Indigenizing the digital world

TVO.org talks to three Indigenous creators — of video games, apps, online archives, and more — about how they’re working to develop richer, more inclusive online spaces
By Haley Lewis - Published on March 15, 2019
three Indigenous leaders
Brad Pine, owner of the Etribe Network; Meagan Byrne, game designer; and Monique Manatch, executive director of Indigenous Culture and Media Innovations. (Courtesy of Meagan Byrne, Brad Pine, and Monique Manatch)

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Indigenization is an evolving concept, and, as such, it can be tricky to define.

The Memorial University Gazette defines it as “change led by Indigenous people to bring Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing into spaces that are not designed for those ways.” An Indigenous cultural-competency training document from the City of Toronto calls it “the intentional process of remaking inherited structures and processes in ways that acknowledge and respect, and include Indigenous worldview, knowledge systems, values, and approaches.” 

Niigaan Sinclair, a professor of Native studies at the University of Manitoba, refers to it simply as “the process of building our own institutions with Indigenous voices at the centre.”

The term is often applied to changes being introduced at post-secondary institutions, but it also describes the ways in which Indigenous creators — of video games, dating apps, online archives, and more — are shaping the digital world.  

TVO.org spoke with three such creators about empowering Indigenous people and developing a richer, more inclusive digital space.

Brad Pine, a member of Garden River First Nation, is the owner of Etribe Network — the company behind RezFox, a dating app; Tipi BnB, an Indigenous homestay experience; and Waboos, a search engine that populates only with Indigenous results. 

Etribe is a work in progress. Waboos has been around for years, but Pine hopes to see the number of listings increase. Currently, between 200 and 300 First Nations businesses are accessible on the site; by 2020, he aims to raise that number to 50,000. 

The company also recently relaunched RezFox. Like many of Etribe’s other endeavours, Pine says, RezFox is intended to serve a bigger purpose — education. “RezFox is not just about Natives dating Natives,” he says. “If there's a non-Native person who wants to go on RezFox, or any of our sites, and actually have a conversation with First Nations, they can.”

While Pine values the Indigenization of digital space, he says that boosting the Indigenous economy, keeping up with current technology, and education are more important.

RezFox encourages Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to interact; Tipi BnB, Pine hopes, will make it possible for travellers to stay with Indigenous families – both on and off reserve — to learn about their culture first-hand, and Waboos provides access to Indigenous services and resources right at your fingertips. 

“At Etribe, we try to break down those stereotypes between Natives and non-Natives by inviting them into our communities,” Pine says.

Meagan Byrne takes a different view. She sees digital space as an opportunity to create something entirely Indigenous from the ground up. 

“We can say we don't need your system; we can create our own — which I don't think Indigenous people have been able to do before in a colonized system,” says Byrne. “Coming from places of immense trauma and constant change and never having a space to call your own, digital space can be incredibly healing.”

Byrne is a Métis game designer and the first digital and interactive coordinator at imagineNATIVE, the world’s largest Indigenous film and media-arts festival. She says that digital space gives Indigenous programmers the opportunity to be independent.

“One of the beautiful things about being able to make your own digital media as an Indigenous person is unless somebody gets a hold of your source code, it's impossible for them to take away what you've done,” says Byrne. 

She showcased her first game, Wanisinowin, for an Indigenous audience at Indigicade, a program designed to help young Indigenous women  make their own games. That decision, she says, was crucial to her creative process. “I would not have been comfortable showcasing that at a non-Indigenous event first,” says Bryne. “Mostly because it was totally personal, and I didn’t want to have someone who was non-Indigenous look at it and be like, ‘Oh, I think I understand you’ — because they don’t.”

That’s one of the reasons Byrne thinks Indigenous people should create separate spaces for themselves in the digital world. Primarily Indigenous events, such as Indigicade and imagineNATIVE, she says, give Indigenous people the opportunity to showcase their work in a safe environment — and then decide whether they want to bring it to the general public.  

Monique Manatch is a member of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake and the executive director of Indigenous Culture and Media Innovations, an Ottawa-based collective that works to create access for Indigenous people into multimedia arts.

ICMI is developing an archive called Indigital Cultures. Manatch hopes that it will become a place where communities from across the world can share and use materials ranging from art to educational resources.

“Traditionally, we had enormous trade networks. We used the rivers as our highways, and we’ve always shared knowledge,” says Manatch. “I think now, with the advent of digital technology, we can recreate a space where we're doing those things again.”

Last month, Manatch organized and hosted the Indigital Cultures Gathering in Ottawa. The event brought together Indigenous creators and researchers from across the world to talk about “the digitalization of who we are and what that represents.” They spoke about sovereignty and about protecting and sharing traditional knowledge in the digital age.

Manatch believes that digital technology offers an opportunity for Indigenous communities to revive and preserve elements of their oral culture: “We've always transmitted our knowledge orally, with songs, stories, or mnemonic devices, and when you try to write these things down, something gets lost.

Technology, she says, allows for the long-term preservation of knowledge — something that will help communities for years to come: “If you videotape an elder, you can hear their voice even after they're gone; you catch the nuance, the subtleties, the meaning beneath the meaning.”

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