Opinion | Technology

David Shorter: Images of indigenous people go missing in media






Ken Scott Photography helped create images of modern indigenous people for the Wiki for Indigenous Languages website. Photo from Facebook

Where are the images of modern indigenous people on the Internet? Professor David Shorter had to create his own photo library for the Wiki for Indigenous Languages website after seeing stereotypical images online:
In 2002, I began working on my first website that would feature ethnographic and self-representations of the Yoeme people in northwest Mexico. I had worked with family members in various Yoeme pueblos since 1992 and I finished my doctoral dissertation in 2002. I received a small grant shortly after that in order to develop a website that featured Yoeme performances and politics, ideally designed in a form that reflected Yoeme aesthetics. The challenge was daunting to say the least. And while much could be said about the finished product, I start with this history to highlight that in 2002, I could find no websites on indigenous languages. In fact, most tribal nations in 2002 did not have their own websites. I was aware back then that the Internet seemed to be, comparatively, devoid of native presence.

Of course, the Internet was a different place back then. Since that time, the World Wide Web has grown from engaging 9% of the world’s population to now just under 50%. We’ve gone from having about 3 million websites to now close to 600 million. In 2002, it took about 13 minutes to download a song. Friendster had about 3 million users, compared to Facebook’s current 1.65 billion. If you wanted a fast machine to connect via a cable to the Internet, you could get the then “fast” 700MHz iBook. Based on how primitive the 2002 web space might seem to us now, we should not be surprised about the lack of Indigenous websites back then.

Imagine my surprise then, when in 2015, as I was developing the Wiki for Indigenous Languages (WIL), I was searching for stock photos of Native people using technology and found literally zero. I tried every set of search terms I could think of: “indigenous technology,” “Native technology users,” “aboriginal digital media,” “Any frickin image of an Indian using a mobile phone!” I was able to find some pretty disturbing photos; those of you who study representations of Indigenous people can probably imagine these well. I saw cavemen staring at large pc monitors, a Plains Indian listening to a phonograph, and lots of photos of South American and African tribal members, usually in feathers or face paint, holding a camera someone had clearly just handed to them. Really Interwebs?! In 2015?

Get the Story:
David Shorter: The More Things Change (Indian Country Today 5/14)