Internet Indigeneity & Anthropological Advocacy: text of a presentation at the University of South Florida (March 19, 2008)

Practicing Anti-Extinctionism, Diffusing Indigeneity, and Web Development as Action Research.


For the past several years I have been working on two separate gaps in anthropological research and practice that would normally be viewed as separate and distinct. For some time now, speaking in ethnographic terms about either contemporary indigenous peoples of the Caribbean or the social and cultural dynamics created within the Internet have been both very marginal in contemporary anthropology, despite all the attention to manifestations of indigenous resurgence in other parts of the world, despite the widespread refutation of the “end of history” thesis of Francis Fukuyama and others, and despite many anthropologists’ calls for attention to be paid to globalization, to flows, to issues of mobility, to the media, and so forth. Thus one of the challenges that I found compelling was to marry these two distinct and ostensibly separate fields of inquiry: the first, a more traditional-looking on-the-ground study of the resurgence of indigenous identities and communities in the Caribbean, with the second, doing ethnography in new ways and new places, especially in cyberspace. What I did not realize at first was the extent to which this combination of the unheard of and the unorthodox would open up a challenge to the practices of the discipline, to relationships with objects of study, to modes of writing, conceptions of “the field”, and so forth. This led me to the recognition that ethnography conducted in a manner that is very conscious about its medium (a conscious self-reflection that we find in visual anthropology as well the various experiments with writing ethnography that extend a few decades back into the history of the discipline) is a consciousness that often takes us into reflections on the practice of anthropology and of our relationships with the persons we engage in our research. These last statements take me beyond what I will focus on in this presentation, and so I will focus primarily on a descriptive and analytical summary of my work on Caribbean indigenous resurgence and the Internet.

meusfweb.jpgThe ethnographic focus of my research experiences was a dual, consisting of what was largely a more recognizably traditional offline study of resurgent groups such as the Santa Rosa Carib Community in Arima, Trinidad, combined with online interaction and observation of relatively newer Taíno organizations based in the U.S., consisting mostly of immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and for whom the Internet has been a vital, central, and fundamental platform for organization, recruitment, personal expression and cultural representation. I thus began offline and later moved online: the impetus being a reciprocity agreement I had signed with the leader of the Carib Community in Arima, to assist them with whatever technological, graphic, and writing knowledge I had, in return for access to the community. I thus worked with leading members of the Carib Community in writing letters, assisting with their reports and budget statements submitted to various government ministries, producing media releases, and assisting with writing development plans to attract state funding. One of the additional components of my work consisted of producing what soon became five different websites for the Carib Community, as well as one central website for the Carib Community, the latter continuing to this day.

The Websites that I produced required research in advance, on my part, sitting down and discussing what should be shown and how, what should be said or not, and what the scope and goals of the sites should be. In fact, the first step was often that of explaining to various members of the Carib Community what the Internet itself was, especially as most of the elderly members were not literate, had no previous contact with a computer, and in some cases even lacked the electricity and telephone connection needed to access the Internet should they ever, by some magic, acquire a computer. The websites that were created represented, to a large extent, collaborative writing exercises, emerging from meetings, conversations, and interviews. Viewers would not have known that the launching of some of the websites were also occasions for parties in my apartment, with photographs, drinking, music, drinking, laughter, and much more drinking. In more sober terms, what I did not realize then, consciously, was that already, even under very limiting circumstances, already the online and the offline worlds had started to penetrate each other, that a website was shadowed by offline social interactions, and that offline interactions cast an online shadow in the form of a website. Soon after I began to discover a wide, and now impossibly wide, range of related websites on other indigenous communities and persons in the Caribbean Basin. Most of the communities within the Caribbean were represented, indirectly, in websites about them. In a minority of cases, such as mine, or that of the UNDP in Guyana, there were websites produced for indigenous organizations. The vast majority of indigenous created, authored and owned websites were, however, those of the US-based Taínos.

The result of these early experiences led to my creating various online fora with a wider embrace, such as the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink-part directory, part listserv, part message board, part online publishing centre-and then one of the earliest and still existing open access, peer reviewed journals in anthropology and history, that being KACIKE. I also became active in online content organization and classification, as one of about 38,000 voluntary editors with the Open Directory Project, which for a long time provided the core of Google search results. In the last three years I have also become active in both collaborative and individual blogging, and I have begun to explore the potentials of what some call “social network sites” such as Facebook, and NING (which allows you to create, for free, your own SNS).

