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Book Summary: Indigenous Cultures in an Interconnected World – How Indigenous Peoples Can Tackle the Challenges of Globalization

Indigenous Cultures in an Interconnected World (2000) examines how globalization and new technologies are affecting indigenous peoples. It provides an analysis of the many opportunities and threats that globalization entails for indigenous societies, along with success stories of how indigenous activists are using technology to benefit their communities. The book’s chapters present the perspectives of 14 authors from around the world.

Introduction: Discover how globalization is affecting indigenous communities.

We live in an age of unprecedented globalization. Knowledge, goods, and services are spreading around the world at speeds never seen before. A big reason behind this is new technologies like the internet. It allows information, media, and digital goods to travel from one side of the globe to the other – all in a matter of milliseconds.

Book Summary: Indigenous Cultures in an Interconnected World - How Indigenous Peoples Can Tackle the Challenges of Globalization

There are a lot of benefits to our globalized world. Never before has our species been more connected. We can learn about other cultures on our smartphones. And we can conduct business with companies in other countries with the tap of a button.

But when it comes to globalization, it’s not all rosy. Sure, it’s great to be able to listen to music from practically any culture on Spotify. But this access comes with a price, with cultural goods often being ripped from their original context – and becoming commodified in the process. Under globalization, nothing is sacred, and everything has the potential to be reduced to a good that can be bought and sold.

For the indigenous peoples of the world, the story of globalization seems familiar. This is because globalization is in many ways an extension of colonialism – a process all too well known by indigenous communities. They are the descendants of those who first faced down European colonialism – and their ancestors have continued doing so for over 400 years. Along the way, they’ve dealt with European technologies, languages, and beliefs replacing their own at great cost.

Now, globalization is seeking to continue the process that colonialism started. Is a new invasion of indigenous communities lurking on the horizon?

In this summary, we’ll dive deep into the challenges indigenous peoples are facing due to globalization. And while the future seems bleak, it’s not all bad news. We’ll also explore the ways that indigenous communities are using globalization to their advantage.

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • how the internet is transforming indigenous education and communication;
  • why indigenous people are more prepared for globalization than you may think; and
  • what indigenous communities are doing to fight back against cultural appropriation.

New forms of communication are having profound impacts on indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, we still live in a world dominated by stereotypes. When it comes to indigenous people, this is no exception. Many people associate them with concepts like “ancient wisdom,” or that indigenous communities prefer “living in the past” rather than adjusting to “modern” life.

But the reality is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Both before and during colonialism, indigenous peoples have consistently demonstrated dynamism and flexibility when it comes to adjusting to new realities.

Before Europeans arrived, indigenous peoples were constantly figuring out creative ways to communicate with each other. Even when they didn’t speak the same language as their neighbors, they found ways to convey information. In the Great Plains region of North America, for example, indigenous Americans developed sign language to communicate with their neighbors. This included signs for important concepts such as the location of bison, water, or even mutual enemies.

This tradition of dynamic creativity continued into colonial times. Take the last century, for example. Indigenous people are often spread over vast areas of land. Many communities were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands, driving geographic wedges between clans and families. So it makes sense that indigenous communities embraced inventions like the telephone, radio, and car with enthusiasm. Such technology allowed them to communicate with each other, no matter how far apart they were. By harnessing colonial technology, they helped fight against colonialism’s attempt to divide them.

Fast forward to today, and it seems that centuries of creatively adjusting to new realities have prepared indigenous peoples for globalization. For many nonindigenous people, concepts like loss of identity or cultural homogenization are relatively new. But indigenous communities have been facing these issues for over 400 years. And they have a track record of successfully adapting to new circumstances in order to survive.

One way that indigenous peoples are engaging with our globalized world is through what one of the authors calls cultural activism. This describes harnessing the power of globalized media and the internet to empower indigenous communities in various ways. These cultural activists are helping to revive indigenous languages, document history, and share the issues they face with the wider world.

Take the 1994 New Zealand drama film Once Were Warriors, for example. Directed by and starring members of the indigenous Māori community, the film became a huge global success. Many saw it as a watershed moment for indigenous media. Viewers were allowed a glimpse into modern Māori life and the issues they face, many for the first time. And with the film industry being extremely globalized, viewers weren’t only from New Zealand – they were watching from around the world.

Film isn’t the only form of media where indigenous cultural activists work. The internet is perhaps the form of media most associated with globalization, and for good reason. Not only does it allow people to communicate instantly with each other no matter where they are – but it’s also growing like wildfire. In the ten years before 1997, 50 million people gained access to the internet. To compare, take the telephone, where it took 75 years to get the same number of people connected.

