critical spin on new media and activism
First Settlers – Indigenous activist claims to the digital space

First Settlers – Indigenous activist claims to the digital space

From guerrilla tactics in the Chiapas to Inuit covers of Rihanna. How indigenous activists claim and change virtual space online whilst negotiating identity

“Once again we are leading.” said President of the USA with a smile on his face “When we lead, we build security, we build prosperity for our own people”.

His words were chosen carefully for they ushered in a new era of globalisation and neoliberalism. But questions such as ‘Who is it that is under threat to warrant the need for security?’ and ‘Our own people – who’s included in that?’ didn’t receive answers. Moments later, Clinton would sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade deal between the USA, Canada and Mexico. The date was 8 December, 1993.

It was watched the world over. But particularly closely by a pair of vivid green eyes that, along with a black ski mask and pipe, became defining features of a charismatic indigenous rights leader, who, love him or loathe him, was the ‘first settler’ to truly lay claim to the world wide web as a space for indigenous activism.

I am talking about Subcommander Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), who on the day NAFTA came into effect on the first of January 1994, launched his war on neoliberalism and for the rights of the indigenous people in the Mexican State of Chiapas.

Subcomandante Marcos
Sub commander Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN)

Marcos fought what was deemed back then as a new type of warfare, a “shadow war via the Internet, lacing humor with his communiqués demanding justice for the Maya Indians of Chiapas and the 9 million indigenous peoples of Mexico” (see Knudson). The Internet was being used as both a communication tool and a virtual space to dramatic effect. Marcos’ messages were being read around the world long before Mexican security forces realised what was happening. This was groundbreaking at the time.

Even whilst on the run, Marcos kept the content flowing, adapting telephone modems and cellular phones, and charging devices through the cigarette lighter in his pick-up truck. The foreign press lapped it up, Knudson reports.

Haunss describes how the Zapatistas ‘insurrection by internet’ dramatically changed the way activists used computers and the Internet; prior to the Zapatistas, “activists who were using the [computer] networks were clearly a small minority”, he says.

So, in 1994, the Zapatistas breathed life into online activism, and void of rights to their homelands, and struggling against neo-colonialism, indigenous people began laying claim to a different kind of space and embarked on a journey that continues today.

As Marcos said himself:

“…We will take Mexico City, although not necessarily in physical terms. Weren’t we there already [by Internet] by January 2nd? We were everywhere, on the lips of everyone… How often does it happen that an armed group’s declaration of war is read in public just a few feet from the National Palace . . .?” (Guillermoprieto)

Globalisation, language and activism

Indigenous Memes for International Mother Language Day

Forces of globalisation are very much a part of this discussion. For instance, the phenomenon of ‘time-space compression’ (as noted by Eriksen), is what enabled the Zapatista to spread their messages to an international audience, almost instantaneously. However, as Eriksen points out, globalisation has a fundamental duality to it.

On the flip side, globalisation can have the effect of standardising the way we communicate with each other. For instance, Eriksen notes that 56 percent of all webpages are in English, yet only five percent of the world’s population speaks English as their first language.

These effects threaten minority, spoken languages. Furthermore, as noted here in the context of the aboriginal people in North America by Marie Battiste, language has been actively used as a tool to maintain colonial domination over indigenous societies.

UNESCO notes, “When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression — valuable resources for ensuring a better future — are also lost”. According to UNESCO, of the estimated 6000 languages in the world, “…less than a hundred are used in the digital world”, begging a key question posed by Digital Language Diversity Project:

Is it possible for regional or minority language speakers to have a digital life in those languages?

Well, there are a number of great examples from indigenous people who are experimenting with their local languages and identities online. I look at one below but think you’ll enjoy these memes from International Mother Language Day.


Indigenous Singer Activist Kelly Fraser
Inuit singer and indigenous activist Kelly Fraser

Kelly Fraser, an Inuit from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut. Her website explains how her first album was ‘folksy’ but her new album is ‘…influenced by contemporary pop, EDM, and hip-hop’.


‘Kelly sings and raps in both English and Inuktitut, seamlessly blending the two languages with her powerful, insightful, and politically-relevant lyrics… Her goal is to make the music speak to both Inuit and Qallunaat (“southerners”)’, claims her website. This is a great example of how technologies and new media are allowing people (affording them perhaps) to ‘define and negotiate their identities in new ways’ (Eriksen). Kelly even writes her lyrics out in local script via her YouTube pages:

Indigenous lyrics and translation
Lyrics and translation of indigenous language and script by Kelly Fraser via her YouTube page

Through her lyrics and translation, Kelly’s music and online presence (she’s on Facebook and Soundcloud too) may have the added benefit of ‘translating oral traditions into youth-friendly contemporary forms at a time when…’, according to Proulx ‘…youth tend not to have time to sit and listen to elders or grassroots leaders’.