The sum of these activities, often deeply immersive, scattered, mutually distracting even if mutually reinforcing, lonely and yet collaborative, has like anything else we label “fieldwork” posed a challenge to gaining a sense of analytical detachment, of distance, and perspective, especially as it is the kind of fieldwork that simply does not end, has no fixed locus, and can’t easily be left. Online research and activism can be both addictive and disenchanting, uplifting and nauseating, illuminating and hallucinatory, empowering and humiliating, rewarding and risky.

meusflectsmall.jpgI have said that the Internet may be for marginalized indigenous minorities what the printing press was for European nationalism. Among the persons and communities that have had access to the technology there has been considerable enthusiasm from early on. We know, for example, that there has been indigenous engagement with the World Wide Web almost from its inception. The website of the Oneida Indian Nation in the State of New York was, reputedly, the first site to be launched by any indigenous body anywhere, coming online in 1994 even before the website for the White House, at a time when there were perhaps only 5,000 Internet sites in total (Polly 1998). For more marginalized communities, those without a territorial base, a governing body, or recognition by the state, or even without a home in their place of origin, such as the Taíno groups in New York, sites began to appear around 1996. From that time one can witness a concerted effort to challenge theories of Taíno extinction, while seeking out supporters and followers. While I have no numbers to share, if one visited the websites of the United Confederation of Taíno People, or the Jatibonicu Taíno Tribal Nation, or any of the dozens of other sites one would see thousands of messages posted to the guestbooks and message boards of each site, where individuals usually announced that they had Taíno heritage, or were interested in learning about their Taíno heritage, or wished to add their voices to denunciations of theories of extinction. This is a phenomenon that has been witnessed by other researchers interested in the recovery of American Indian identities in the U.S. For example, Delgado-P. & Becker (1998) argued that indigenous heritage increased once Internet systems such as e-mail and Usenet newsgroups were put in place: “People claiming Indian heritage began populating the newsgroups and mailing lists. Many people used the Internet to raise questions concerning their personal and collective identities and to share their histories. Before the Internet, these histories were only accessible through restricted classified systems at university or public libraries. In other words, the information came home and in exchange, people started to share their own oral histories regarding their indigenous experiences”.

“We are not extinct” has become the leitmotif of online self representations by Caribbean indigenous persons and a basis for online activism, especially among Taínos. Indeed, the only Facebook group about indigenous peoples of the Caribbean is titled simply, “Yes, there still are indigenous people in the Caribbean”. The Internet has provided a means not of ignoring prior social and cultural realities as they were widely perceived, but challenging those perceptions in an effort to create new realities. The Internet serves in the creation “screen memories” (to borrow Faye Ginsburg’s metaphor), helping to encode and establish presence where presence is precisely what has been under threat-as she puts it: “indigenous people are using screen media not to mask but to recuperate their own collective stories and histories…that have been erased in the national narratives of the dominant culture and are in danger of being forgotten in local worlds as well” (Ginsburg, 2002, p. 40). The Internet has gone a long way toward enabling some Caribbean aboriginals, especially those who are best positioned to make use of it, to affirm self-determination in their own self-representations. As Turner found in the case of video, new techniques of representation may empower persons to transform their stock of social and cultural forms (2002, p. 80). The very practice of representation helps to establish the reality being recorded on Taíno websites(see Turner, 2002, p. 87), which is primarily centered on survival, resistance, and difference.

Some researchers, such as Rob Kling have argued that, “every set of facts in virtual reality…is shadowed by a second, complicating set: the ‘real-life’ facts” (1996:439). We may need to add “and vice versa”, since it is increasingly common today to find that the so-called “real-life facts” are shadowed by a second, complicating set: the facts of virtual reality. Yet others, such as Rob Shields, point to the philosophical problems in dissociating the virtual from the real, noting that real social facts (identity, community, public, gender, global, etc.), like virtual facts, consist of intangibles and potentialities. Shields asks us to understand that “the real” is constituted by both the ideal/virtual (intangibles, such as memories, dreams, etc.), and the actual/concrete/ material.

melectsmall.jpgSo what is “the real” as we have known it thus far with reference to the presence or absence of the indigenous in the Caribbean? In most of the social science literature on the cultural development of the post-Conquest Caribbean there seems to be a consensus that the indigenous has been absent or severely diminished. The dominant themes in the social science and other literature are that indigenous peoples in the Caribbean became virtually extinct (in biological terms, they underwent miscegenation, and are no longer viewable as distinct physical types, although even this has been challenged for nearly a century), or that they have had limited cultural impact on the post-Conquest Caribbean. Already that is a bundle of confusion ripe for vigorous online contestation-taking phenotype as a direct transcription of genotype, mixing cultural presence with impact, and so forth. The main emphasis of the Taíno websites has been to show that total biological extinction is not a fact, and here they have drawn on the genetic research of Dr. Juan Carlos Martinez Cruzado, and that distinctive beliefs and practices also persist and can be found diffused within the larger national populations of the various island territories in question.

