The Politics and Poetics of Digital Indigeneity in Latin America

by | Dec 13, 2017 | Uncategorized

The Politics and Poetics of Digital Indigeneity in Latin America
by Thea Pitman

(Originally posted here on 17 May 2017)

I’ve been interested in the ways in which indigenous communities across Latin America use the internet and other new information and communication technologies since I started research on Latin American digital cultural production, and cultures more generally, back in 2005. At that time, all I really knew about internet use in Latin America was the hype surrounding the Zapatistas’ alleged use of the internet in the mid-1990s to gain worldwide support for their cause, together with the seductive, though illusory, image of Subcomandante Marcos on his laptop in the Selva Lacandona. My research at that point focused on busting the myths surrounding the Zapatistas’ internet use – what was achieved in terms of cyberactivism, at least in the first instance, was heavily dependent on the actions of supporters elsewhere in the world who circulated information, rather than on the Zapatistas’s own use of the internet (Pitman, 2007). However, this is not to say that indigenous groups in Latin America weren’t using the internet at that point. The Zapatistas, as I argued, were not the first indigenous group to find tactical advantage in using the internet. Nor would they be the last…

Research on indigenous internet use in the region has really boomed since the mid noughties. Most of this research stems from media and communications studies and from anthropology (or a combination of both), has been conducted through on-the-ground fieldwork in Latin America, combined with internet ethnographic approaches, and has resulted in detailed case studies of individual communities or of the dynamics of adoption framed by the nation-state and its policies towards digital inclusion. Typically, studies have focused on the enormous, and still unresolved, issue of the digital divide: on access and on literacy. However, the best also go on to consider the issue of appropriation, of how indigenous communities can avoid simply becoming passive consumers of mainstream culture as they access the internet, or be seduced into handing over traditional knowledge for free to the sharing-cum-stealing culture of mainstream internet use, but can instead use it to lobby government for access to resources and fight for their rights, to make their communities more visible at a national and international level and in so doing to strengthen their sense of indigeneity through the forging of allegiances with other indigenous communities elsewhere in the region or in the world as a whole.

One question that comes up repeatedly is what difference the digital makes to the concept of indigeneity itself. Various books published in the noughties sold themselves on the ostensible incompatibility of ‘digital indigeneity’. We thus have Neil Blair Christensen’s Inuit in Cyberspace (2003) and Kyra Landzelius’s anthology Natives on the Net (2006). Nevertheless, this is just a sales pitch, designed to make your typical Western academic consumer sit up and pay attention. The authors and editors of these texts are really at pains to clarify that there is no incompatibility between being indigenous and using new technologies and it is, in fact, no more or less interesting or worthy of study than any other aspect of indigenous culture or cosmovision.

Nonetheless, this is not just a strategically exoticising gaze directed at indigenous internet users by Western academics. There is a tension evident in indigenous self-representation online that tends to perform the ‘indigeneity’ that those subjects believe mainstream society expects of them, particularly in the context of any discussion of how they relate to new technologies. This is particularly clear in the case of a very successful ethnojournalistic project such as the Brazilian portal Índios Online and related projects such as the online educational network Arco Digital (all supported by the NGO Thydêwá). Repeatedly in the images that circulate on the website, in the aesthetic choices made about web-page design, logos, headers, and in the discourse of the different voices that are included in these projects, there is a determination to ‘indigenise’ the internet by filtering concepts and practices through the lens of a ‘recognisable’, ‘traditional’ indigeneity. For example a computer connected to the internet may be reframed as an ‘arco digital’, a digital bow (with attendant arrow), and indigenous internet users become ‘guerreiros digitais’ or digital warriors. In visual terms, while photographs and videos of daily life that appear on the website show the use of traditional dress and decorative practices to be largely confined to moments in community life where a group’s heritage is being explicitly celebrated, there is a tendency to ensure that visible markers of traditional indigeneity are clearly in view whenever someone is pictured using a computer.

