Building Bridges Online

Anthropology, Native Americans, and the Digital Divide

Master's Thesis, 2006

107 Pages, Grade: 5.0 (out of 6)


Table of Contents

1 Prologue

Part I: Introduction
2 Taking Anthropology Online
3 Studying the Digital Divide
3.1 Statistics
3.2 The Digital Divide Debate
4 Appropriation instead of Marginalization

Part II: Going Online
5 Studying the Net: A How-To Guide
6 "Native Americans": Some Remarks on Terminology
7 Focus: Native American Internet Presence
7.1 Some Problematic Issues
7.2 Examples
7.2.1 Oneida Nation
7.2.2 Gila River Community
7.2.3 Navajo Nation
7.2.4 The 4D Project
7.2.5 Further Examples
7.3 Native American Webmasters: A Questionnaire
7.3.1 Preliminary Remarks
7.3.2 The Questionnaire
7.3.3 Basic Information
7.3.4 Native Americans and the Internet
7.4 First Conclusions

Part III: Bridging the Digital Divide
8 Ethnicity Online: Using the Internet
8.1 "Ethnicity": Choosing Appropriate Terminology
8.2 Appropriating the Internet
8.2.1 Some Numbers
8.2.2 Chances and Challenges
9 Closing the Gaps: Some Thoughts on Policy
9.1 Digital Development
9.2 Digital Democracy
9.3 Digital Culture
9.4 Digital Inclusion
10 Conclusion
11 Bibliography
12 Appendix
12.1 Online Questionnaire
12.1.1 Thesis Website
12.1.2 Email
12.1.3 Respondents' Websites
12.2 Native American Links
12.2.1 Resources
12.2.2 Internet Ventures

1 Prologue

In this paper I will attempt to highlight three main topics, which I propose show some interesting developments and possibilities for today's anthropologists: 1) that anthropology offers a methodology well-suited to look at the way people behave online; 2) that the digital divide has to be seen as complex reality with more than one dimension; and 3) that, despite all the (mostly justified) criticism and pessimism, the Internet offers many possibilities for those on the margins of a globalized society. For the latter I have chosen the Internet experience of Native Americans, who are in an especially interesting situation because they live in one of the best- connected countries in the world, yet face a number of challenges when it comes to accessing and using the Internet. These three dimensions will be described and analyzed in this thesis, using available research literature, Internet sources and a questionnaire I posted on a website created specifically for my thesis project, because it felt important to me to get some first-hand information as well, at least in a limited way.

The focus of my research evolved from my personal and academic background and interests, which led me to write two papers in Media Studies about Internet and identity and the formation and functioning of online communities. I have strong ties with many people I got to know over the Internet, kept alive through emails, LiveJournal[1], and rare face-to-face meetings whenever the opportunity arises. These personal impressions of connectedness regardless of geography, race or social status (although most of us are well-educated women in their late twenties living in the Western world) woke my curiosity in how and why people use the Internet and what effects the technology has on them and how they shape the technology in return. As an anthropologist my interest has always lain with processes of appropriation in a globalized world, be it in tourism in Middle America or spirit possession in Madagascar, so it felt natural to examine the Internet from this angle as well.

The Internet is not a miracle cure for problems and inequality. There is no denying that many arguments used by technology critics and pessimists are founded in reality, but to see how marginalized people manage to find positive potential in things that are imposed on them by outside forces and make it their own is incredibly fascinating and, in my opinion, a much more useful and proactive way of looking at the complex problems of our world than proclaiming that things are just going to get worse. If one only looks closely, one can always find examples of people overcoming any obstacle, like the Native Americans I encountered online, who overcome the obstacle of lack of access and education that is so glaringly obvious when one looks at the statistics of the digital divide research. As with all issues anthropologists (or social scientists in general) tackle, it seems to me to be of great importance to see any problem as multi-dimensional and try to view it from more than one angle. This is why I hope that the picture I'm going to paint of anthropology, the digital divide, the opportunities offered by Internet for ethnic groups (using Native Americans as an example), and the way those three topics intersect could inspire further research into this area.