The assertion of ‘survival’, by self-described ‘revivalist’ and ‘restorationist’ groups online, occurs precisely because the offline realm places many more constraints on the dissemination of these assertions. As Cisler (1998) observed: “One of the strongest reasons for having a presence on the Internet is to provide information from a viewpoint that may not have found a voice in the mainstream media”. In helping to promote the visibility of peoples long believed to have been extinct, or ignored for being minorities, the Internet also helps to embody groups facing difficulties in gaining acceptance as “indigenous”, whilst facilitating mutual recognition and validation between these groups thus lending further authority and authenticity to the individual groups in their own offline contexts.

The plethora of websites by Caribbean Amerindians, especially Puerto Rican Taínos, stressing the message, “we are not extinct,” making full use of the social respectability of scientific research, has served to build a new field of possibility and a new space for identity which older media, often monopolized by more conservative scholarly interests, left largely closed. In challenging dominant knowledge, they have created space for community, for wider associations, that then translate into observable impacts on the ground, offline. That computer networks can indeed foster ‘community’, via the fragmentation of knowledge that underlies the formation of specialized communities is something noted by researchers such as Gregorian (1996:602).

These online struggles have produced some noteworthy successes in gaining recognition and some degree of validation from the usual authorities. For example, The Encyclopaedia Britannica has an entry for “Taíno” that states: “Although Taíno culture was largely wiped out, groups of Taíno survived colonization….In 1998 the United Confederation of Taíno People was created as an umbrella organization for the affirmation and restoration of Taíno culture, language, and religion”. Given that encyclopaedias are often the first (and perhaps last) research resource used by young students and general members of the public, it is significant to find such validation of the UCTP. Given that Wikipedia has now become the first and sometimes last resource consulted by students doing research, the Taíno entry became a battle zone, one that has largely been conquered by the UCTP and those sympathetic to its cause. In addition, I recall that the first time I learned of the Jatibonicu Taíno Tribal Nation was via the Website of the Discovery Channel which had an impressive array of pages devoted to an archaeological expedition centered on Taíno history, but with added links to the JTTN as a valuable source of information from “Today’s Taíno”. I could go on, and talk about the various UN bodies that have selected Taíno leaders to head various commissions, or how the UN sends missions to Caribbean member states to press for recognition of indigenous minorities, to revise their census categories, the coverage by the print media, and so forth.

Other Caribbean nationals, at home and away, have tapped into this online resurgence, broadening and diffusing Caribbean indigeneity in the process. I am speaking specifically here of persons who may not even self-identify as indigenous, but who derive some sense of intellectual and emotional satisfaction by seeing indigenous heritage, and indigenous presence, being validated and reasserted. In fact, my research has clumsily and very slowly begun to gravitate towards these persons, specifically the work of some very dynamic, super talented Trinidadian bloggers, both in Trinidad and abroad. I am no longer in a field dominated by place names such as Arima, Salybia, Caridad de los Indios, or Baracoa. Now the dominant site names in my area of interest are: Black Girl on Mars, Now is Wow, The Bookman, Guanaguanare (The Laughing Gull), Temple of Ankara, Choonkaloonks, among others.

Website development as a mode of action research is the next topic I wish to briefly address and which will close my presentation. Scholars, both in conflict and collaboration with online indigenous acitivists have helped to shape a growing network that is challenging received wisdom in academic circles about the cultural history of the Caribbean, as well as challenging previously dominant modes of knowledge production and hierarchies of expertise. Speaking about myself, my initial move online, which was to project what was offline, led to the creation of new online realities that represented a significant shift in how I conceived of ethnography.

meusfspeak.jpgAs I have said elsewhere, the transformations of ethnographic practice that may result from Web-based and Web-oriented ethnographic research can be summarized as a series of moves from participant observation to creative observation, from field entry to field creation, and from research with informants to research with correspondents and partners. Conventional notions surrounding the gathering of data, the production of knowledge, and the social relationships that both mediate research and are the outcome of research, thus undergo enough transformation that it is no longer absolutely clear where knowledge production begins and ends, who the producers are, and the distinction between consumers of information and coproducers of meaning becomes blurred.

