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Know the West

Indian Country deserves better than Facebook

Social media has helped undo centuries of colonial disconnection, but Native communities need a much better platform.

Quitting Facebook is hard. Like anything addictive, Facebook promises to scratch an itch that it only teases and inflames. 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 blew the whistle. Haugen’s stacks of documents exposed, if there were any doubt, how Facebook (or “Meta,” if we must) has prioritized profits over human well-being time and time again. But the ubiquitous big blue book remains persistently sticky.

 

Facebook is hard to quit, not just because of its dopamine microdosing, but because it provides a basic utility. Despite everything we know about it, the demonstrably untrustworthy Menlo Park monopoly remains the most convenient and effective way to keep in touch with family and friends across great distances. Nowhere is this more true — nor are the stakes higher — than in Native American communities.

When I quit Facebook a few years ago, I wasn’t just sacrificing connections with friends. I was closing the door on a treasure trove of cultural knowledge and resources I knew I was unlikely to find elsewhere. Facebook is replete with ultra-niche cultural groups gathering and sharing tribal knowledge, some of which had been lost or inaccessible for generations. I joined a Facebook group for practicing the Choctaw language, a group for learning about Choctaw first foods, and another group dedicated to studying and revitalizing pre-colonization Choctaw tattoos. Some of these were only for users with tribal connections, to keep out culture vultures and avoid the leering anthropological gaze. Digital friendships blossomed into real relationships at in-person social gatherings and ceremonies that I would never have had access to otherwise.

America spent hundreds of brutal years meticulously disconnecting Native communities. After the Trail of Tears, my family and many others were, for the first time since the dawn of humankind, separated from our homes and homelands. Then, when the United States saw how resilient our sense of community remained in Indian Territory, it instituted assimilationist policies. By putting economic pressure on tribal nations and displacing their citizens using legislation like the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, the federal government drove individual Natives to coastal cities, looking for work. My family, like many others, migrated to California’s Central Valley. We lost the language — but not the accent. We lost the culture — but not the history. We got jobs, became dependent on grocery stores, and, lacking the support of our clan structures, decayed into nuclear families, just like regular Americans. For a few generations, assimilation seemed to be working. Then, like lightning, it changed: In a single decade, the internet opened a new space for reconnection.

In a single decade, the internet opened a new space for reconnection.

Even those trapped in urban landscapes, without immediate access to tribal communities, could now learn not just what it meant to be Native, but about the differences between pan-Indian culture and our distinctive tribal cultures. We could study our family trees, share stories, even learn to make moccasins. We could snail mail each other heirloom seeds that prescient tribal members had quietly propagated for generations. We could grow these first foods in our gardens and share recipes that have survived since time immemorial, cooking them the same way our ancestors did. We could organize everything from beading circles and stickball games to paradigm-shifting protests like Standing Rock. And a disconnected Native like me could suddenly, preciously, have contact with tribal elders, and learn my place in contemporary tribal society. The first time I heard powwow drums was through a Facebook livestream. Ignited, I began voraciously studying our tribal history and culture. The blinders of my American cultural programming dropped. In my excitement, I stumbled through a chain of humbling faux pas that outed me as a reconnecting newcomer. But it didn’t matter; I could not unhear those drums. Culture had found my family again.

This wasn’t due to Facebook alone, but since the platform opened its beta version to public users in 2006, it has played a prominent role in Indian Country. Being Indigenous is about connection to the land and to our communities. Facebook, and social media more generally, have created a new kind of landscape connecting us, and with it raised a great many questions about what Indigeneity and landscape mean in the digital age. COVID-19 has also ramped up the stakes, with some reservation communities relying on social media as their primary means of communication while they abstain from in-person gatherings.

But Facebook offers more than just communication. In the groups I belonged to, moderators had uploaded rare and valuable documents, like old VHS videos in which culture bearers explained the symbolism in beadwork, or PDFs of sewing patterns revealing the differences between regional styles. That’s not something you turn your back on lightly; we need these digital connections and resources. But I believe they should be rooted in ground more solid and less toxic than Facebook.

I could not unhear those drums. Culture had found my family again.

Twitter also has a strong utility component, with an active, though often hellishly toxic, inter-tribal Native community. Like Facebook, Twitter exacerbates mental unwellness and enables hate, but at the same time provides an unsurpassed way to follow the work of Indigenous scholars, politicians, lawyers, journalists, novelists, filmmakers and activists. Instagram provides Native beadworkers and artisans with a marketplace, but it’s owned by Facebook and is rife with its own problems, including the way it corrodes self-esteem. Research by the College of Information Sciences and Technology also shows that social media has put image power — the ability to tell one’s own visual stories, as opposed to having them told through racist mascots or Hollywood stereotypes — back in Native hands, which is important for representation and a positive sense of identity. The question facing us, then, is this: How do we replace the positive functions these platforms provide, without replicating their destructive qualities?

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.2/indigenous-affairs-one-woman-took-a-stand-against-tribal-disenrollment-and-paid-for-it-nooksack]

It’s clear (to me, anyway) that solutions won’t come from Silicon Valley. Idealistic startups tend to produce nihilistic billionaires, and that’s not who should be safeguarding Indigenous cultural knowledge or sustaining tenuous connections between fellow tribespeople and long-lost kin. A state-operated social media utility platform is another option, but it’s even less likely to seem trustworthy to most Natives. One alternative would be open-source software, like Mastodon. Nobody owns open-source software; anybody can edit the code, and it’s ad-free and volunteer-based. No money changes hands, so nobody can profit by manipulating your emotions or capturing your attention. In this way, open-source software closely reflects certain core tenets of Native civilization, like communalism and egalitarianism, and could possibly provide the grounds for Natives to establish healthy online communities for sharing cultural knowledge. This model already exists, but so far has failed to gain traction with digital Natives, despite a user-led attempt to migrate Native Twitter users to Mastodon in 2018. There are other open-source social media platforms, too, but they’re even fringier, which, for one thing, works against the inclusion of elders. Perhaps it’s time for a new open-source, Native-led platform. What would it take for such a thing to catch on?

Social media has done wonders for cultural preservation, community connection, organizing and representation. This new landscape is powerful and connective. But the way we use social media needs to mature. Natives in the digital age deserve a platform more trustworthy than Facebook or Twitter, something we can rely on like the solid Earth — somewhere we can put down digital roots.   

Brian Oaster (they/them) is a staff 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 [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.