This thesis consists of three parts. In the introduction I'm using current literature to highlight some of the main features of the Internet as a new field of research for anthropology, followed by some basic facts about the digital divide, showing statistics and theories found in some of the various texts written on the subject as well as some of the debate surrounding the topic. The last part of the introduction will then move from the global to the local context and raise some points about processes of appropriation instead of focusing on marginalization. In the second part of my thesis I will focus on the Native American presence online, summarize what I consider the most important information about how to perform anthropological research online, present a selection of Native American websites, and finally I want to discuss the results gained from my questionnaire. Following this, after discussing my choice to use the terms "ethnicity" and "ethnic group" in this paper, I will attempt to merge the insights gained in the previous parts and show some of the ways that could enable ethnic groups and other disadvantaged people as well as governments and organizations to bridge the digital divide, especially focusing on how to devise effective and well-balanced policies.

Part I: Introduction

This introduction will highlight some of the arguments made in the current literature. I found Hine (2000), Miller & Slater (2000) and Bell (2001) the most interesting sources for what Hine calls "virtual ethnography"; for the information about the research regarding the digital divide I'm relying mostly on Norris (2001) and Servon (2002) as well as a number of Internet sources, especially for statistics; while Coombe (1998) and Nakamura (2004) will serve as my main source about strategies of appropriation.

This is not an attempt to give a complete overview over these topics, as each of them offers enough material for a complete paper. I only want to mention some of the main points made by contemporary researchers, as far as it seems relevant to the framework of this thesis, in order to give some impressions about the complexities of the topic.

2 Taking Anthropology Online

The media provide, as technologies and as cultural forces, the infrastructure for the kind of connectivity that most of those who write on globalisation as a new dimension in social relations focus upon [...]. (Silverstone 2001: 107)

In this sense the Internet, which has been described as a "network of networks", is the ultimate globalized (and globalizing) medium - and well worth describing (Uimonen 2001: 13). In his classic work "The Virtual Community" about his experiences with online communities in the WELL[2], Rheingold (1993: Internet source) was one of the first to emphasize that online forms of community offer the same complexities as more traditional social networks in what Internet users call "Real Life" or RL. One can find different explanations for the new technologies and how they came to be:

For some, the new communications technologies are a logical upshot of the preoccupations of modern society with rationality and control. For others, the new communications technologies are distinctive in their emphasis on uncertainty, and thus are the embodiments of a postmodern mode of (dis)organization characterized by the fragmentation of concepts such as science, religion, culture, society and the self. Finally, for some, the new information and communication technologies are the agents of such radical changes in social organization that they deserve a period all to themselves: the information society. (Hine 2000: 5-6)

It is my belief that anthropology and ethnography[3] can be useful for the study of online life, giving researchers tools that enable them to better understand the many dimensions the Internet has, be it as a place where culture happens or as a technology shaped by offline culture. With both perspectives it is unavoidable that online and offline context influence the object of study, making it crucial for the ethnographer to combine the two in order to create a complete picture of people's experiences online (Hine 2000: 9-10). As in more traditional fields of study, ethnography can be used to explore "the micro-level of analysis rather than the macro-level of such theories, and [to understand] the present rather than dissecting the parameters of social change" (Hine 2000: 5).

The Internet offers a wide variety of options for individuals and groups. Today for many everyday life happens in both public and private forums, "deeply embedded in the mediated, hyperreal, televisual systems of meaning that bring the global village into the living room" (Denzin 1997: 277-278), making a separation of the two difficult if not impossible. The strengths of ethnography, according to Denzin (1997: 285), "include a willingness to listen to ordinary people; a watchdog of cultural values; powerful stories about the underdog and the production of stories that move people to action; a celebration of, and love for, the concrete and the ordinary; an ability to eventually explain anything; an unwillingness to let go of the newsworthy; disrespect for the rich and the powerful; a voice of empowerment; and a commitment to democracy."

More and more the value of ethnographical research is recognized in the field of CMC[4], also by non-social scientists who see the advantage in ethnography's ability to put "the results of participants observation in relation to broader structural dynamics" into context (Hakken 1999: 45). However, ethnography conducted outside of anthropology is in danger of being less effective because non-anthropologists are not part of the disciplinary discourse and therefore have more difficulties to describe online culture in a convincing way.