Indigenous people are harnessing the power of the internet in many ways. For example, the ability to share and access information with ease is having huge ramifications for indigenous education and knowledge-sharing. And technologies such as instant messaging and social networks are enabling indigenous people to discuss problems they face in real time.

Just as indigenous people before European contact developed creative ways to communicate with their neighbors, the internet is allowing them to do the same. This is particularly true when it comes to communicating with nonindigenous people who frequent the same websites and chat rooms as their indigenous neighbors. Such digital commons are one of the rare places where indigenous and nonindigenous people can interact en masse in an unmediated, direct way.

Unfortunately, the internet is also having negative impacts on indigenous communities. One of these effects is on traditional knowledge systems. Western societies have a tradition of writing knowledge down and making it accessible far and wide. But in many indigenous cultures, knowledge is often not something that can be taken but is rather given. In such societies, older generations act as gatekeepers of knowledge, this affording them status and respect. This reflects the importance of the oral tradition in many indigenous communities.

The internet, however, is a reflection of the Western society that created it – one can simply search for knowledge, and take it at will. But the majority of indigenous people with access to the internet are mostly younger. This undoubtedly has implications for social structures relating to knowledge-sharing. Younger voices may gain power at the expense of older generations – and this might lead to the fabric of indigenous societies being undermined.

The freedom inherent in the internet also has its drawbacks when it comes to the representation of indigenous culture. With anyone able to share basically anything on all sorts of online platforms, indigenous peoples are losing control over who represents them online. Art, music, and other forms of indigenous culture are constantly shared without permission – and this leads to the question of whether controlling it is even possible.

The appropriation of indigenous culture has become a major issue.

Fighting for the control of cultural representations isn’t something new for indigenous people. Since the colonial age began, there’s been a constant appropriation of indigenous culture by European settlers. With appropriation comes recontextualization. In other words, cultural property isn’t only stolen from its owners – it’s also given new contexts in which to live. These often have no relation to the culture’s origin, adding insult to injury.

This sort of cultural theft can take many forms. Take the appropriation of indigenous American headdresses, for example. In their original context, they’re often worn by the most respected members of indigenous communities during traditional ceremonies. But nowadays, they’re often seen donning the heads of partygoers at music festivals. Not only do indigenous communities have little to no way to control this – but also, the appropriation risks corrupting the deep meaning the headdresses convey in their original contexts.

But, indigenous activists are fighting back. They’re taking the fight to legislatures and trying to change the law. One of the biggest problems is how patent and copyright law functions under Western legal systems. This revolves around the fact that only individuals or companies can be listed as patent or copyright holders.

But what if it’s not an individual that owns the rights to a cultural product but a whole community? Well, this is exactly what indigenous activists are challenging. Discussions on how to include communal knowledge and ownership in patent law are ongoing. The goal? For entire communities to be recognized as the owners of cultural objects that are being appropriated from them – and for them to receive compensation accordingly.

Of course, it’s perfectly logical that indigenous communities should profit off the sale of products stemming from their culture. But does selling cultural products to nonindigenous people not lead to continued appropriation? In other words, even if indigenous people did have complete control and ownership over their cultures, is it a good idea to mass produce their cultures for commercial benefit?

Well, the fact is that indigenous communities selling cultural artifacts to their neighbors is older than colonialism itself. Before European contact, it was completely normal for indigenous communities to produce objects such as art and textiles specifically to sell to other peoples. This longstanding tradition wasn’t only out of economic necessity – it was key to fostering cross-cultural communication and good intercommunity relations. Often, artwork was not even sold at all, but given as gifts symbolizing friendship. In Australia, for example, archaeologists have found art from one community over a range of 18,000 square kilometers – far beyond the reaches of their traditional borders.

The question remains, however: can selling art, textiles, and other objects still foster intercultural understanding today? Or can it only lead to further appropriation? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. The key is that by enabling indigenous people to profit off of their own cultures provides them with the agency to choose how to do so. In other words, it allows them to decide what parts of their cultures they actually want to sell.

After all, the potential for economic and cultural empowerment here is huge. Take the production and sale of indigenous art and textiles to tourists, for example. First, it’s widely recognized that cultural tourism represents a huge source of economic growth for indigenous communities. And second, the proliferation of indigenous artwork is an important medium for cultural recognition.

Such commercial practices allow indigenous communities to communicate their connection to ancestral lands directly to nonindigenous people. In doing so, this has the potential to open up new channels of cultural dialogue and understanding.

