories and pictures that have come down in my family are only fragmented and incomplete; some date to the early 1800s near Akwesasne (Mohawk) and there are generations not known before. On one side I can trace the Sauvé name (my great grandfather’s) back to the 1660s in Québec.
The definition of who is Native and who is not is the matter of ongoing debate. To many people such as the late Wilf Peltier (Odawa/Potawotami) and Simon Brascoupé (Mohawk/Anishnabeg), both familiar faces at Carleton, race or blood quantum is not an issue, as the important things are shared values.2 When I voiced doubts about my self-identification to Elijah Harper, he told me: "It's your heritage too." After spending more time at Akwesasne recently, close to the birthplace of my great-uncle and grandmother, I began to realize that he was right.
In Canada, definitions of ‘Indian,’ ‘Aboriginal,’ ‘Native,’ ‘Metis’ and so on have always been in flux. The first statutory definition of ‘Indian’ in Canada was enacted in 1850; there were no provisions for mixed-blood, one was either an Indian or one was White (and relegated exclusively to that society). The definitions were both racial and ethnic: 1) All persons of Indian blood belonging to a particular tribe and their descendants; 2) All persons intermarried with any such Indians; 3) All persons residing among such Indians, whose parents on either side were or are Indians; and 4) All persons adopted in infancy by any such Indian (Frideres 2001: 24). As will be shown later, the definition has become much more complicated today.
In my MA thesis on Native music in Canada I examined the coming together of ‘Two Worlds’ for Native people, and the weaving together of two worldviews on many levels (Patterson 1995). Now I am extending that work and trying to reconcile what we see and feel in these Canadian spaces (Our Home, and Native Land)3 with Information Technology (IT) and the place it (and we) have created cyberspace.
In June 1998 a show arrived at Ottawa’s SAW Gallery, created by Iroquois artists exploring and using IT. The show visited those areas “At the Edge of the Woods: Along the Highway” and also “the notion of four states of awareness in Iroquoian culture, representing the progression from the edge of the woods, to the clearing around a village, the village itself and the inside of a longhouse” (Marple 1998: 14). Two exhibits struck me: One, an installation consisting of lodgepoles forming a tipi, with a computer where the fire would be, displaying a video of a fire; and the other an interactive Web project that allowed people to remotely and virtually contribute beads toward the making of an Electronic Wampum Belt.i Both suggested cultural interaction alive on many levels, reaching into the past and future, trying to find ways of reconciling the meeting of two distinct worldviews that, in Iroquoian and other Native perspectives, were supposed to stay apart (the Two-Row Wampum belt, Keswehtheha see Appendix A).
Natives in Canada have maintained their value systems throughout 500 years of colonization policy in Canada, but cyberspace is a new territory. A strong movement toward self-determination has begun in this country, and tools brought by the Europeans and others have traditionally used by Native peoples to allow them to break the constraints of imposed marginalization4 and colonization policy. As a type of Trickster,5 cyberspace now plays a central role.
Natives are answering the process of colonization to redefine their role in Canada today, and they are also reflecting traditional teachings. These include the Seven Generations Prophecy (Iroquois, Onkwehonwe) and the Seventh Fire Prophecy (Ojibwe, Anishnabek). These teachings are related to concerns about the killing of mother earth along with her medicines, trees, fish and animal life (environmental degradation), and also with the social and economic crises in this and other countries. Today is the age of the Seventh Fire.
This thesis explores how cyberspace is helping to bring Native perspectives and prophecies to the centre of the world stage, but at the same time contributing to language loss and further marginalization. Cyberspace is linked to the idea of virtual reality, and “a unique and wonderful characteristic of the medium of virtual reality is the discourse surrounding it. The conversation is very broad and rich, involving people from technology, the arts, social sciences and philosophy. It encourages a fusion of these concerns in a way of thinking among its participants” (Laurel 1998: 331). That process is certainly underway.
My dissertation, a bricolage of theory and observations in cyberspace (data), shows that cyberspace allows us to see ourselves in many ways and on many levels; it is a tool that is teaching us new ways of looking at old things. It also holds keys to our understanding of ourselves, and our future as First Nations.
The geographic centre for this paper is the Eastern Woodlands of Canada, particularly the area encompassing the Great Lakes. The predominant nations around me right now in Ottawa, nations that have lived with or visited this land for centuries, are the Mohawks and others of the Iroquois Confederacy,6 the Algonquin and the Odawa, the Ojibwe, the Cree and other Anishnabek.7 I will also refer to other peoples and other areas of Canada, and insights from this work are also applicable to all First Nations, but my perspective is formed from this place and the people here. In particular, I have been working at and visiting a large circle of communities for the last ten years or so, including Kahnawake, Akwesasne, Tyendinaga, Six Nations (all Iroquois), Wikwemikong (Ojibwe), and Golden Lake and Maniwaki (Algonquin). My most recent visits were to Akwesasne in September to December of 2002, where I taught a writing course to Bachelor of Social Work students from Carleton (called Off-Campus education at the university; On-Reserve education at home).
Research was also undertaken in the city. Ottawa is a power centre for the federal government and draws the national voice of Native peoples. “Ottawa has the fastest growing native community of any city in the country” (Bohuslawsky 1994). The population is estimated at 31,000, or sixth highest of all urban Native populations in Canada. The Native community here is characterized as being close-knit, family-oriented and culturally aware, and many of the people drawn here are politicians, professionals or entrepreneurs.8 Many are also elders, artists, college and university students, healers and teachers.
I will begin with an examination of where cyberspace exists, followed by an overview of its population in terms of class, ethnicity and gender, then an examination of how cyberspace affects traditional (and Native) knowledge of time and space and ultimately transcends certain human traits once taken for granted (transhuman, morphing, cyborgs). An extensive review of the literature on cyberspace is here, along with a personal approach to local views, including my own, and from places such as the Assembly of First Nations.
I have also been conducting fieldwork in cyberspace for over ten years, finding information and following trends on listservs and websites. This data is combined with theory and literature on cyberspace, and with experiences on the ground, to highlight important themes for cyberspace. As I write this I am still logging more time in cyberspace (I can’t estimate the amount of time I have spent there in 15 years); my laptop is always handy, always surfing.9
Lastly, an objective is to describe some visions for the future use of cyberspace; because this work will be linked to First Nations and Native views in Canada, “the ultimate intent of ethnographically-led cyberspace studies… is to ground the process of imaging cyberspace on both a rich empirical understanding of what is actually taking place and to articulate ethically informed intellectual rules of thumb to guide further imagining… (in an effort to) help create cyberspace, not be created by it… Because its imaginings can affect the future, cyberspace ethnography has a distinct moral charge” (Hakken 1999: 227-28).10