To be clear: I’m not identifying this as a weakness. It is a strategically essentialising tendency in indigenous self-representation. In particular, the performance of recognisable indigeneity is very much part and parcel of the politics of asserting indigeneity for the communities involved in the Índios Online network. Indigenous groups in the North-East of Brazil have all experienced a process of state-declared extinction in the 19th century, followed by gradual re-emergence over the course of the 20th century and particularly after the 1988 constitution that offered the possibility of formally demarcating indigenous territories. It is also the case that these groups depend more than many other more isolated groups on access to new technologies as part of what supports their re-emergence, but they also know that they need to self-represent as clearly indigenous as they engage in practices that mainstream society will see as incompatible with the re-assertion of indigeneity and use to condemn them as asserting a fraudulent kind of indigeneity.

Digital bows and arrows are not the only way of ‘indigenising’ the internet. Frequently critics have noted the fact that digital culture has grown out of the practice of weaving – the Jacquard loom is the origin of binary code – and have thus suggested that a multimodal discourse of weaving will prevail in indigenous appropriations of the internet, and even that indigenous people are the original cyborgs, based on an appropriation of Donna Haraway’s theorisation of oppositional cyborgs as being more inclined to ‘(net)weave’ rather than ‘network’ (1991[1984]). It is certainly the case that some communities, such as the Nasa of Southwestern Colombia do adopt a discourse of weaving in relation to their online activities. However, I would suggest that this kind of approach, particularly at a textual level, is more unusual than critics might claim.

While the reasons underpinning these choices of appropriating discourse are the subject of my current research, I would like to end by referencing perhaps the best example of where these two modes of indigenising discourse combine: The book @rco Digital (Kariri-Xocó, Nhenety, et al. 2007), that summarises the achievements of the online educational network mentioned above, has as its subtitle: ‘Uma rede para aprender a pescar’, thus combining the ‘warrior’ or ‘hunter-gatherer’ discourse of the fishing net which is used for obtaining food with a ‘weaving’ discourse born of the fact that the same fishing net is of course a form of textile (and there’s even a further echo of that other webbed textile much associated with indigenous lifeways in Brazil which is the hammock). Furthermore, on the back cover of the book, the lead author, Nhenety Kariri-Xocó, asks provocatively: ‘Você sabe quem inventou a Rede?’ [Do you know who invented the net/web?], thus contriving to frame his reference to ‘the net’ in such a way as to challenge the endless colonialist rhetoric surrounding the invention of networked digital technologies and the consequent occupation of cyberspace, of ‘homesteading on the electronic frontier’ (cf. Rheingold 2000[1993]). What this colonialist rhetoric achieves is, according to Ziauddin Sardar, a rerun of the Conquest without the inconvenience of there being anyone in the way, and thus allows the white, Western internet-user the fantasy of being both cyber-conquistador and digital native (Sardar 2000[1996]). Instead, in Nhenety’s formulation indigenous people become first-come in cyberspace. And this kind of rhetorical manoeuvre is perhaps what a poetics of ‘digital indigeneity’ can most fruitfully achieve.

Thea Pitman, University of Leeds

Christensen, Neil Blair. 2003. Inuit in Cyberspace: Embedding Offline Identities Online. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, pp. 149-81. [First published 1984.]

Kariri-Xocó, Nhenety, and other indigenous people. 2007. @rco Digital: Uma Rede para Aprender a Pescar, ed. by Derval Cardoso Gramacho and Sebastián Gerlic. Maceió, Alagoas, Brazil: Ideário. Also available online at:

Landzelius, Kyra, ed.. 2006. Native on the Net: Indigenous and Diasporic Peoples in the Virtual Age. London: Routledge.

Pitman, Thea. 2007. ‘Latin American Cyberprotest: Before and After the Zapatistas’, in Latin American Cyberculture and Cyberliterature, ed. by Claire Taylor and Thea Pitman (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press), 85-109.

Rheingold, Howard. 2000. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). [First published 1993.]

Sardar, Ziauddin. 2000. ‘Alt.civilizations.faq: Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West’, in The Cybercultures Reader, ed. by David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy (London: Routledge), pp. 732-52. [First published 1996.]