Friction between the preservation of unique culture and new trends can seem inevitable in a rapidly globalizing world. But is culture clash inevitable? Or can indigenous communities find new ways to fight back against cultural hegemony?
Resorting to kneejerk opinions is not a helpful reaction to the expansion of a global culture. It is possible for indigenous communities to engage with the rest of the world while preserving the unique and cherished aspects of their native customs.
Pushback is understandable in the face of what seems to be a threat to the fundamental way of life of members of fragile communities. It is our job, as citizens of a global community, to show compassion and empathy for tribes that have been encroached on and threatened for centuries by outside forces.
When we take on board the context of these interactions and the power dynamics at play, it is clear why we need to take a gentle approach to outreach and dialogue. Foisting rapid change on people can lead to alienation and hostility in the best of circumstances
The Role of Technology
The Mukurtu project is an apt example of product design that builds in sensitivity to the needs of an indigenous user base. By offering tailored solutions that mesh technology with the protection of culture and customs, Mukurtu offers a means for vulnerable communities to protect, preserve, and share their unique heritage.
The importance of projects like Mukurtu becomes apparent when we take into account the potential for generic technology to disrupt and fundamentally alter the way of life for people around the world.
By demonstrating the power of the internet in a non-threatening way we can create a gateway for the acceptance of other digital technologies that may offer a lifeline to communities struggling to reconcile the survival of their heritage with the growing global economy.
Worldwide demand for raw materials and agricultural products can stimulate new opportunities for growth in communities that have long been shielded from economic gains in other nations. For instance, aspects of traditional medicine have gone mainstream via the nutraceuticals industry, forging new export markets that simply didn’t exist a few decades ago.
Take ashwagandha, for example: what was once a little-known herb lauded in traditional Indian medicine has now gone mainstream, making a name for itself as a nootropic with alleged calming effects.
There are many who approach these trends with cynicism. After all, western companies appear to be cashing in on prized aspects of the culture of smaller and less market-orientated communities from around the world. But these efforts also stimulate new demand for the raw material exports of isolated parts of developing countries.
If we are to engage positively with peoples on the very cusp of global development we must show a willingness to engage with them in a fair and reasonable manner. The days of abusive corporate behemoths and banana republics must never be allowed to rear their heads again. This is why movements such as Fair Trade cannot solely be paid lip service. As a united global community we must vote with our feet and our spending to force corporations to treat their suppliers with respect and decency.
Investing in the Future
For small farming communities to make the most of new opportunities they require sustained investment in both their labor force and their capital stock. Sophisticated agricultural methods must be gently introduced and the adoption of best practices in inventory management and shipping will only come about through careful and tailored education opportunities.
Abusive exploitation can no longer be a permissible aspect of the global supply chain if we are to engage indigenous communities as equals in the world economy. Customer relations are a fundamental part of the business management toolkit employed by modern companies. But the best CRM technology and the sharpest minds in PR can be forced to reckon with the ethical demands of consumers if we are compassionate enough to base our purchasing decisions on the needs of everyone in the supply chain — including indigenous farmers, rural communities, and nations that have been left behind by growth.
Can communities stay true to themselves?
The million dollar question remains: can indigenous communities stay true to themselves while engaging with the outside world in trade and cultural exchange?
The most pessimistic outlook would suggest that smaller cultures face no other fate than being swallowed whole by larger and more relentless global cultures. The English-speaking world must reckon with the fact that its influence in global affairs has a checkered record at best. Hostility toward its expansion is nothing less than understandable.
Investing in tools that allow tribal communities to preserve their heritage is vital. Change occurs slowly and gradually and progress can be scuppered at any time by acts of implicit or explicit violence. This includes abusive trading practices and overly eager efforts to usurp local customs with outside culture.
It is not in anyone’s best interest to destroy the fabric of unique cultures. We have seen first-hand the devastating effects of colonialism on America’s indigenous peoples. Faced with rapid change forced on them by an alien culture, many have struggled to come to terms with violence and alcoholism among other social ills. We must bear the brunt of the responsibility and learn from past atrocities to ensure that cultures around the world are given the breathing space to thrive on their own terms.
This means respecting local religion, customs and laws and offering technological solutions that preserve the unique ideas that make these societies great. The price of failure is the destruction of the cultural diversity that makes the world such a fascinating and wonderful place.
We now live in the “age of information” with technologies such as the internet or smartphone. This usually is looked at positively by first world countries. Even though this may be true, not all groups have been introduced to the technological innovation that we have seen. This has risen the debate whether the groups of people, mostly indigenous tribes, should be introduced to technology we see today. If so, how will this affect them? As with many issues, the answer is not so black and white. Because of this, to fully analyze the topic, we must look at the pros and cons of technology for indigenous tribes.
First, we should define what an indigenous tribe is. These are groups of people who identify as the original inhabitants. Some indigenous people have been introduced to technology and have grown up with the lifestyle we have. Others have maintained their traditions and other aspects of life in early culture. In this articles, we will focus on those who haven’t been introduced.
- Technology provides opportunities that did not exist before. This can give tribes the tools to create complex communities. If you want to maintain cultural integrity, you can divide the tribe based off of special skills. Things such as hunting or agriculture can be developed in a more advanced way. Technology also allows the tribe to create a more complex system of laws and procedures. On a more international scale, technology can provide the tools for an indigenous tribe to compete on a global level. This gives an opportunity for economic development and the possibility to trade in a global market. For example, PEOPLinks provide 100,000 indigenous people internet training and allows for villages to trade globally. This has drastically increased the opportunities for over 100 indigenous tribes.
