“If you can have a tablet, e-book and 4g, why can’t I have a cellphone?”

Blog post by Vitor Henrique Pinto Ido @vitor_ido Image credit: Jefferson Rudy/Agência Senado via Flickr. CCBY2.0

In 2013, at a former Catholic convent where now lies the São Paulo branch of the Goethe Institut, a “multimedia opera inspired by Yanomami myths” called “A queda do céu” (“The falling sky”) was first presented to the public. A collaboration between Yanomami people and artists, it used a wide range of digital instruments to portray a “techno-shamanist” experience, as put by Laymert Garcia dos Santos. The expression seems exotic, but is a reminder that, rather than a sign of ancient times, indigenous peoples are providing the Western world a number of lessons and using all tools available – including tech/cyber/digital ones.

Traditional communities are politically active, very pragmatic and in constant transformation

Indigenous peoples are often perceived as representatives of an immemorial, “primitive” or “romantic” time, where the digital u/dystopia would be nowhere to be found. Apart from the prejudice of this view, what several experiences in Brazil (and across the world) empirically show is that traditional communities are politically active, very pragmatic and in constant transformation. They are fully aware of the challenges to create coherence between the modern, capitalist world we all live in and other world-views, cultures and even worlds also inhabited by them.

MenosPreconceitoMaisÍndio” (“#LessPrejudiceMoreIndigenous”) is a recent campaign by Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental aiming at deconstructing these and other common assumptions about indigenous peoples. In one of the short videos, they ask: “if you can have a tablet, e-book and 4g, why can’t I have a cellphone?”. They go beyond and ask: “if you are not like your great father, why should I be?”. To support the campaign, various indigenous peoples and indigenous associations went to social media such as Twitter and Facebook and shared it widely.

In the Brazilian context, observers may note without much effort an important rise of initiatives led by indigenous peoples, and many still are yet to be reported or documented. Many are formal or informal projects to foster biodiversity protection, particularly against the threats of illegal mining and farming (often associated with episodes of violence, including murders). A straightforward basis is, of course, an intense use of social media and mobile chat apps, particularly Whatsapp and Facebook. But attempts to introduce more technically-sophisticated georeferencing are also on the table, as pilot projects are now found in many places to map precisely the threats. Similar to other areas around the world, even blockchain-based projects are being proposed for the creation of sustainable value chains.

Various others also aim at promoting the protection of traditional knowledge. For instance, the Matsés, living between Brazil and Peru, are using cellphones to further implement their projects of cataloguing and creating recognition of their traditions and expressions. This work has been a joint collaboration with a number of anthropologists and NGOs. The Wajãpi use social media to streamline their kusiwa graphic art (protected by UNESCO and Brazilian National Heritage Institute), denounce possible violations to their territory and also stress their position on other topics. Nowadays researchers won’t go too far without understanding – and participating – in Whatsapp and Facebook networks with younger generations. 

Focusing on communication and changing narratives, the Yandê Radio is an indigenous online radio launched in 2013. It has the goal to deconstruct myths and prejudices about indigenous peoples, and share news that are relevant to them. It thus addressed all audiences and shares content by other Latin American groups. By simply pointing out what is happening across the country, it is no wonder that access to internet became a matter of relevance to indigenous public policies – even though, in many cases, they still lag behind other more crucial issues, such as healthcare and schools.

Using technological tools is not incompatible with the idea of being indigenous in the current world

Of course, these examples are not exclusive to the use of “tech tools” per se, and should be situated in a broader – also complex and often contradictory – process of political recognition. Nonetheless, they provide a crucial input: using technological tools is not incompatible with the idea of being indigenous in the current world. Pretty much on the opposite, what we call “technology” (gadgets, internet-based structures, platforms, “new technologies”, etc.) may serve the purpose of fostering identity and protecting rights in a world that denies them tolerance and recognition. Some would go even further, and argue that indigenous peoples are and have always been “ready” for “technology”, as they always dealt with the transformation and needed to adapt.

Possibly, these initiatives may become part of and contribute to the broader world of digital humanitarianism, especially in the Amazon region. They may shift the dynamics of how beneficiaries of humanitarian policies participate or not of these processes.

Times are particularly not easy for indigenous peoples. On 2 September, when Brazil’s National Museum in Rio was destroyed by flames, over 130.000 pieces of indigenous art and artefacts were turned into ashes. Noting the extent of the disaster, indigenous historian Daniel Tutushamum Puri critically pointed out that “it’s as if we had been extinct again”. A surge in violence and the prospects of a neofascist regime led by Jair Bolsonaro, the president-elect who considers indigenous peoples to be “lazy” and who stressed that “not even a centimetre of land will be given [sic] to indigenous peoples”, create a grey prognosis. However, despite the conservative turn, Brazil also did elect Joenia Wapichana, the country’s first indigenous woman to become federal congressperson. Resistance will clearly be there. The strategic and active use of technological tools by traditional communities can thus not be seen romantically. But as Ailton Krenak, one of Brazil’s most famous indigenous activists, recently stated: “we’re Indians, we resisted for 500 years. What I’m worried about, is whether white people will”.