In anthropology, "the notion of bounded community which had romantically underwritten too much of the ethnographic tradition" had been an object of discussion well before the arrival of the Internet, and therefore anthropologists see any community or place as emerging from historical and outside influences (Miller et al. 2004: 82).

As Miller et al. (2004: 76) describe it, social sciences brought a new perspective "that understood the existence of numerous new technologies, used by diverse people, in diverse real-world locations" to Internet studies. They investigate the effects the Internet has on people, how they use it and what models of thought they use to explain what they find there to themselves and to each other. Earlier studies saw the Internet as a "placeless place", disconnected from people's offline reality, an attitude that's mirrored in the online use of the term "Real Life" for everything that happens when one is offline. Miller et al. (2004: 77) criticize this approach harshly, accusing this focus on the separation of the virtual from everyday life to be a result more of convenience for the researcher than the actual reality of the Internet. The more recent studies approach the Internet from the opposite direction, treating it as an extension of other social spaces from which it cannot be separated. Even if the people themselves describe or treat their online experience as a separate reality, anthropology asks for socially embedded explanations for this view instead of using it as a starting point for study, treating "virtuality" as one of many features within the "complex ethnographic experience" of the Internet as a social space (Miller et al. 2004: 78).

In this line Evans (2004: 155-156) emphasizes the importance of seeing that online communities, one of the most popular research topics, will "continue to reflect the inconsistencies, divisions and successes of the organisations and areas of which they are a part", making the Internet and its possibilities not a miraculous "solution to social and economic problems faced at global, regional or local levels", but part of the ever-changing reality of life:

Communities are fluid and mutable, often internally inconsistent and difficult to categorise. Virtual communities need to be bold enough to be able to change emphasis and content to reflect the needs of their members at any particular time. In order to do this they must be rooted enough in the community that they can sense these different points of change. (Evans 2004: 156)

Again, this demands a broad perspective from every kind of Internet research, both on the on- and offline realities of the participants in order to approach a balanced picture of the changes brought on by the digital technologies:

The social embeddedness of these new technologies may [...] set limits to the extent to which technology - even if it is conceptualised in terms of 'realism' - transforms social life. (Loader & Schroeder 1997: 107)

The role of communities and individuals online have been one of the most popular focuses for social science research, but according to Nissenbaum & Price (2004: xv) the strongest effects of anthropological research can be found in the area of "civic organization and political mobilization, where the Internet and Web, with their capacity to support robust, fluid network structures, have facilitated waves of immensely successful, highly publicized antiestablishment activism", moving the traditional role of the anthropologist as advocate online.[5]

The wide range of topics that anthropological and ethnographic studies of the Internet have covered makes comparative research into the complexities of Internet use more difficult. Therefore Miller & Slater (2000: 9) suggest four "analytical dimensions" as a result of their study on Trinidadian Internet experience, which they see as useful for the study of various "issues about social transformations in new media contexts that generally concern social science and other communities":

Dynamics of objectification: how do people engage with the Internet as an instance of material culture through which they are caught up in processes of identification?

Dynamics of mediation: how do people engage with new media as media: how do people come to understand, frame and make use of features, potentialities, dangers and metaphors that they perceive in the new media?

Dynamics of normative freedom: how do people engage with the dialectics of freedom and its normative forms as they are opened up by Internet media?

Dynamics of positioning: how do people engage with the ways in which Internet media position them within networks that transcend their immediate location, and that comprise the mingled flows of cultural, political, financial and economic resources? (Miller & Slater 2000: 10)

These four dynamics allow a multi-dimensional description of the Internet as a form of material culture, showing the main strength anthropology brings to the wide field of Internet studies: a dynamic perspective, a focus on culture and its diversity (Uimonen 2001: 9). As Marcus (1998: 52) puts it eloquently, this is the goal of any sort of ethnography - or at least it should be:

The idea is that any cultural identity or activity is constructed by multiple agents in varying contexts, or places, and that ethnography must be strategically conceived to represent this sort of multiplicity, and to specify both intended and unintended consequences in the network of complex connections within a system of places.

