Friday, November 6, 2009

Indigenous Cultural and Spiritual Survival: Utilising the Net in a Global Society

"[Globalization] can be incredibly empowering and incredibly coercive. It can democratize opportunity and democratize panic. It makes the whales bigger and the minnows stronger. It leaves you behind faster and faster, and it catches up to you faster and faster. While it is homogenizing cultures, it is also enabling people to share their unique individuality farther and wider.”

Since the term ‘globalisation’ swept into our consciousness over twenty years ago, it has been a hotly debated phenomenon, its impact in the economic, cultural and political sphere sparking both controversy and consensus. Typically, it has been associated with Western (more specifically the United States) neoliberalism which enables large institutional investors and transnational firms to impose their economic and political principles, control and influence upon the world’s markets (Gill, 1995, p. 405). In this view of globalisation, market civilisation has created a consumer culture which has become universalised, westernised, homogenised and ‘McDonalised’(Pieterse, 2004, p. 49) Critics argue, with good reason, that because of globalisation , cultural identities of weaker nations and sub-sets are being destroyed, poorer nations subordinated, participatory democracy and national sovereignty undermined and the environment ruthlessly exploited. Longchar (2007, p. 2) agrees with this assertion, claiming that Indigenous people, who have already suffered immense injustices, marginalisation and subjugation historically, are facing even graver threats of displacement and suppression with faster emerging globalisation. In the name of development, they have become victims of mines, industries, mega projects, reservoirs and tourism. Many have been forcibly evicted off their ancestral lands which hold immense spiritual significance. The Loss of land, the loss of culture, the loss of language and the loss of autonomy , first through colonisation then continued with globalisation has significantly contributed to the neglect, and in some cases the disappearance of, Indigenous people’s spirituality (Longchar, 2007, p. 4)

There is, however, another contradictory story - globalisation, is not only creating and proliferating cultural identity (Tomlinson, p. 270), it is also providing the technology for unrestricted acts of resistance socially, culturally and politically. The rapid growth and development of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), the impetus to the current wave of globalisation, has opened up new and unlimited possibilities for Indigenous communities to challenge protect, maintain, revitalise and reaffirm their cultural and spiritual identitie. In light of this, this essay will explore how Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), especially the internet, are being utilised by Indigenous communities in protecting and revitalising their cultural and spiritual identity. Two examples will be given. The first reveals the effectiveness of internet activism in protecting the traditional land of South American Indians from mining exploitation; the latter explores the importance of preventing the disappearance of cultural and spiritual identity through digital language revitalisation projects. To place it in context it is necessary to proceed first with an explanation of what Indigenous spirituality is, why it is important to Indigenous identity and how globalisation and ICTs are empowering Indigenous people to prevent its loss. This essay will not cover crucial aspects of the digital divide that also limits access to technology due to literacy, poverty and cost, as this is the topic that requires an essay in itself.

Indigenous Concepts of Spirituall

Indigenous culture and spirituality cannot be separated from the land. Their knowledge systems, ceremonies, rituals, songs, stories, festivals and dances are all deeply rooted in it. Muecke and Shoemaker (2004, p. 31) describe the ceremonies of Indigenous people as making “life rise up from the land, travel along it, and go down into the soil again.” Regardless of whether a person belongs to a traditional treble or is in varying degrees westernised, their identity is strongly defined by their relationships to land, to other people and to nature and all living things (Graham, p. 2). Many indigenous people perceive the land as their mother, nurturing and sustaining them. It is not only sacred it is the co-creator with the Creator: it owns the people and gives them identity (Longchar, 2007, p. 3). The inherited rights and responsibilities, such as being caretakers of their land, cannot be bought or sold as it has been established thousands of years ago in the ancestral past and repeated through conceptualisations of spirituality in the here and now (Smith & Ward, 2000, p. 5). This latter point is important because, as Arnold (2002, p 337) points out, Indigenous people rarely have public discussion about their ‘religion’. as it is not separate from their every day actions. Rather their discussions and activities in contemporary society are more political and economic, directed around issues of survival that affect their lives – environmental devastation, land claims, revitalizing languages, treaties etc. Ultimately, all these things impact on the spiritual dimensions of Indigenous lives.

