A dynamic year of indigenous communication

Indigenous media is a tool for self-determination, emancipation and revival of dying languages.

World Indigenous People''s Day in Dhaka
'Indigenous media is a tool for self-determination in many ways... it is an important first step to revive languages that may otherwise disappear' [AFP]

Quito, Ecuador – Some people in the US were not keen at all on the Geronimo codename given to the final military operation against Osama bin Laden. Native Americans were understandably upset. The name of the legendary Apache leader was used to define the nation’s most-wanted terrorist, casting the native hero as the enemy par excellence. As the sketch comedy group 1491s blended poetry and film to reframe Geronimo, indigenous voices searched for venues to express their discontent, and bring a little history to the general public.

Communication is a powerful tool. Media created by indigenous peoples are informed by alternative world-views, transcending borders and challenging hegemonic histories. As the International Year of Indigenous Communication is coming to an end, preparation for the Second Continental Summit of Indigenous Communication in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2013 is gaining momentum. The goal is to foster continental networks and promote global interactions, so as to exercise more fully the rights recognised nationally – in state laws – and internationally – by the UN Declaration and Plan of Action of the World Summit on the Information Society and ILO Convention 169. More importantly, the initiative points at the significance of communication as a legitimate tool for influencing the formulation of public policies and the construction of collective imaginaries.

The global boom in indigenous medias

The vitality of indigenous news media makes it hard to follow. Since Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network launched the first indigenous national broadcast 12 years ago, indigenous broadcast has blossomed around the world. In 2008, the Maori television in Aotearoa, New Zealand, hosted the conference that created the World Indigenous Television Broadcasters Network (WITBN). WITBN’s nine founding members – including TG4 (Ireland), SABC (South Africa) and TITV / PTS (Taiwan) – wanted to promote indigenous broadcasting to reach larger audiences, expand access to new resources and to foster knowledge transfer.

Global efforts are gaining momentum… [but] despite many success stories, state support to autonomous indigenous media remains erratic to say the least.

Global efforts are gaining momentum. The WITBN Third Conference took place in Kautokeino, Sapmi, Norway, last March. Participants discussed topics ranging from Maori’s TV coverage of the Rugby World Cup to language strategies in indigenous broadcasting. It was also the occasion to give the first World Indigenous Journalism Awards to celebrate TV’s best indigenous perspectives.

More members are joining the WITBN, including One Television Solomon Islands (with an all-indigenous staff) and the First Nations Experience, the first Native American channel in the US. Local initiatives elsewhere are equally dynamic. In Colombia, over 38 media sources exchanged experiences and ideas at a meeting on community communication in April. Mexico’s IV National Congress of Indigenous Communicators (CNCI) is convoking journalists, reporters, photographers and filmmakers from the entire hemisphere to a conference next Wednesday [SP], October 24..

Despite many success stories, state support to autonomous indigenous media remains erratic to say the least. In Ecuador, for instance, the government plans to grant 33 per cent of airwaves to community radios but will retain control over content. In Guatemala, a recent national march pressed for a Law for Community Media to legalise community radios. It was probably timely for UN Rapporteur James Anaya to stress the importance of community radio for indigenous peoples on World Radio Day, reminding governments they should encourage media in ancestral languages (Art. 16, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

Crafting art and entertainment

It’s not just broadcasting that has grown, but indigenous entertainment at large. In the US, the American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) has established a legacy of sorts for native cinema since the 1970s. Its annual film festival, the oldest and most prestigious venue for Native films in North America, screened over 100 films and attracted close to 5,000 people in San Francisco last year. The poster for its 36th Annual Festival made objectives quite clear: “Defending Our Way of Life through Film.”

The AIFI promotes vanguard media in varied forms and expressions. One of the Battiest Brothers, whose Storm won last years AIFI award for best music video, is launching Unconquered Media. This platform for Native-American entertainment showcases filmmaking that helps tell the colonial history of the Seminole people, the one tribe who never signed a treaty with the US government.

Indigenous media is a tool for self-determination in many ways. It is an important first step to revive languages that may otherwise disappear.

Indigenous film is taking off worldwide. In Norway, the International Sami Film Centre launched the Indigenous Film Circle and its Film Fellowship, promoting indigenous storytelling through film. Throughout Latin America, indigenous cinema is garnering more attention than ever before. In Mexico, Diego Rivera’s Cultural Center hosted an Indigenous Film and Video Festival for the week of Original Peoples in April. In June, the Argentine province of El Chaco organizes the Fifth Festival of Indigenous Cinema.

Everywhere, the message is similar. The XI International Festival of Indigenous Peoples Cinema and Video, which started last September 25 in Bogota, Colombia, was dedicated to “life, images of resistance”. Yepan, a Chilean on-line collective of indigenous cinema and communication, is designed as a transnational portal to support audiovisual among indigenous peoples. Otavalo filmmaker Alberto Muenala stresses that cinema is a collective practice, and hopes that Runacinema will provide an opportunity to engage the youth in crafting Kichwa aesthetics in cinema beyond Ecuador.

Storytelling emancipation

Indigenous media is a tool for self-determination in many ways. It is an important first step to revive languages that may otherwise disappear. Broadcast and entertainment ensures language transmission to younger generations. This implies transmitting stories and structures of knowledge, therefore securing the survival of the community. Media is both a means of education and keeping collective memory. In that sense, indigenous media is storytelling emancipation.

Indigenous media is storytelling emancipation… [it] also permits artists and activists to reframe discourses.

Indigenous media also permits artists and activists to reframe discourses. David Hernandez Palmar, the Wayuu producer of the film Owners of the Water, sees an emancipatory movement of indigenous peoples through media. Often marginalised by governments and misrepresented in mainstream media, indigenous peoples seek to contest stereotypes and historical narratives. Indigenous broadcast may tell Seminole stories left untold or provide a different perspective to learn Geronimo. In the process, indigenous media create opportunities to hold governments and power elites accountable and expose patterns of discrimination.

For instance, media is increasingly used across the Americas to foster public awareness of state policies promoting mining practice in indigenous territories, frame mobilisations as a larger defence of water rights and expose official and corporate violence against those communities who resist these depredations.

Indigenous media, essential to secure self-determination, is also emancipatory for non-indigenous peoples. Complementing and correcting official history, it contributes new ways of seeing. For instance, the alternative narratives presented by indigenous visions blurs national borders, reassembling geographically dispersed voices beyond and across the political divides of the systems of sovereign states. With every new story made public, indigenous media contributes new perspectives to read the past and open alternative possibilities to imagine the future.

The strengthening of indigenous communication allows more voices to speak and be heard, with more and different eyes seeing. These new media complement existing, heretofore dominant perspectives, bringing more diversity of information to expand our comprehension of the world. Indigenous knowledge emancipates collective imaginaries well beyond indigenous peoples themselves. As the Battiest Brothers say, a little history so we can get it right.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.