While Miller & Slater provide guidelines as to which questions to ask, one can also follow Hakken (1999: 7) and choose at which level of cyberspace one would like to do the research:

The key levels are arranged in a continuum that roughly parallels those of biology; that is, from the sub-individual to the macro-structural:

1. The basic characteristic of the entities carrying (proto-) cyberspace;
2. The self-identities formed by such entities;
3. The micro, close relations these entities construct (e.g., with intimates and friends);
4. Their meso, intermediate social relations (e.g., community, regional, and civic relations);
5. Their macro-social relations (e.g., national and transnational);
6. The political economic structures which cyberspace entities produce and reproduce and by which they are constrained.

All levels offer themselves for anthropological and ethnographical research. Other than more traditional studies, the anthropological field online is "more concerned with a process than with a particular locale", and anthropologists choosing to go there often start with a personal affinity with the topic. This personal focus reflects "the personalized nature of the Internet itself" (Uimonen 2001: 12), and is then projected onto the social reality of others in the course of a study. As Marcus (1998: 15) postulates, this shift from personal to a more distanced social "is the key move which gives a project substance and force":

The affinities themselves that motivate research, their exploration, and then projection, are all part of a process that inevitably leads to a multi-sited frame that should be treated ethnographically, whether the whole space is actually investigated or not (once again what becomes the focus and what becomes the context is a matter of decision and strategy in research design).

True ethnographic study therefore demands real engagement of the researcher with his or her field of study, "a long-term involvement amongst people, through a variety of methods, such that any one aspect of their lives can be properly contextualized in others" (Miller & Slater 2000: 21). Participation alone is not enough; the anthropologist also has to weigh ethical questions. Especially the question of conducting ones research overtly or anonymously gains new importance in an online setting, because anonymity is much easier to achieve there. As Bell (2001: 199) puts it:

That the act of masquerading is made easier in cyberspace does not mean that it is less ethically troublesome; neither does hiding behind the fact that everyone else could be lying about who they are. [...]

In addition, we have to remember that participation in any social setting transforms it - even if we declare our intentions, our presence impacts on the behaviour of those around us. [...] While there are substantial practical gains in online research, such as comparative ease of access, there are also new limitations: the kind of sporadic involvement with a virtual field setting means we might miss some of the unintended impacts that our presence has.

This means that online research faces new challenges that require a careful adaptation of methods to the setting in order for them to work effectively (Bell 2001: 203).

Following the arguments laid out in this chapter, this thesis itself is not a "true" anthropological study in that there simply was not the time to truly immerse myself into the Native American Internet experience, but I will try my best to be true to the ideal of anthropological research by viewing the topic from multiple angles, trying to capture an aspect of life. As Escobar (1994: 223) already said over ten years ago, this is what anthropology is about: "the story of life as it has been lived and is being lived at this very moment," be it on- or offline.

3 Studying the Digital Divide

A crucial aspect of this is a refusal to separate off the particularities of consumption from the issues of provision, production, and access - all those dimensions that have classically been hived off as "structure" but in fact need to be treated simply as other practices and relations that are distributed across places. A theoretically and politically important example of this is the issue of Internet "access," with the corollary issues of uneven power, distribution, and the infamous "digital divide." (Miller et al. 2004: 84)

The issue of access - who how and why (or rather, why not) has it - is an almost unavoidable issue when working outside the mainstream public of the post-industrial Western societies, concetrating on people who are far less connected to the new digital media as many statistics show. It's also especially important in many anthropological studies of the Internet, because it fits the traditional interest of many anthropologists in the role of the disadvantaged rather than that of the privileged.[6]

3.1 Statistics

The above-mentioned "digital divide" was first brought up as a term in a 1995 report of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) called "Falling Through the Net", in which the US Office of Policy and Development published statistics that showed that, although the United States are one of the best-connected countries in the world, there are significant differences in the level of access, connected with factors like education, age and, most significant for this thesis, race. Not only did Native Americans show among the lowest number of modems per household, they were even more disadvantaged in something as basic as telephone access. This is especially significant as a great number of Native Americans live in rural areas, where the technological infrastructure lags 20% behind the national average, as the following table from the NTIA (1995: Internet source) report shows:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

T2: Percent of U.S. computer households with a modem - by race/origin and rural, urban, and central city areas [emphasis by E.N.]

