Oct 29, 2014 - Gatekeeping and politics in the Digital realm of Native Identity, By Danielle Miller


What relationship does social media and its users have on Native Identity?

Social media has become a new form of the moccasin telegraph in Indian Country, a way for Natives to voice their concerns on issues where they are denied the ability to do so by mainstream media. By using social media platforms marginalized groups are able to get their message across to large audiences while seemingly cutting out the middle man.

But as anything that is about social influence that leaves room to question motives and ethics of prominent gatekeepers.

Users who originally had no accessibility gain opportunities to vocalize on issues become vulnerable to interpersonal political conflicts and power dynamics when they land on the radar of gatekeepers. After certain social perks and interactions many individuals may feel obligated to reciprocate for gate keepers by joining social alliances and cosigning with individualized motives.  These individuals may be unaware of the fact that they are being used for the perspectives and knowledge they contribute, or as a prop for validation.

Ultimately this is an act of erasure and limits the ability for community members and emerging activist to navigate spaces without getting involved with internal politics and social turmoil.  Power struggles over differing perspectives and disagreements that were poorly confronted continue to add to concerns that social media movements are becoming less credible.

It becomes increasingly difficult and intimidating for users outside of particular social circles to discern true intent behind motives of those directing discourse. As someone who joined social media platforms with the intent to share my opinions, I was unaware of any of this coming in.  The longer ive been a user and the more circles I become involved with, the more wary I become of the dangers of assigning gatekeepers to pedestals. It becomes more evident that so many are catering to self-interest and often time’s personal politics derail from larger issues.

What good is social justice and activism if every space acts as an echo chamber where abuse and power dynamics go unchecked?

As uncomfortable and confusing as these criticisms may be of leaders and movements it cannot be denied that the questioning is necessary. Native Americans in particular will always be critical of who we allow into our spaces because of the history and the ongoing attempts at erasure and conquest.

“Lateral oppression” is a common response used to dismiss valid criticisms of gatekeepers. Denying people the right to criticize the manner in which gatekeepers represent communities and direct discourse is an act of lateral oppression in itself. I would rather be a part of a space where critical thinking and accountability is not vilified as toxic.

Another thing that I have personally experienced is quite often these individuals who speak the loudest about lateral oppression and being peaceful often are being divisive behind the scenes, because of the fact they never speak openly about concerns. Internalized gossip and alliances are just as toxic and eventually lead to implosion.

Discourse on Native issues cannot be genuine without nuance. It is in genuine to put qualifications on identity but it is also an act of erasure when certain aspects central to specific communities are dismissed as irrelevant because they aren’t inclusive to everyone.

What purpose is there for Tribal sovereignty if we were to view everything from a post racial lens that omits cultural traditionalism and kinship ties? That isn’t to say Urban Native identity isn’t authentic either, (its not like individuals chose to be assimilated or be disconnected from their people). But, to treat all identities as one in the same is insensitive to unique struggles and perspectives.

Deloris Schilling once tweeted something that I find very relevant to this conversation and approaches on diversity in general: “I have always believed that we will only find our similarities by appreciating and celebrating our differences.” Acknowledging our differences isn’t always about exclusion, its about appreciating our experiences. We cannot be sufficient in addressing specific issues that communities face if every conversation is through a pan Indian lens. It doesn’t mean that people with different backgrounds can’t contribute to the conversation but they shouldn’t be silencing those with the lived experience specific to certain struggles.

A tough conversation specific to Native Identity is blood quantum. Many tribes are aware of the fact that it is a colonial invention and clinging to it will eventually lead to extinction. As much as we would like to avoid the issue it is always brought up as a straw man accusation when community connection is brought up.

Colonizers, outsiders, and gatekeepers use “blood quantum politics” as a shield in order to dodge accountability for the way they are representing communities and discourse of certain issues. One would think that if someone claims to be a member of a specific tribe or community that it should be obvious that they are held accountable and have genuine connection, however this isn’t the case.

In many situations when questions are brought claims that people are being culture police and exclusionary are retorted.

Part of Native identity is about kinship ties and relationships to the community, so I often question why those questions are so vilified in public spaces. Community is also a trait attributed to Native Identity, not individualism. Social media adds even more external policing to Native Identity. Positive reinforcement takes place when a user is enabled by follows, favorites, retweets and interactions. While this is a good indicator of impact of addressing a particular issue, it also gives validation to outsiders to encroach upon and dictate Native Identity.

Pretendians feed on this validation when they convince so many that they are authentic and gain a large following. Eventually they speak over community members on issues they may know nothing about. Regardless of how “knowledgeable” they may be its still inappropriate to talk over those who are living it. In general, just be honest about who you are, where you come from and know boundaries. As a white passing, privileged Native, I acknowledge that my experiences are going to be different and Im not going to deal with the same struggles that say, reservation Natives might face.

Knowing that you don’t know it all is a part of being humble. Humility is a traditional value central to my People and that doesn’t include shameless self-promotion, and ownership of movements. In my personal evolution of activism I have learned the difference between claiming my place in a movement and being appointed to do so. I do believe that one should stand up when they feel their labor and efforts are being exploited, but that is different from entitlement in a movement for personal motives. This isn’t to say that the criticism is just on “settlers, outsiders, allies or non-natives”. There is plenty of opportunistic gatekeeping that occurs within Native spaces as well.

When certain leaders jump on the bandwagon to gain media opportunities and become a poster child for particular Native issues, they spring board off of other Native voices.

Often times individuals become so tired of being dismissed, defamed and spoken over that they give up on contributing completely. This is very troubling. Rather than competing for pedestals elders and more experienced leaders should be building up our youth, encouraging leaders for our future generations to move forward.

Activism is about more than being a media lap dog. Media is important for visibility but there comes a point where we need to ask “is this media production helping our communities or the ego? Does this corporation genuinely care about the message or just the sensationalism surrounding it?” Media coverage is pretty counterproductive when they do nothing but trivialize and dismiss the issues.

In the end if we don’t do a better job at being inclusive with discourse, to communities and individuals who are actually living and experiencing certain issues; Then we are no better than our society that is constantly policing Native Identity. When does personal agency infringe upon the way communities are being represented? In some efforts to gain visibility on an issue we may lose focus and miss how our praxis may actually be harmful.

These power dynamics aren’t always obvious to outsiders of movements and organizations.  Some only see the headlines and users credited for movements and hashtags. So in the end we must be cautious with who we trust,  to avoid further exploitation and marginalization.

But for those of us who are connected, are you considering how communities feel about the way you are representing them? If your social media platform were to disappear would you still have connections to those communities or the same desire to advocate for issues? For those who assume the responsibility to act as leaders for your community, in what ways are you making your efforts sustainable and passing on the torch?

Last Real Indians