ICTs and Indigenous Empowermen

Politically, Indigenous people have been the most marginalised groups in all aspects of life (Longchar, 2007, p. 1). Their position of powerlessness has been radically changed with the phenomenal growth of ICTs, especially the internet, and the corresponding enthusiasm for its use as tool for change. The number and diversity of sites, or sites pertaining to Indigenous issues is extremely encouraging. Dyson (2003, p. 1) lists a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it is free of cultural baggage, free of prejudice and does not recognise colour (p.11). Secondly, Indigenous people are traditionally an oral culture. The use of graphics, audio files and streaming videos on the internet is closer to indigenous ways of understanding (p. 1). Finally, the non –hierarchical nature of the internet provides indigenous individuals and communities with a platform that they have created to challenge the cultural, political and social hegemony of the dominant society. Their empowerment to act is a result of their ability to produce, access, adapt and apply knowledge without being filtered by Western anthropologists, missionaries, historians, government officials or other intermediaries. As Levy (as cited in Dyson, 2003, p. 8) so eloquently states:

"Spirally backwards, as it were, to the oral culture of a bygone age, knowledge might again be placed in the hands of living human groups, rather than being conveyed on various types of material support through interpreters or scientists."

Ginsberg (2002, p. 40) takes it further claiming that without control of ‘the archive’, if not the memory, there is no political power. After all, the fundamental battle here is over the minds of the people because if majority views are different from the prevailing values of those in power, then ultimately the system will change (Castells, 2007, p. 238). The key issue then, is for Indigenous people to have control over their land, over their history and over their past, present and future (Smith et al, 2000, p. 3). After a long history of dislocation through colonisation, Indigenous people have been in a constant state of ‘transmission and transformation’(p. 4). The use of the internet as a tool for change will be evident in the following examples of an internet campaign to save the ancestral lands of the U’wa, and Indigenous language projects that are digitally revitalised. Both have adapted the internet for their cultural and spiritual survival.
The Internet – Protecting the land, Preserving Spirituality

"...representatives of the indigenous Yanomamo people in Brazil travelled to the World Bank in the 1980s and argued before Bank officials that “development can have many meanings. Your interpretation is material. Ours is spiritual."

In the globalised world, capitalism, industrialisation and modernisation have increasingly alienated Indigenous people from their lands. The greedy grab and unchecked resource exploitation of their sacred and traditional lands to build roads, dams, energy plants, mines and tourist resorts is a result of technological advances and the imperatives of pleasing global financial markets. It is also the driving force behind the actions of governments, global corporations and the military to exterminate or disempower Indigenous communities that stand in their way. Loss of traditional sovereignty over hunting and gathering rights, loss of access to important sacred and cultural ceremonial sites and lack of consultation has had serious implications for Indigenous people. The impact has been even greater for indigenous communities who have had little contact with outsiders. According to Wilmer (as cited in Setton, 1999, p.14),’the act of development instils terror, causes psychological and somatic trauma and produces death either as a result of direct combat or as consequence of destroyed habitat.” He goes on to argue that many indigenous suffer a form of posttraumatic stress disorder when they are unable to locate themselves ‘within a cultural universe of meaning and continuity.’ Indigenous people across the world, face the challenges of extinction or survival and renewal in a globalized world. Although Indigenous people of Latin America were constitutionally given “the right to exist with their own social and economic organisation, their culture, and traditions, and their language and religion” (Gorman, 2003, p. 184) in the 1990s, the reality was they had not won the ability to exercise them. Regardless of the negotiations and agreements on paper, their voices were silenced and their protests largely ignored (Gorman, 2003, p. 184). Globalisation for Indigenous people is not just a question of racism, marginalization and ecological destruction: it is an ongoing attack on the very foundation of their cultural and spiritual identity.

