Nation Territory in Cyber Space Declared : No Treaties Needed
by Jolene Rickard
Wasn't it the Hopi that warned of a time when the world would be circled by a spiders web of wire lines? That time has come and "CyberPowWow 2" is unabashedly part of it. There is no doubt that First Nation peoples are wired and ready to surf and chat. It seems like a distant memory when the tone of discussion about computers, interactivity and aboriginal people was filled with prophetic caution. Ironically, the image of Natives is still firmly planted in the past. The idea that Indians would be on the frontier of a technology is inconsistent with the dominant image of "traditional" Indians. To further complicate the mix, this discussion takes place in a graphical chat program identified as a "CyberPowWow Palace."
The use of the term "pow wow" automatically shifts the mental gears into overdrive. What do pow-wows have to do with cyberspace? "CyberPowWow 2" does not represent a shift in the intellectual paradigm of the west. It is a very direct application of the Palace software but somehow when you exit this site you definitely know you where in Indian territory. The main intent of organizer and in Palace terms, the "wizard," Skawennati Tricia Fragnito was to create a site for getting more Native art on the web.
She also experienced the Montreal Native Friendship Center and sees this site as a cyber friendship center. CyberPowWow 2 is based on her experience gained from the first CyberPowWow in 1997 and an exhibit titled, "Native Love," which opened at Oboro in Montreal. The first pow-wow informed Skawennati of the interest in having this kind of space with Native people across the Americas. The exhibit proved to her that Indians were ready to be whimsical and have fun in public spaces. This may seem insignificant but, recently an exhibit titled, Indian Humor, 1996 from the American Indian Contemporary Arts Center in San Francisco warranted a review in the New York Times. So the bigger picture is that for Native artists the hard core deconstruction of 500 years of victimization has suddenly changed and it is getting noticed. The themes have remained consistent for a number of the artists but the way it is presented is fresh.
It is a healthy sign that we can laugh at ourselves while continuing to reimagine indigenous space. CyberPowWow 2 represents the desire by both the participating artists and organizer to reconfigure Indian space. The 1800's represented the timeframe when Native nations lost nearly eighty percent of our landbase to Canada and the United States. A counter strategy to the governmental suppression of large Indian gatherings (remember the Battle of Little Big Horn) was the formation of the "pow wow" event. Various First Nations song and dance traditions from across the Plains were shared intertribally, primarily to give thanks and to also assert their continued independence.
The reservation represents the most static notion of how to imagine Native experience. First Nations people are struggling to shake lose the colonial limitations of the reservation system. Native people are moving from reservation "territories" to urban and rural environments with greater frequency. This has created a charged debate in Indian territory about Native rights when not located on treatied or reservation land. Cyber PowWow 2 is an odd talisman but nevertheless an indication of how Native people are struggling to subvert the colonial borders of the reservation.
Therefore, the appropriation of the term pow-wow is consistent with First Nations strategies for self empowerment. This time, a group of thinkers called artists are rising from our communities to redraw the boundaries of indigenous space. The website address, "www.nation2nation.org" provides a big clue about the intent of this group.
This site may on first glimpse be Hollywood Indians and fancy dancer avatars but watch out because the opportunity to find a more indepth analysis is possible.
CyberPowWow 2 is a place where anyone can drop in, pick up an Indian persona or avatar or chat with one. It was described by all the artists in the formation of this site as a new "community." Edward Poitras sees this application of the Palace as a "pow-wow" as an intervention on a de-racialized space. He observed that the internet and graphical chat rooms are void of cultural reference. This site clearly makes its position known.
Historically, the notion of community is deeply tied to one's national identity, like Cree or Mohawk. These First Nation delineators speak volumes when locating indigenous presence. They identify how our people lost their land. It can signal which treaty determined the geographic, psychological terrain of your identity and its limits. Cyberspace can not replace the physical act of being together as a community. Yet, it does create a site where indigenous people can meet and compare notes. So it opens up more possibilities for exchange on all levels.
Inside the flat pulsing electronic magenta tipi's the artists are doing what people in our communities have always done. They are transforming our cultures into the language of the future. It does not mean that anybody is going to give up on going to an actual pow-wow, it just means that another pow-wow has joined the circuit.
So what if you bump into Lori Blondeau's avatars, "Cosmo Squaw," and "Surfer Squaw," in the blue moon room. She simultaneously sensualizes the mostly non-existent sexual space for Indian women and problematizes the use of the word "squaw." She was told by her grandmother that it is ok to be called a squaw historically. Blondeau is involved in recovering a meaning for the term "squaw," which she is seeking to control. At the same time, Blondeau has dedicated this piece to her cousin who recently passed away.
Each artist participating in CyberPowWow 2 brings a different perspective to add to the discussion. Sheryl Kootenhayoo's earlier work is mostly videos about residential schools. Kootenhayoo reminded the group that the original reason for a pow-wow was "to give thanks for all that life is." Lee Crowchild is exploring the possibility of telling traditional stories in this space in a visual way. His project is about expanding the notion of oral tradition. Crowchild spent most of his life with elders and they have shaped his ideas. Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskew has been working with street people and sexually traumatized youth. All of these artists refer to traditional stories in creating their work.
Archer Pechawis performances are based on indigenous concepts wrapped in technological inventions made by the artist. His work seems to capture the larger project under construction for Native people in cyberspace. He combines ancient symbols like the drum with technological interventions like synthesizers. As he is wailing an old song learned from a wax recording of his grandfather, Pechawis links it to contemporary music, expression and images. CyberPowWow 2 is a site set up to create a Native cyber community. We are all part of it.Jolene Rickard is an assistant Professor at the University at Buffalo in the departments of art and art history. She writes and makes images about the issues of indigenous people. Rickard is a member and lives on the Tuscarora Nation territories, located in western New York state.
A Nation to Nation project hosted by Oboro, the Walter Phillips Gallery in collaboration with the Aboriginal Arts Programme, SOIL, Roundhouse Community Centre and TRIBE and Video Vérité. N2N acknowledges the generous support of The Canada Council and ThePalace.com.