As far as I could see, at least up to 2003, little or no attention had been paid to the process of Web site development as a research method with its own specificities, whether in the literature on (traditional or virtual) ethnography, Internet research, or even action research. Even though there is increased recognition of the use of information and communication technology as a potentially powerful adjunct to action research processes, there is a vacuum of published studies on the use of action research methods in such projects. It is not surprising, therefore, that a subdivision of that area of interest-Web site development-would receive even less attention than the area of online action research as a whole. Indeed, even in the journals dedicated to Internet research, such as The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, First Monday, and the International Journal of Internet Science, there is no published study that reflects upon website development, and I gather that the reason may be that it is seen as a purely technical, even tedious process that merits no investigation, much like I can imagine there are no journal articles about typing, or font selection, and so forth. Today, with so many pre-fabricated social network sites, such as Facebook and Myspace, I expect there will be even less concern for older forms of do-it-yourself page development. And yet that is a significant difference between something like the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink and a network on Facebook. The CAC was a bundle of interests and persons, you might even say an emergent community, in search of a code, whereas Facebook is code in search of community, and community is adjusted to the dictates of the code. Facebook is a top down solution, whereas the CAC was comparatively more of a grass roots, rudimentary, trial and error, type of process.

I mentioned earlier that ethnography can undergo some significant transformation in cases such as that of the CAC. Ordinarily, with what we call “fieldwork” (a term that I actually find distasteful) an anthropologist goes to a community, a place, a location that preexists the research project, that must preexist the research project or else arrival itself becomes an impossibility. In creating the CAC and then using it as a source of data about the interactions it generates, we are dealing with something different-here the researcher and other partners predate the site, they create the site, they don’t arrive at it. Field creation in this case involves the construction of a Web-based information resource that fosters a community of interacting interests. This resource then becomes a site of research in its own right. The process of field creation in many ways inverts conventional offline anthropological fieldwork, a type of fieldwork to which the concept of field creation implicitly refers. In the process of field creation, the researcher also becomes an informant to his or constituency of “users,” fielding questions from a wide public audience; the “site” is created by the researcher; and “informants” might now more accurately serve as “contacts” and “correspondents,” while those whom we used to call informants may also be acting as researchers in their own right. Participant observation is still a pertinent concept, except that in having helped to produce a site that generates community-like ties, the participant observer stands in relation to his or her work as a creative observer, now part of the foreground and out of the background. I also call this mode of participant observation, creative observation, because the researcher has created the basis, the infrastructure, the opportunity for that what is observed.

The Internet also permits the co-construction of cultural representations and documentary knowledge, especially where the resource that is produced is the result of collaboration between those we traditionally sorted out as the researchers and the researched. In broader terms, the Internet defeats the linear document, and has thus proven to be a very inviting vehicle for co-construction, in that it facilitates ongoing revision, linkage between related documents and media of expression, wide dissemination and feedback. Frankel and Siang observed that the Internet, in their words, “enables some individuals or populations, who might not be able to or willing to do so in the physical world, to participate in the research, hence giving some a voice that they would not otherwise have outside of online research” (1999, p. 4; see also Allen, 1996, p. 186, and AoIR, 2002, p. 12). Wilson and Peterson concurred when they stated, “the Web has created a new arena for group and individual self-representation, changing the power dynamics of representation for traditionally marginalized groups such as Native Americans within the discourses of popular culture” (2002, p. 462). At the same time, those who were traditionally “the researched about” in offline settings, now have access to the works of researchers, can argue back (as they often do), and produce alternative materials in their own right. No longer is there a simple one-sided determination by the researcher over what research should be about, how it should be done, how it should be written or shown, and what its results should be-researchers are often called to account.

Dr. Ken Williamson (right) leading his graduate seminar on Participatory Action Research.

Many thanks to Dr. Kevin Yelvington and Dr. Elisabeth Bird in the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida in Tampa for organizing to invite and host me. I am very grateful to USF for covering all of the costs of travel and accommodation. Thanks also to Kevin Yelvington for taking the photographs shown above, and to Susan Rhinehart for producing the wonderful flyer reproduced above. I am also thankful to Dr. Ken Williamson for inviting me to participate in his graduate seminar (see above). I was happy to donate my honorarium to the Trevor Purcell Memorial Scholarship Fund at USF, in honour of this late, great, Jamaican anthropologist who served at USF.