The U’wa is an example of one Indigenous community who rose up as a counterpower to protect their spiritual home, their land, from destruction. Known in their language as ‘the thinking people’, the U’wa reside in the cloudforests of the Columbian Amazon and number approximately 5 000. They believe that the Earth granted them life and as such their ancestral lands and the resources it possesses are all sacred (Gorman, 2003, p. 172). They are also one of the few indigenous groups is Columbia who have managed to maintain their ancestral culture. In 1995 they posed a horrifying ultimatum: either Occidental Petroleum (Oxy), an American multinational oil company, abandon the drilling for oil on their ancestral lands or they would commit mass suicide by hurling themselves off a steep precipice. This was, they claimed, was what their ancestors had done in the 17th Century to avoid colonisation by the Spanish missionaries and what they would do to avoid their land being exploited and destroyed. This action was to begin an epic five year battle between the U’wa, Oxy, and the Columbian government, each bringing a different perspective. Landzelius (2006, p. 119) explains that the U’wa argued that they were a continuum of the past that began long before white man arrived. The stewardship of their traditional land was their ancestral right and responsibility: to drill for oil would severely wound Mother Earth as oil is her ‘blood’.

The provocative sensationalism of the U’wa mass suicide threat ensured that their internet crusade would appeal to what Guy Debord (as cited in Landzelius, 2006, p. 116) describes as a ‘society of the spectacle. Through the commitment and dedication of several environmental groups, among them the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Project Underground, the cause of the U’wa was to gain momentum. Within a year of contact, the U’wa protest to save their forest from degradation was orbiting in cyberspace with hyperlinks to a dozen or more human rights and environmental grassroots organisations. Landzelius (2006, p. 117) describes RAN’s website, one of many sites involved in the battle, as providing up-to-date bulletins of latest developments, scanned newspaper reports (translated if needed) , documents relating to Oxy, open letters, background history to familiarise those new to the site and discussion papers debating ethical issues such as exploitation of pristine areas, obscene profits from oil. There were links to other relevant sites and to the U’wa themselves. For Landzelius, the rich and captivating imagery of the U’wa in traditional dress living amongst the lush forest and exotic plants probably held the most emotional appeal, connecting the people to the U’wa. What is interesting is that these representations conjured up images of the idealised and stereotypical depiction of ‘noble savage’, in harmony with nature but ready to die to protect their homeland (p. 18). It was one of the reasons, she claims, that the campaign was so successful.

Organised support began from the moment an ‘action alert’ was placed on the internet by the Amazon Alliance for Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the Amazon Basin addressing the claims that Oxy was violating the rights of the U’wa (Gorman, 2003, p. 179) Growing awareness in the US followed after Columbian citizens, NGOs, international journalist, environmentalist, and 3000 students marched to the Ministry of Environment in Bogota to show their support of the U’wa. From that point on a transnational advocacy campaign on the internet began in earnest.(Gorman, 2003, p. 179) resulting in important actions being taken in1999. Hundreds of activists, along with U’wa leaders, descended on Occidental’s headquarters in Los Angeles to protest. .Around the World, protests were staged outside Columbian consulates in support of the U’wa. Shareholders representing eight hundred million dollars worth of stock, voted in favour of Occidental revaluating the project at their Annual General. Several months later another show of grassroots support took place in over twenty cities spanning ten countries. As a result of international and national support the U’wa won a critical victory in their battle to reclaim and protect their traditional lands and culture. In May 1998, after protests by U'wa activists in Los Angeles, Occidental Petroleum announced it would not explore for oil on lands claimed by the U'wa. In August 1999,the U’wa were granted legal title to the 543,000-acre, marking it as the first time in 500 years that the U’wa had gained rather than lost land.