After this report was published, it caused a lot of stir and the Clinton administration launched policies to improve the situation. Efforts to find newer statistics for the Native American population failed, however, as the later NTIA reports did not include Native Americans in their sample. The most recent report (2004: Internet) even shifted its focus completely from the basic question of access and towards the new gap widening between users with broadband and those without, a result of the changed policies under the Bush administration (Warschauer 2002: Internet source). Yet taking into account the global developments of the recent years, it is safe to assume that there has been a certain progress made but that the divide between digital "haves" and "have-nots" remains significant.

While the majority of Native American tribes and organizations realize the opportunities the Internet can offer them, especially out of the rural isolation of the reservations, and have taken steps to try and use information technology for their advantage, these efforts have been executed in many different ways and with varying success, resulting in some reservations with completely networked schools and others lacking even basic telephone service for their residents. According to Davis & Trebian (2001: Internet source), these differences are rooted in a number of complex issues:

- Distrust of specific new technologies
- Geographic remoteness
- Weak economic bases in tribal communities
- Lack of private investment on tribal land
- Poor targeting of specific government policies for improving technology infrastructures in Native American communities
- Lack of protection of Native American intellectual property rights over the Internet

Some of these issues will be discussed in more detail in the following chapter, but it is obvious that Native Americans without the possibility to go online do not have the chance to use the many cultural and social resources that can by now be found online, even if they want to:

For communities with limited or no library services, the Internet can help meet information needs that might otherwise be neglected. [...] In an era when many of the last speakers of a language are elderly, these online resources can be critical in the preservation of languages that would otherwise die out. The Internet also provides a critical forum for Native peoples to communicate with each other and share experiences and information. There are many web sites that act as a portal, providing access to a wealth of information on all things relevant to Indian Country. (Hayes 2003: Internet source)

Taking a short detour to worldwide statistics, the latest numbers published by the International Telecommunications Union ITU (2005: Internet) show that there are almost as many Internet users in the G8 countries (429 mio.) as in the non-G8 countries (444 mio.), although 85% of the world's population live in the latter. In the United States alone there are eight times more Internet users than in all of Africa, and there are still 30 countries where less than 1% of the population have Internet access. So, while the numbers show that the gap has shrunk in the past ten years, they also show that there's still a long way to go until everyone has the same chance to go online - if this ever happens.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Therefore, when working about Native Americans (as well as other peoples on the "wrong" side of the digital divide) and their involvement with digital resources and the Internet, this disadvantage should always be kept in mind, especially when describing the positive results of the use of these technologies, because they can always only apply to a small number of Native Americans.

3.2 The Digital Divide Debate

However, the debate about the digital divide goes beyond numbers. In the past ten years there has been a wide variety of discussion on the topic between researchers arguing from widely different positions:

[...] optimists envisaging the positive role of the Internet for transforming poverty in developing societies, skeptics who believe that new technologies alone will make little difference one way or another, and pessimists who emphasize that digital technologies will further exacerbate the existing North-South divide. (Norris 2001: 9)

Personally, if put on the spot, I find it hard to count myself to one single group. As the aim of this paper clearly states, I do believe technology can help people improve their situation. As Keck & Sikkink (1998: x) argue, voices that are normally marginalized and muted can use the transnational network of the Internet to make themselves heard:

[This process] is imperfect and selective - for every voice that is amplified, many others are ignored - but in a world where the voices of states have predominated, networks open channels for bringing alternative visions and information into international debate.

However, I also see that simply the existence of new technologies won't fix differences and inequalities deeply and historically rooted in our society, and that the Internet can also be one more thing where the small number of so-called developed countries has an advantage over the rest of the world. In this I follow Servon (2002: 231), who argues that "the digital divide reveals and repeats patterns of inequality that long pre-existed the current problem." The digital divide is not a monolithic problem but follows classic divides along the lines of race, gender and education/class, and reducing it "requires a new generation of policy efforts characterized by greater integration, coordination, and, most of all, a willingness to question and change the structures that maintain existing power relations."

