Words as Big as the Screen: Native American Languages and the Internet

By McHenry, Tracey | Language, Learning & Technology, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Words as Big as the Screen: Native American Languages and the Internet


McHenry, Tracey, Language, Learning & Technology


ABSTRACT

As linguists working with the revival, maintenance, and survival of Native American languages have noted, the forces causing languages to become obsolete are not merely linguistic: Political, economic, and social factors all influence the viability of indigenous languages. Thus, researchers addressing Native American issues must pay attention to these factors in order to understand more fully the complexity of language decisions for Native Americans. However, the majority of research done on Native American languages is done by non-Natives. This Native subject/non-Native researcher relationship is a problematic one, given the longstanding practice of non-Native people making decisions for and about Native Americans. To make matters even more complex, the dominant North American culture has a long tradition of mythologizing Native Americans as pre-literate "children of nature" -- an outdated stereotype that does not reflect the sophisticated appropriation of computer technology by Native American communities during the "Internet revolution" of the last 10 years. This paper explores the complex history of Native American language research before discussing how one Native school is utilizing Web technology.

NATIVE AMERICANS AND TECHNOLOGY: WELCOME TO THE FUTURE

A scene from an episode of the popular television show The X-Files offers a telling example as a way into a discussion of the misrepresentation of Native Americans vis-a-vis technology. The episode, entitled "Paperclip," was the final installment in a three-part season finale in the spring of 1995. The plot, which is too complex to explain in detail here, involves the FBI's attempts to acquire and protect data concerning an international and even extraterrestrial conspiracy. FBI agents Mulder and Scully find evidence of the conspiracy on computer files and realize that they need to protect the data in a more secure way than electronic storage media allow. In resolving this problem, the story pays homage to the Navajo code talkers of World War II: The important data is encrypted in the Navajo language and memorized by a Navajo elder, Albert Hosteen. The episode ends with the FBI Assistant Director parading Hosteen in front of a representative of the forces of evil as he triumphantly explains the utility of Navajo in a postmodern world:

 
   I'm sure you're thinking Albert is an old man, and there are plenty of ways 
   you might kill him, too. Which is why in the ancient oral tradition of his 
   people he's told twenty other men the information in those files. So unless 
   you kill every Navajo living in four states, that information is available 
   with a simple phone call. Welcome to the wonderful world of high 
   technology. (Carter & Bowman, 1995) 

In this example, the usually high-tech FBI triumphs over multinational and perhaps extraterrestrial forces by reverting to the ultimate low technology -- the preliterate and, of course, pre-computer oral tradition of North America's indigenous people. While innumerable episodes of The X-Files involve hacking, firewalls, and encryption as elements of plots about protecting truth from the malevolent forces that conspire to suppress it, this episode privileges the human over the machine in this process. But not just any human -- an elderly Native American and his community serve as the storage medium for the valuable data. This choice exemplifies the dominant cultural convention of equating Native American languages with authentic culture and history. The conflation is ostensibly positive here, as the oral tradition is what safeguards the truth. However, Albert Hosteen serves only as a passive receptacle of knowledge for the federal government in this situation. His "ancient oral tradition" exists only in contradiction to the modern, written tradition exemplified by the data on the disks -- the viability of this oral tradition is never tested, explained, or problematized. …

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