Landzelius (2006, p. 129) makes an interesting observation, that even though the U’wa were prepared to sacrifice their bodies to protect their traditional lands from oil development, it was their virtual bodies that proved to be the decisive weapon in gaining international support. The success of the U’wa battle for the rights to their land challenged the notion that transnational corporations are invincible and untouchable. As Gorman points out (2003, p 188), transnational corporations may be becoming more powerful politically and economically than the nation-states across whose geographical and cultural borders they operate, but they must still deal with social movements that also operate across the same space. The very nature of the internet is creating new forms of organisation by connecting individuals and communities across time and space to form new networks of communication. There is truth in Manuel Castells' (1997, p. 1) assertions that these ‘new forms of organisation, in its pervasive globality, is diffusing the world......shaking institutions, transforming cultures, creating wealth and inducing poverty.”. There is also truth in his assertion that the technological revolution is alternately creating ‘a surge of powerful expressions of collective identity that challenge globalisation......on behalf of cultural singularity and people’s control over their lives and environment” (p. 2). The World Wide Web has provided the U’wa with a virtual platform to create their collective identity of resistance and articulate their message to the global community, a message that Landzelius sums up as ‘”think local, act global” (2006, p. 129)

The Internet -Revitalising Language, Strengthening Spirituality

“Language is our unique relationship to the Creator, our attitudes, beliefs, values and fundamental notions of what is truth. Our languages are the cornerstones of who we are as people. Without our languages our cultures cannot survive.”
“Language, as the direct expression of culture, becomes the trench of cultural resistance, the last bastion of self-control, the refuge of identifiable meaning.”

Language is at the core of identity. It is the most fundamental aspect of culture for it is through language that cultural information is accumulated, shared and passed on from generation to generation (Settee, 2008). Castells (1997, p. 49) argues that it is through language that certain events, rituals, the laws, myths and legends, the social institutions and other symbols of culture are symbolically shared, expressed, and lived. Nations are created from linguistic communities, he explains, ‘through the labours of shared history, and then spoken in the images of communal languages whose first word is we, the second is us,’ (p. 52) Meaning cannot be divorced from the interrelationships that exist between people and their environment. If language is lost, culture it lost. According to the Enduring Voices Project, there are at present, at least 300 million indigenous people worldwide who make up 6% of the world's total population. Of the nearly 7000 oral languages existing globally, 4000 to 5000 are spoken by Indigenous people. However, every 14 days a language dies. By 2100, they predict more than half of the 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain.

For Indigenous people the impact of this loss is being felt today. The languages of many Indigenous communities globally have long been endangered for a number of reasons. Government policies of colonial powers were of removal, relocation, and the termination of indigenous populations. Dixon (1990, p. 5) reveals that in a few places in Australia there were massacres of such severity that no speakers were left to pass a language on to the next generation. It was common practice for the colonisers to impose their language on the colonized, often refusing the colonised the right to speak their native tongue. in an attempt to assimilate Indigenous people into their dominant and hegemonic society As a result, the cultural knowledge that has sustained different group of peoples from the time of creation is at risk, some, such as Australia, severely threatened. Language deprivation and devaluation of Indigenous ways of knowing, their culture and their spirituality has had an enormous impact on the physical and psychological wellbeing of many individuals and communities (Wilmer, as cited in Setton, 1999, p. 14) It is from this deeply felt sense of loss that Indigenous nations have begun to dig their ‘trench of resistance’. As Warschauer (2000, p.166) points out the “defence of language means defence of community, autonomy, and power....People will struggle to maintain their language when they see it as not only an important part of their grandparents past, but also of their own future.” Campaigns for minority languages, more specifically indigenous languages, are therefore, responses to the activities of nation states rather than global change (Hourigan, p. 6).

