Indigenous Tech: A Sovereign Nation in Cyberspace

FairWinds Partners —  May 14, 2013

On a daily basis we’re bombarded with information about ways in which technology can be “bad”: from cyberattacks on critical infrastructure to social media digilantism in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, to Craigslist scams and cyberbullying.

Fortunately, for almost every negative example, we are also presented with a truly revolutionary solution or opportunity that’s entirely dependent on the existence of the Internet (which just celebrated its 20th birthday).

A recent article by the Raleigh News & Observer, republished on Pass/Fail, described one of the latter situations:

“In a windowless conference room in a Las Vegas casino, about three dozen people are swishing their fingers across iPads, trying out test versions of new apps and screening for glitches. But these are no Silicon Valley techies in town for one of the city’s massive electronics shows. Many are from far-flung American Indian reservations, and their high-tech devices are serving a decidedly old-school purpose: trying to save their languages from the brink of extinction.”

Google jumped in on the language revitalization movement in a big way about a year ago when it launched the Endangered Languages Project, “an online collaborative effort to protect global linguistic diversity.” What better place than a website to house videos, audio and text of endangered languages from far-flung corners of the globe?

What about a whole top-level domain full of websites dedicated to the community that speaks the endangered language? As noted by tech company owner Don Thornton in the News & Observer article, “Language revitalization advocates say they applaud the new technology, but note it’s just one part of broader efforts that could include mentorship, classes and a community commitment to using tribal languages in daily life.”

But technology could integrate an endangered or tribal language into modern, daily life by creating an online world in which email addresses, social media platforms, blogs, reference sites and e-commerce are in the language as well. A new generic top-level domain (gTLD) – like the “sponsored” top-level domain
created for Catalonia (.CAT) – allows for a community to mirror the physical community and serve the nation, people, region, or culture of its members in a way that individual websites cannot.

The landing page for the PBS series “We Shall Remain” makes an excellent case for a community-run gTLD. The three sections – Language, Sovereignty, Enterprise – would easily translate into the body of a community based-application for .HOPI or .CHEROKEE.  The tribal communities are excellent candidates for closed new gTLDs because a) the United States recognizes domestic tribes as sovereign nations and b) tribes already have a set of codified criteria to determine who is considered a member of the tribe –  “Tribal enrollment criteria are set forth in tribal constitutions, articles of incorporation or ordinances.” When applying for the gTLD the tribes could choose their guidelines or requirements for registering a domain name within the gTLD entirely upon the existing enrollment criteria. Once awarded, the governance and operation of the gTLD would align with the physical tribe’s governance and operation.

As a result, .HOPI would be run by the existing and single Hopi nation, avoiding the challenges faced by an application for a religion practiced in multiple countries by millions of individuals who may have very different ideas about who has the right to own the gTLD.

As an example, the Potawatomi tribe and various bands of the tribe, from the upper Mississippi River region, are already very active online: there are multiple websites with current and relevant content. (For a list of websites currently associated with Native American tribes and/or tribal communities, click here.) Earl Meshigaud, Hannahville, PA
Potawatomi Indian Community,  explained the significance of the Internet to the tribe and the Hannaville Community on its website,

This may not be exactly what our Elders had in mind when they said that it is our responsibility to orally hand down to the next generation the things that we learn so that those coming behind us would have what we have and more…we hope that the ‘memory’ of the computer (wzhobontakchegan) world will hold for future generations what we may have otherwise forgotten. Live a good, healthy life because your actions serve as the best teacher – and let the computer assist you in your learning.