Digital Smoke Signals

About half of my waking life is spent in front of some sort of screen as I ingest a variety of media. I’ve lamented this routine before, and I don’t really foresee my habits changing as long as I make a living off of words and images that are transmitted digitally. It can be a sad and frustrating fact of modern life, but at the same time I can’t disregard the power of modern communications and its contribution to cultural preservation. In the past few months I’ve seen social media help shine a spotlight on Aboriginal issues largely ignored by mainstream media. On the other hand, it has prompted the widespread sharing of mainstream media projects dedicated to some of those issues. The internet has helped me strengthen my Ojibway language skills. It has also bolstered my personal ties to family and community. And as Aboriginal people find new ways to reinforce traditional and new stories through the written and spoken word, new media will play an even bigger role in keeping them alive.

On a grand level, a YouTube video posted by a Member of Parliament last fall went viral on Facebook and Twitter and introduced the country to a northern Ontario Cree community called Attawapiskat. Most people in the broader national Aboriginal community were already well aware of the housing and schooling issues that persisted there (thanks in large part to the incredible work of the late Shannen Koostachin). But the buzz on social media forced national broadcasters and newspapers to report on it. While the housing problems in the community are far from being resolved, the ongoing saga has showed people in other communities that all it takes to provoke national discussion is a simple video camera and a YouTube account.

That’s not to say mainstream media is largely neglecting Aboriginal issues in Canada. There’s still a lot of work to do, but broadcast, print, and online outlets are devoting more space than ever to the unique stories of Canada’s fastest growing demographic, and again these stories are so easily shared on social media. A great example is CBC’s massive 8th Fire project. The focus was forging a new relationship between Canada and its vibrant and diverse Aboriginal peoples through stories in various media. These vignettes, articles, and episodes were easily sharable. They prompted discussions in new circles, and I think it’s because the scope has widened far beyond traditional broadcast schedules. I was fortunate enough to contribute pieces as a filmmaker/journalist and columns as an author, and I found it hugely rewarding to be able to share them so easily. The feedback was great and I wouldn’t have been able to reach out like that even five years ago.

As a result, my developing journey as an author has benefited from a lot of people spreading the word about my first foray into fiction, Midnight Sweatlodge. But on a personal level I find a lot of the most basic connections via these digital smoke signals hugely fulfilling. As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently reconnecting with Anishinaabemowin (the Ojibway language) and finding online resources like dictionaries and discussion groups has never been easier. While it’s impossible to really learn the language this way, online and social media provide a new crutch to prop it up.

Harnessing Aboriginal language and culture this way should not substitute the spoken word and the communal power of sharing these experiences and stories in person. Our cultures survived thanks to the resilience of people who vowed to sustain them behind the back of assimilative practices. People spoke the language in secret and held sweatlodges in the dark of night. But digital media are a viable supplement in order to ensure culture endures. Virtually, communities are closer than ever sharing traditional words and stories, and more importantly, making connections. And on the most basic personal level, that’s heartwarming and spiritually satisfying. I can Skype with my mom who’s a diabetes educator in Innu communities in Labrador, and I can Facetime with my dad who’s a cultural educator back in my home territory of Central Ontario. Those opportunities will always make me smile.

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