Similarly, most authors of more recent studies make a point of emphasizing the heterogenous nature of the digital divide, away from the concept of one homogenous digital divide often perpetuated in earlier or mainstream literature (Servon 2002: 41; Warschauer 2002: Internet source). Norris (2001: 4) refers to the global divide between post-industrial and developing nations, the social divide between those with and those without access to information in each society, and the democratic divide "between those who do, and do not, use the panoply of digital resources to engage, mobilize, and participate in public life." In the context of this paper, the social divide is most significant, because the Native Americans form part of the society of the United States, one of the leading post-industrial countries in the world.

As the above-quoted US statistics showed, even in highly technologized societies there can be vast differences in access to and use of the Internet.[7] Thomas & Wyatt (2000: 26) argue that these inequalities will not be remedied simply through time:

[...] there may be inequalities of access and use during the early stages of a technology but it is assumed these disappear, or are at least much reduced, as the technology becomes more widely diffused. [...] This is the real annihilation of space by time: the assumption that the entire world shares a single timeline of development, in which some groups are further ahead than others along this shared path.

To us as anthropologists this perspective is familiar - unilinearity has long been rejected as a model of cultural evolution in the anthropological discourse, making it easy to agree with the citation above. But even if there is a line of development societies follow when it comes to technology, "diffusion theory suggests that the adoption of successful new technologies often reinforces economic advantages [...], so that the rich get richer, and the less well-off sectors fall farther behind" (Norris 2001: 71). Accordingly, in the first years of the Internet, its users were socially and racially very homogenous, making the Internet quite useless as tool to bridge divides in society at large (Norris 2001: 34).

A possible exception can be found in highly technologized countries like the United States, where focused policies might lead to a normalization of the technological standard in the country until the Internet is as popular as television today, for which Norris (2001: 70-71) finds some indicators, although the fulfillment of this goal still seems to be far off. Similarly DiMaggio et al. (2004: 40) state that at least the gap between the sexes and that between the generations have become smaller as technology spread and became more accessible, also enabling people with less education to gain access. In this quest towards a more generalized access, small numbers of individuals can take on the role of "champion" for a bigger public by demonstrating the effects and possibilities of ICT[8] through their own use of the technology (Evans 2004: 158).

Thomas & Wyatt (2000: 43) continue their line of argument by defining the Internet as "an increasingly global, large socio- technical system" that "is being shaped by the interplay of social and economic forces around the world as well as by the possibilities and limitations provided by current technologies." They go on to state that the Internet consists of countless different individuals and social groups with different perspectives and motivations that try to use it in their own way and to their own advantage as best as possible. They attempt to do this from different social positions and from different levels of power. Uimonen (2001: 214) also describes these differences, seeing "powerful actors whose readiness for change is circumscribed by their desire to maintain their hold on power" forming an opposite to those individuals that use the Internet to work towards "individual freedom and global integration".


[1] - a composite of community message boards and personal journals (so-called "blogs").

[2] Whole Earth Electronic Link - computer conference forums since 1985:

[3] Hakken (1999: 3) defines ethnography as one of two related discourses in anthropology, used to describe different cultures, while the other, ethnology, is less well-known outside of anthropology and concerned with culture comparisons and general theorizing about culture. Therefore ethnography performed by anthropologists will be "inevitably laced with ethnology, for most description uses terms that cross cultural frames."

[4] CMC = Computer Mediated Communication

[5] There has been a lively debate for quite some time on whether advocacy is a legitimate part of anthropological research or whether it is at odds with the scientific standards. In my use of the word I'm following Singer (1990: 548) in that "advoacy, in the broad sense of putting knowledge to use for the purpose of social change, is the explicit aim of the anthropological endeavour." An example of a more critical approach (to which Singer's article is a direct response) can be found in Hastrup et al. (1990).

[6] Compare footnote 5 for some information on the debate about adovacy in anthropology.

[7] The latter point won't be discussed in the course of this paper, but during my reading I found some interesting studies about the way different ethnic groups (African American, Asian American, Hispanic) use the Internet in the USA, especially through the Pew Internet & American Life Project (

[8] ICT: Internet & Communication Technology

Excerpt out of 107 pages


Building Bridges Online
Anthropology, Native Americans, and the Digital Divide
University of Basel  (Ethnologisches Institut)
5.0 (out of 6)
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anthropology, internet, native americans, digital divide, media studies
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Evamaria Nittnaus (Author), 2006, Building Bridges Online, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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