Quitting Facebook is difficult. Like anything addictive, Facebook promises to scratch an itch that it only teases and ignites. We know how bad it is for our personal health, for the safety of marginalized people and for the health of democracy – and we knew all this before former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen sounded the alarm. Haugen’s stacks of documents exposed, if there was any doubt, how Facebook (or âMeta,â if it has to) has time and again prioritized profits over human well-being. But the ubiquitous Big Blue Book remains sticky all the time.
Facebook is hard to stop, not just because of its dopamine microdosing, but because it provides basic utility. For all we know about it, Menlo Park’s clearly untrustworthy monopoly remains the most convenient and efficient way to stay in touch with family and friends over great distances. Nowhere is this more true – and the stakes are not higher – than in Native American communities.
When I left Facebook a few years ago, I wasn’t just sacrificing my relationships with friends. I closed the door to a treasure trove of cultural knowledge and resources that I knew was unlikely to be found elsewhere. Facebook is teeming with ultra-niche cultural groups bringing together and sharing tribal knowledge, some of which has been lost or inaccessible for generations. I joined a Facebook group to practice the Choctaw language, a group to learn the early Choctaw foods, and another group dedicated to the study and revitalization of pre-colonization choctaw tattoos. Some of them were only intended for users with tribal connections, in order to keep vultures away from culture and avoid the peeping anthropological gaze. Digital friendships have morphed into real relationships in social gatherings and in-person ceremonies that I would never have had access to otherwise.
America has spent hundreds of brutal years painstakingly disconnecting Indigenous communities. After the trail of tears, my family and many others were, for the first time since the dawn of humanity, separated from our homes and our homelands. Then, when the United States saw how resilient our sense of community remained in Indian Territory, it instituted policies of assimilation. By putting economic pressure on tribal nations and displacing their citizens using laws such as the Indian Resettlement Act of 1956, the federal government drove native people to coastal towns in search of work. . My family, like many others, migrated to the Central Valley of California. We have lost the language, but not the accent. We have lost the culture, but not the history. We got jobs, became addicted to groceries, and lacking the support of our clan structures, we collapsed into nuclear families just like ordinary Americans. For a few generations, assimilation seemed to work. Then, like lightning, that changed: in just one decade, the Internet has opened up a new space for reconnection.
In just one decade, the Internet has opened up a new space for reconnection.
Even those trapped in cityscapes, without immediate access to tribal communities, can now learn not only what it means to be indigenous, but also the differences between Pan-Indian culture and our distinctive tribal cultures. We could study our family trees, share stories, and even learn how to make moccasins. We could send each other heirloom seeds that premonitory tribal members had quietly propagated for generations. We could grow these early foods in our gardens and share recipes that have survived from time immemorial, cooking them the same way our ancestors did. We could organize everything from bead circles and stickball games to paradigm shift protests like Standing Rock. And a disconnected native like me could suddenly, preciously, have contact with the elders of the tribe and learn about my place in contemporary tribal society. The first time I heard powwow drums was through a live stream on Facebook. Fired up, I began to voraciously study our tribal history and culture. The blinders on my American cultural programming have fallen. In my excitement I stumbled through a chain of humility misstep it revealed me as a reconnecting newcomer. But it didn’t matter; I couldn’t hear these drums. Culture had found my family.
This was not due to Facebook alone, but since the platform opened its beta to public users in 2006, it has played a leading role in the Indian country. To be indigenous is to be connected to the land and to our communities. Facebook, and social media more generally, have created a new kind of landscape that connects us, and with it, has raised many questions about what indigeneity and landscape mean in the digital age. COVID-19 has also raised the stakes, with some booking communities relying on social media as their primary means of communication while refraining from meeting in person.
But Facebook offers more than just communication. In groups I belonged to, moderators had uploaded rare and valuable materials, like old VHS videos in which culture bearers explained the symbolism of beadwork, or PDFs of sewing patterns revealing differences between regional styles. . It’s not something you turn your back on lightly; we need those digital connections and resources. But I think they should be rooted in stronger, less toxic soil than Facebook.
I couldn’t hear these drums. Culture had found my family.
Twitter also has a strong utilitarian component, with an active, though often extremely toxic, inter-tribal Indigenous community. Like Facebook, Twitter exacerbates mental illness and promotes hatred, but at the same time offers an unparalleled means of following the work of academics, politicians, lawyers, journalists, novelists, filmmakers. and indigenous activists. Instagram provides a market for beadwork and indigenous artisans, but it’s owned by Facebook and plagued by its own issues, including how it eats away at self-esteem. Research from the College of Information Sciences and Technology also shows that social media has handed over the power of the image – the ability to tell one’s own visual stories, instead of having them told through racist mascots or Hollywood stereotypes. – in indigenous hands, which is important for representation and a positive sense of identity. The question that arises then is the following: how to replace the positive functions provided by these platforms, without reproducing their destructive qualities?
It is clear (to me anyway) that the solutions will not come from Silicon Valley. Idealistic startups tend to produce nihilistic billionaires, and they’re not the ones who should protect indigenous cultural knowledge or maintain tenuous ties between tribesmen and long-lost relatives. A state-run social media utility platform is another option, but it’s even less likely to seem trustworthy to most natives. An alternative would be open source software, like Mastodon. No one has open source software; anyone can change the code, and it’s ad-free and volunteer-based. No money changes hands, so no one can profit by manipulating your emotions or capturing your attention. In this way, free software closely reflects some fundamental tenets of indigenous civilization, such as communitarianism and egalitarianism, and could potentially provide indigenous people with a basis for establishing healthy online communities to share cultural knowledge. This model already exists, but so far it has failed to gain traction with digital natives, despite a user-led attempt to migrate native users from Twitter to Mastodon in 2018. There are also digital natives. other open source social media platforms, but they are even fringier, which, on the one hand, goes against the inclusion of seniors. Maybe it’s time for a new open source platform led by Native. What would it take for such a thing to spread?
Social media has done wonders for cultural preservation, community connections, organization and representation. This new landscape is powerful and connective. But the way we use social media needs to mature. Digital natives deserve a more reliable platform than Facebook or Twitter, something we can rely on like solid Earth – a place where we can establish digital roots.
Brian Oaster (they / them) is a writer at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at [emailÂ protected] or send a letter to the editor. See our letters to the political editor.
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