Today, high-state-of-the-art ICTs are keenly embraced by many Indigenous groups to establish their identity. From the Samis in Norway to the Maoris in New Zealand, from the Aborigines of Australia to the Inupiat of Alaska, indigenous communities are imaginatively implementing initiatives to promote and protect their languages, customs and knowledge and also for community building. Powerful archives of the elders telling their stories are created by community members using films, cameras and audio equipment and placing them in cyberspace. Indigenous language databases and online dictionaries are easily accessed on the World Wide Web by Indigenous individuals and communities. Wiki, blogs, discussion boards, online tutorials and emails on the internet are creating more authentic ways to communicate and interact using the language. There are many notable examples of ICT language and culture revitalization projects that are ‘knitting together’ indigenous communities across local and national borders and bolstering their agendas for self-determination and autonomy. SameNet , an indigenous electronic network has been electronically catering to about 80, 000 indigenous Sami people. Samis were scattered across Finland, Norway and Sweden, and the Arctic regions of Russia when their lands were arbitrarily divided up by the aforementioned powers. SameNet is host to two projects: 1) Project@stoaphha which is devoted to online distance learning of their languages, culture and traditional occupation of reindeer herding. 2) Samasta-Project, a pedagogical initiative, to promote the Lule Sapmi language. It is a large web space of tutorials, texts, sounds and images that is accessed by 5 000 Samis. Cherokees are also digitally preserving and invigorating their language and traditions by circulating stories and recitations of tribal elders as source material. In addition they are reaching out to tourists by providing practical tips on hiking on their traditional land alongside alternative history lessons that are aimed at redressing the cultural degradation that has occurred as a result of colonisation. The Dena'ina Qenaga of Alaska is a web-based resource designed solely to provide information about the Dena'ina language. It includes information about language structure (grammar, pronunciation, spelling, etc.); information about learning the Dena'ina language (phrases and conversations, stories, etc.); and information about community language revitalization programs. Wangka Maya in Australia is one of 65 web-based language centres that record, and preserve the languages of the Pilbara region on a digital lexical database. There are 25 languages listed, all with information attached about the people who speak it, and number (if any) who still speak the language, the resources and recordings they have available and the traditional land it belongs to. Care is taken to ensure that non-Indigenous people who are working within the Indigenous community are provided with cultural awareness training addition, A number of community building initiatives reconnect those who may have lost contact due to Stolen Generation issues, migration, settlement issues and fostering. In addition, they also undertake partnerships or projects across a broad range of the community with the aim of fostering and developing cross cultural relationships, understanding and interest in Indigenous languages, culture and history. Both Maoris and Hawaiians immerse their students from preschool in ‘language nests’ that continue through to university. Use of the internet and all other ICTs have been crucial in engaging and immersing students, who are all products of the 21st century technology generation, in their language.

It has become of paramount importance to Indigenous communities globally, that their knowledge is passed along to the younger generation. Without speaking the language or understanding of the words of stories that the elders speak, and their ancestors spoke before them, the language dies. And when the language dies the culture dies. Yet how successful these programs are is difficult to say. As language revitalization programs using ICTs are a relatively new initiative, there is as yet an insufficient body of data to thoroughly measure and compare the long term success in terms of number of speakers and well-being of individuals and communities. .Buszard-Welcher (2001, p. 342) makes a valid point when she states that if the goal of these sites is to create new speakers, then they need to be more than virtual libraries, a repository of cultural information’. There needs to be a push towards creating more virtual speech communities’, where people meet, interact and communicate in their native tongue. After all, success or failure depends on whether the young language speakers of this generation will speak it to their children.


Language and land is at the core of the cultural and spiritual identity of Indigenous people. Both interact with each other to project their community’s history in the songs and stories they tell. Both hold the key to kinship systems and to the intricacies of knowledge systems including tribal law, customs, sacred objects and rites. Language and the connection to land are both a major factor in retaining cultural and spiritual identity. The goal of protecting ancestral lands and the goal of revitalising language is to ensure that future generations will understand the central part they have played in their culture. To use the language, and to connect to land in their everyday activities, even when they are no longer leading a traditional lifestyle, or living on their land is vital to cultural and spiritual survival. Through the creative and vigorous utilisation of ICTs, especially the internet, Indigenous people are creating another space that gives them a voice to protect their land, revitalize their language, fortify their ‘identity of resistance’ and strengthen their spirituality as Indigenous nations.


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