- Provides an increased quality of life. In advanced societies, we may take simple things such as air conditioning or refrigeration for granted. Simple technologies can increase the quality of life for indigenous tribes by introducing them to things that make their daily lives easier. This, in turn, can increase comfortability and increase the level of production in that society.
- Technology can increase the average lifespan. As medicine has been studied more, advanced technology can diagnose and prevent diseases leading to longer, healthier lives. More importantly, infant mortality rates can be lower as modern medicine can help them before and after childbirth process. Younger children can be treated for outdated diseases leading more children to live into adulthood. The medication can be specific to the region of the indigenous tribe.
- Technology opens the indigenous tribe to other cultures. As technology has created more ways for communication, it has allowed for information to be easily accessed. Because of this, more people are able to research or learn about different cultures. This can help others make informed decisions on religious or political views. Even further, this allows for cross-cultural integration with food, animals, and even ideas.
- Introducing technology can change or alter traditions. Indigenous tribes have a long history of tradition and culture that define them and make their tribe unique. These can be religious in nature or rooted in their society. Introducing technology can disrupt these traditions in many different ways. One way is it distracts them from what is important. As technology has created faster-moving lifestyles with more production, many people in advanced societies get distracted and lose focus. Another way this can happen is over a long period of time, the indigenous tribe might conform to an ideal culture. Much like people strive to be more American or European, indigenous tribes could lose touch over time as cultures become more integrated.
- Although a positive is that technology can increase the lifespan through modern medicine, on the other side it could introduce new diseases. This is seen throughout history. For example, Spain, when finding the Mayan empire, introduced a number of diseases wiping out a large part of the population. Since the indigenous tribes have different immune systems, introducing them to more developed viruses could have negative effects.
Of course, these pros and cons just scratch the surface of the topic.There are many viewpoints on the subject that differ depending on how indigenous tribes are defined. They also change whether the discussion is centered around isolated indigenous tribes or those who have already been introduced to technology. For more information on the topic, the United Nations releases articles on their viewpoints.
The Mukurtu CMS was originally developed by project leads Kim Christen and Craig Dietrich alongside members of the Warumungu community.
As of 2017, however, Mukurtu is employed by a diverse array of communities around the world, all joined by a shared desire to chronicle and share their cultural heritage in the digital realm.
The Warumungu are indigenous Australians who primarily inhabit the Northern Territories of the country, as well as various towns in the south.
Their long history in their native lands turned to grave struggles with famine and displacement in the 20th century. Gold mining forced the community away from their homelands, which they were unable to reclaim until 1993 after a protracted legal battle.
Many other indigenous communities around the world have adopted Mukurtu over the last ten years. The Plateau People’s Web Portal is a particularly intriguing example of the archive in action. It is primarily organized around ‘Tribal Paths’ – each one dedicated to a different plateau tribe. With cultural sensitivity in mind, each path follows the protocols of the individual tribe. Materials posted on the platform are carefully curated and searchable via categories and media type (images, text, etc).
Scholars have long understood the importance or preserving and sharing global social heritage but the rights and needs of indigenous communities have been swept aside repeatedly through history by the aggressive interests of expanding empires and aggressive corporate interests.
Although inroads have been made to connect communities, the way of life of native peoples has been changed irreparably by the recent settlement of individuals in the ‘new world.’
The relative isolation of these communities leads them to exist on the periphery of mainstream society. Living conditions in American reservations are dramatically worse on average than the national average, with almost 30% below the federal poverty line. Meanwhile, life expectancies remain five years lower than the national average.
The dilemma faced by many tribal leaders is one of increased integration vs. ongoing efforts at cultural preservation. These interests are regarded by many to be incompatible with one another, but technology can help communities to document remarkable artifacts unique to their tribe.
Here are some more inspiring examples of how communities around the world are preserving and exchanging their cultural heritage online:
Utah American Indian Digital Archive
The Utah American Indian Digital Archive is a remarkably detailed resource featuring a large number of articles, books, photos, and maps from each of Utah’s tribes. The team behind the archive are involved in ongoing digitization efforts to bring more and more valuable historical and cultural treasures to a wider digital platform
Researchers from the University of Utah’s American West Center pioneered this resource on behalf of Utah’s Indians and approximately 40 years of research have gone into its creation and collection of artifacts.
The website also employs a powerful advanced search feature making it relatively easy to dig up information on particular specialized areas of interest.
Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages
The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages is a digital archive dedicated to works of literature in languages of Indigenous Australians of the Northern Territories.
It is noteworthy for it’s intuitive map feature, allowing users to search around the coastal and vast inland expanses of the Australian Northern Territory to find aboriginal language books lovingly digitized.
Uploads are also carefully categorized by author and each indivdual tribal language. Meanwhile, users can browse for particular kinds of literature to identify, for example, narrative fiction works only.
Iroquois Indian Museum
The Iroquois Indian Museum is located around 50km west of Albany in upstate New York. The team behind the museum stage an annual festival which features demonstrations, traditional dancing and market stalls.
The Iroquois confederacy was a powerful force in the northeast region and consisted of multiple tribes including the Mohawk peoples.
The museum is noteworthy for not just focusing on historical artifacts, but for featuring the work of modern Iroquois artists from the 1960s to the present day. In addition, however, the museum is home to a number of significant archaeological exhibits of substantial historical interest.
For more information, see the museum’s current collections for photos and detailed descriptions of the materials on display. The museum Facebook page is also well worth following.