But is this an example of empowered indigenous activism, afforded by technology? One reading might be that Kelly’s actions are subversive in the way they exploit the affordances of the technology, such as the instant connections and sprawling international networks of social media in order to disseminate local or indigenous knowledge and language. In this way, she is repurposing globalised/majority-language online space and infrastructure and (re-) representing a globalised culture, such as with her cover of Rihanna’s song ‘Diamonds’, into which she weaves lyrics in her mother tongue.

Others may argue that, far from being an act of resistance, this is an example of indigenous culture and practice succumbing to the lure of commercialisation, commodification and appropriation. Kelly’s music ends up feeding a system (neoliberalism) that may be undermining the very existence of the indigenous community she is promoting. Does her connection to and promotion of her Inuit culture has to be of a sufficient volume and authenticity to offset these potentially harmful fallouts?


Well, I wouldn’t agree with either of these arguments necessarily. As Eriksen notes, indigenous people, just like everybody else, do not necessarily become less authentic when they appropriate globalised, hybrid cultural forms. In regards to these globalised cultural forms, Eriksen suspects that ‘…it is not where it comes from that matters but what you do with it’. Similarly, Merry describes that this is not about preserving or ‘claiming back’ indigenous knowledge (IK) [as in from adversarial forces] but about ‘…appropriating the concept of IK as the only way for local people to reappropriate that which has been appropriated, and use it, in some cases, against the appropriators themselves’.

My own thinking is that we have talked about the affordance of technology for indigenous activists but perhaps we should also be talking about the affordances of indigenous knowledge and culture as a means for challenging and changing the way we think about social change and activism, both offline and online? As Clammer notes, Indigenous Knowledge ‘…is not an artefact but a process in which local societies get acquainted with global knowledge and techniques in order to resist and control as far as possible the expropriation of local resources, both material and symbolic.’ What else might this process reveal for the world of digital activism and social change?



Battiste, M (1998) ‘Enabling the Autumn Seed: Toward a Decolonized Approach to Aboriginal Knowledge, Language and Education’, Canadian Journal of Native Education, Vol. 22, 1, pp. 16-27. Available: Accessed: 02.03.18.

Clammer, J. (2012) Culture, Development and Social Theory: Towards an Integrated Social Development, London, New York: Zed Books.

Eriksen, T. H (2014) Globalization: The Key Concepts (Second Edition), London, New York: Bloomsbury.

Fraser, K (2017) ‘About’ [Online], Available: Accessed: 02.03.2018.

Guillermoprieto, A. (1994) ‘Zapata’s Heirs’, The New Yorker 16 May, pp. 52–63, in Knudson, J. W (1998) ‘Rebellion in Chiapas: insurrection by Internet and public relations’, Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 20, pp. 507–518. Available: Accessed: 02.03.18.

Haunss, S. (2015) ‘Promise and Practice in Studies of Social Media and Movements’, in Dencik, L. and Leistert, O. (Eds.) ‘Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation’, pp. 13 – 35. London and New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Knudson, J. W (1998) ‘Rebellion in Chiapas: insurrection by Internet and public relations’, Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 20, pp. 507–518. Available: Accessed: 02.03.18.

Merry, S. E. (1997) ‘Legal Pluralism and Transnational Culture: The Ka Ho ‘Kolokolonui Kanaka Maoli Tribunal, Hawai’I 1993’. In Richard Wilson (Ed.), Human Rights, Culture and Context, London: Pluto Press. Cited in Clammer, J. (2012) Culture, Development and Social Theory: Towards an Integrated Social Development, London, New York: Zed Books.

Proulx, C. (2010) Aboriginal Hip Hoppers: Representin’ Aboriginality in Cosmopolitan Worlds, in Forte, M. C. (Ed.) Indigenous Cosmopolitans: Transnational and Transcultural Indigeneity in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 39-62. New York: Peter Lang, cited in Eriksen, T. H (2014) Globalization: The Key Concepts (Second Edition), London, New York: Bloomsbury.

UNESCO (2018) ‘International Mother Language Day’, [Online], Available: Accessed: 02.03.18.