Not So Much A Land Claim

Archer Pechawis, Co-Curator, CyberPowWow 2K

Welcome to CyberPowWow 2K, the third iteration of an ongoing dialogue between Native and digital realms. CyberPowWow was conceived in 1996 as a way for contemporary Native artists to communicate with a larger audience via the Internet. Our goal was to break down negative stereotypes about Native people's relationship to technology and demonstrate that Native artists have adopted digital technologies as a culturally relevant medium. We saw the Internet not just as a new technology but a new territory, one that we could help shape from its inception.

As Indigenous people of Turtle Island we do not recognize the border between Canada and the US, and therefore have always included Native American writers and artists in CyberPowWow. For CPW 2K we wanted to extend this concept: a borderless, self-determined Aboriginal territory. CyberPowWow 2K features commissioned artwork and essays by ten artists and writers of both Native and non-Native ancestry from Canada, the United States, and Australia, echoing the Indigenous tradition of welcoming that is so much a part of our history.

Thematically CPW 2K investigates the place where Native meets non-Native. Historically this place of meeting has been a site of epic conflict and covert desire. We asked each artist to create work that speaks to their experience of and desires for that space, and the realities or potentials implicit therein. Each artist in CPW 2K was selected not only on the strength of their work but how their art connected to our curatorial theme.

CyberPowWow is a perfect example of a "place where Native meets non-Native", be it technologically, socially, or culturally. It is also implicitly and explicitly about the relationship Native people have to technology. Indigenous people have always adopted or adapted new technologies into our cultural processes, be it steel knives or Unix-based computer networks. CyberPowWow is a part of this history, demonstrating both the readiness and ability of Aboriginal artists to apply New Media to their art making practices.

But what differentiates CyberPowWow from the other "Indian art" sites on the Net? Hundreds can be found by typing a few words into a search engine. Typically these sites feature painting or sculpture by First Nations visual artists, digitized and displayed at 72 pixels per inch. Very few are made specifically for the medium. None feature the interactivity and community of the CyberPowWow Palace. In CPW 2K we see digital technology used not only to create artwork, but artwork created specifically for dissemination via digital technology. In this regard CPW 2K is unique.

In creating CyberPowWow our goal was to make an interactive space where all visitors would feel welcome, regardless of race, class or computer literacy. Our gathering sites are set up specifically to allow access to people who lack computers or, more importantly, the skills necessary to connect. We also want people to experience online community while enjoying food and drink in the company of new friends.

Socially the CyberPowWow Palace is a virtual gallery opening. Attendees shed their quotidian selves, donning avatars (two-dimensional graphics used to represent oneself) and nicknames to socialize in a new way. Normal rules of interaction are supplanted by the supposed anonymity of the Internet. Customary signifiers of class, race, status and gender are absent or unreliable, demarcated instead by avatar and typed persona. Race and gender elasticize as guests test new personalities.

But this anonymity is transient. Conversations with "strangers" in the CyberPowWow Palace often come to a point of recognition. Here the term "re-cognition" is apt, as the guest is literally forced to "know again" the erstwhile stranger. The anonymity of the Internet becomes the intimacy of community. Assumed identities collapse. Interaction is re-contextualized. The performative aspect of CyberPowWow is reinforced. The environment turns spectator into performer.

This raises an interesting aspect of CPW. All guests, Native and non-Native alike, are invited to wear the avatars made by the artists. The majority of these avatars are "Native", some images of real people, some romanticized depictions of "traditional Indians". Suddenly arguments of cultural appropriation are turned upside down. The CyberPowWow Palace is a safe space: guests are encouraged to engage in playful "dressup" behaviour. This is a deliberate strategy on our part. By creating a virtual space where the players could be anyone we hope to break down the barriers of race and class that separate us in our daily lives.

Culturally this speaks to the sense of security we have within the boundaries of our new territory. With this third CyberPowWow we are solidifying our independence by inviting the world to come celebrate with us. Your being here to witness and dance with us makes us stronger. We have signed a new treaty, and it is good. We have the right to hunt, fish, dance and make art at, .org and .com for as long as the grass grows and the rivers flow.

But the treaty is only a symbol. CyberPowWow is not so much a land claim as a declaration of autonomous Aboriginal space on the Internet. We have staked out our territory, and we are proud to welcome you.