Cultures, Poetics, and Politics
Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart, eds. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008, 376 pp.
Reviewed by Jackie Land
Pamela Wilson and Michelle Stewart’s edited volume Global Indigenous Media: Cultures, Poetics, and Politics opens up a new discussion of the relationship between globalization and Indigenous communities and cultures at the local level. Studies on globalization and media technology have largely focused on the international circulation of mainstream national productions to other countries and cultural contexts. Rather than focusing on the negotiation of English language, acculturating and assimilating mass media, the fifteen authors in this collection trace the global emergence of Indigenous media production, serving local needs in the same moment that it forms a global network. In this context, Indigenous media is a tool for cultural preservation, artistic expression, self-representation, and cultural sovereignty.
This book will be a unique addition to classes concerned with information technology, political movements, and cultural diversity in relation to modern globalization and communication. Instructors looking to expose students to Indigenous media studies will find Wilson and Stewart’s introduction “Indigeneity and Indigenous Media on the Global Stage” an excellent resource, either as the basis for lecture or assigned reading. In addition to the introduction as a starting place, a course might be designed to include chapters throughout the semester or for several weeks during the semester. The chapter selections could be based on particular regions (North America, Latin American, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Arctic Asia), mediums (print, radio, television, film and video, animation), or themes (the digital divide, political activism and advocacy, aesthetic styles, film festivals and circulation). Given the range of regions, mediums, and themes available in this collection, it will be important to situate Indigenous media studies as an emergent field of study within multiple disciplines, from media and communication, ethnic studies, cultural studies, art history, geography, visual anthropology, development studies, and political science. Wilson and Stewart demonstrate that there is no single approach or definition of Indigenous media is exhaustive and the term has been used differently, either presuming or privileging certain types of media (often film and video) or addressing certain Indigenous communities over others.
Although each of the chapters in this collection extends and complicates our understanding of what Indigenous media can mean and accomplish, they stand alone. This is ideal for classroom use, allowing for reading assignments and excerpts to emphasize some aspects. Wilson and Stewart’s introduction will be an essential starting place for most, as it offers a rigorous history on the cultural, political, and technological underpinnings of the global emergence of Indigenous media. The authors draw on the work of Barry Barclay, who coined the term “Fourth Cinema” to identify the phenomenon of global media production by Indigenous peoples which exists outside forms of dominant media of the First World, independent/arthouse media, or media of the Third World. The specificity of Indigenous media is therefore central to this collection and the artists discussed in each chapter. Students should walk away with an understanding of the politics of recognition for Indigenous peoples and claims to self-determination. This point enables conversation about the way that cultural identities are controlled and legitimated at the institutional level, and to understand claims to indigeneity and sovereignty as a political response tied to land claims.
Understanding how Indigenous peoples are recognized – both within the legal strictures of settler nations, and through self-identification – and how the politics of recognition influence Indigenous media is central to the authors. First, they employ a broad definition of Indigenous media, acknowledging the range of roles and involvement that Indigenous peoples might have with a work, either in the process of conceptualization, production, or circulation. This definition responds to scholarship on Western media production that emphasizes the exploitation and appropriation of Indigenous peoples and culture. Although the authors do not refute this troubled relationship and history, they adopt the reading practice other scholars working on Indigenous film and media have more recently delineated that privileges agency and engagement between Indigenous peoples and Western media, using interaction and involvement as the basis for redeeming and reclaiming works that have otherwise been understood as negative.
For instance, the concluding essay “Rethinking the Digital Divide” by Faye Ginsburg, one of the most prolific scholars in the field of Indigenous media studies, would pair nicely with a screening of Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 feature Atanarjuat/The Fast Runner. The film won the Camera D’Or Award at Cannes in 2001. It was conceptualized and produced entirely by the Igloolik community in Nunavut through Igloolik Isuma Productions and is available for online streaming on Isuma TV (www.isuma.tv). The film, based on a traditional story and seeks to reconstruct an earlier period in Inuit history; the production relied on close consultation with elders to ensure authenticity in costumes, props, and acting. The dialogue is entirely in Inuktitut with optional English subtitles. It privileges viewers from the community in terms of language, cultural/spiritual beliefs, and storytelling conventions. There are many long takes of the landscape, recreating the pace and aesthetic of daily life in pre-contact times. The film’s pacing and masterful retelling of a story well-known to the community resulted in a film that is just under 3 hours (certainly length is no small detail for classes that do not have established screening times – instructors might assign viewing outside of class through the free online streaming site, determine a section to screen in class, or watch the film over several class periods). Although well-received by critics, these differences in pacing, production quality, and cultural differences will reinforce the notion of Indigenous media as a form of production, distribution, and reception that exists outside dominant media.
Overall, the collection provides a perspective on Indigenous media as an evolving form, actively redefining what it means to be Indigenous by responding to colonizing discourses that have long placed Indigenous people outside of modernity and absent from the global stage. Through the case studies and theoretical frameworks offered throughout these essays, we can help students understand the complex contexts through which media is produced and distributed at the local and global level, recognizing the trends and motivations that unify them even as they appeal to cultural specificity. In addition, the book reminds us that global media production develops out of a process of active negotiation between mainstream media technologies and conventions and cultural traditions, delivering new forms of cultural expression and political activism.