(apologies for the mixed formatting of the items listed below)

Allen, C. 1996. “What’s Wrong with the ‘Golden Rule’? Conundrums of Conducting Ethical Research in Cyberspace. The Information Society, 12 (2), 175-187.

Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR). 2002. Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Recommendations from the AoIR ethics working committee. Retrieved October 12, 2002, from

Cisler, Steve. 1998. “The Internet and Indigenous Groups”. Cultural Survival Quarterly. Available: N. pag.

Delgado-P., Guillermo, and Marc Becker. 1998. “Latin America: The Internet and Indigenous Texts”. Cultural Survival Quarterly. Available: N. pag.

Forte, Maximilian. 2002. “‘We are not Extinct’: The Revival of Carib and Taino Identities, the Internet, and the Transformation of Offline Indigenes into Online ‘N-digenes’.” Sincronía: An Electronic Journal of Cultural Studies (Department of Letters, University of Guadalajara, Mexico). Spring.

Forte, Maximilian. 2003. “Caribbean Aboriginals Online: Digitized Culture, Networked Representation.” In Indigenous Affairs: Special Issue on Indigenous Peoples and Information Technology. Guest edited by Kyra Marie Landzelius. No. 2, 32-37.

Forte, Maximilian. 2004. “Co-Construction and Field Creation: Website Development as both an Instrument and Relationship in Action Research.” In Elizabeth Buchanan, ed., Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. Hershey, PA: Idea Group, 222-248 (Chapter 12).

Forte, Maximilian. 2005a. “Website Development as Both an Instrument and Relationship in Action Research.” In The Encyclopedia of Developing Regional Communities with Information and Communication Technology. Edited by Stewart Marshall, Wal Taylor, Xinghuo Yu. Hershey, PA: Idea Group Reference, 729-734.

Forte, Maximilian. 2005b. “Centering the Links: Understanding Cybernetic Patterns of Co-Production, Circulation and Consumption” (Ch. 7). In Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet. Edited by Christine Hine. Oxford: Berg, 93-106.

Forte, Maximilian. 2006a. “Amerindian@Caribbean: The Modes and Meanings of ‘Electronic Solidarity’ in the Revival of Carib and Taino Identities.” In Native on the Net: Indigenous and Diasporic Peoples in the Virtual Age. Kyra Marie Landzelius, ed. London: Routledge: 132-151.

Forte, Maximilian. 2006b. “Searching for a Centre in the Digital Ether: Notes on the Indigenous Caribbean Resurgence on the Internet.” In Maximilian C. Forte, ed. Indigenous Resurgence in the Contemporary Caribbean: Amerindian Survival and Revival. New York: Peter Lang, 253-269.

Frankel, M. S., & Siang, S. 1999, June. Ethical and legal aspects of human subjects research on the Internet. Report of a workshop for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC. Retrieved December 10, 2002, from

Ginsburg, F. D. (2002). Screen memories: resignifying the traditional in indigenous media. In Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu Lughod, & Brian Larkin (Eds.), Media worlds: anthropology on new terrain (pp. 39-57). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gregorian, Vartan. 1996. “Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: The Implications of Electronic Information”. In Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling, ed., Computerization and Controversy: Value Conflicts and Social Choices, 2nd ed. San Diego: Academic Press. 597-605.

Kling, Rob. 1996. “Social Relationships in Electronic Forums: Hangouts, Salons, Workplaces, and Communities”. In Computerization and Controversy Value Conflicts and Social Choices, 2nd ed. Charles Dunlop and Rob Kling, eds. Pp. 426-454. San Diego: Academic Press.

Polly, Jean Armour. 1998. “Standing Stones in Cyberspace: The Oneida Indian Nation’s Territory on the Web”. Cultural Survival Quarterly. Available: N. pag.

Shields, Rob. (2006). “Virtualities”. Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2): 284-286.

Turner, T. (2002). Representation, politics, and cultural imagination in indigenous video: general points and kayapo examples. In Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu Lughod, & Brian Larkin (Eds.), Media worlds: anthropology on new terrain (pp. 75-89). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wilson, S. M., & Peterson, L. C. 2002. “The Anthropology of Online Communities”. Annual Review of Anthropology, 31, 449-467.

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