Issues of indigenous identity and ethnicity are in flux due to globalization.

Another way that globalization is changing our world is by redefining identities. One area where this is having huge ramifications is through the globalization of media. For example, people around the world are increasingly watching the same films and listening to the same music. And it’s well-known that the culture we consume is integral to the formation of our identity. It makes sense, then, that an increase in cultural uniformity will be reflected in how people conceive their identity.

But the relationship between globalization and identity is a bit of a paradox. While uniformity in consumption, culture, and trade go hand in hand with globalization, we’ve also seen a backlash in the form of rising nationalism.

In the case of indigenous peoples, modern issues of identity also operate in conflicting ways. As we’ve seen, globalization is allowing indigenous people from all over the world to communicate with each other in real time through the internet. This has led to a burgeoning international “indigenous” identity in some quarters. On the other hand, globalization is also leading to many indigenous communities looking inward – emerging technologies are helping them to emphasize their own unique identities.

But while the rest of the world is rocked by a globalization-induced identity crisis, indigenous people again have a bit of a head start. They’ve been dealing with identity issues since the beginning of colonialism, after all.

The very term “indigenous” is a good place to start examining this. When European colonists arrived in North America, there were around 300 distinct languages spoken on the continent. But no matter their differences, millions of indigenous Americans were simply lumped into the category of “Indian.” This had profound effects on indigenous American identity.

This is because identity formation can happen both internally and externally. On the one hand, identity can be formed internally by people recognizing a shared language, culture, and religion. On the other, external forces lumping people together based on perceived shared characteristics are equally as powerful.

This is the legacy of colonialism – just as it broke down borders between Europe and the New World, it also destroyed the borders between the peoples living on the land it colonized. The loss of unique identity has had profound implications on indigenous American identity. Sure, it’s one thing for nonindigenous Americans to believe that all “Indians” speak the same language. But even some indigenous Americans themselves still use phrases like “I speak Indian.” Sadly, colonial mindsets are powerful and hard to break down.

There are positive signs that technologies like the internet are helping to reverse this trend – and help indigenous communities reassert their individuality. One area where this is happening is in the teaching and preservation of indigenous languages. It’s often the case that when a colonial culture takes over, language loss is inevitable. Colonized people start adopting the dominant language in order to communicate with those who now have power over them. In the case of the United States, this led to the mass extinction of indigenous languages as English took hold.

But technologies such as the internet and interactive projects are helping to tackle this. Take the Assiniboine people in the Great Plains, for example. Their language combines speaking and singing, which makes Western textbook-based learning rather ineffective. However, computer-based learning is helping to change this. By combining text with videos, pictures, and music, the Assiniboine researchers are helping to revive their nearly extinct language. And as this digital curriculum is centered around storytelling, it’s not only teaching the language – it’s also helping to preserve the community’s culture and history for the next generation.


The most important thing to take away from this is:

Globalization affects all of us. For indigenous people, it has the potential to deepen the negative effects of colonialism, a process they’ve already suffered through for 600 years. But with the experiences of colonialism in hand, indigenous communities are in many ways better prepared than nonindigenous people to face the trials of globalization in the coming decades. So, all in all, globalization entails challenges as well as opportunities for indigenous people. On the one hand, new technologies and media allow indigenous people to amplify their voices on a global scale. It also allows them to look inward and preserve their culture and history. On the other hand, the internet has also made cultural appropriation much easier – art, music, or other indigenous culture can be shared by anyone with the tap of a button. And while appropriation is definitely a problem, this doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any consumption of indigenous culture by nonindigenous people. Instead, laws and regulations must be put in place that empower indigenous people to profit from certain parts of their culture that they themselves want to sell.

About the author

DR CLAIRE SMITH is Lecturer in Archaeology at the Flinders University of South Australia. An active field archaeologist, she has had extensive experience with indigenous communities in Australia and Asia. She is a member of the editorial boards of the journals Australian Archaeology and Rock Art Research.

DR GRAEME K. WARD is a senior research fellow at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra.


History, Society, Culture, Politics, Social Sciences, Globalization

Table of Contents

Illustrations and Figures

1 Globalisation and Indigenous peoples: Threat or empowerment? / Claire Smith, Heather Burke and Graeme Ward

Abstract: The unchecked expansion of European nations since the sixteenth century has signalled over 400 years of significant change for the world’s Indigenous peoples. There is the potential for Indigenous peoples from those countries with colonial histories to find a sense of unity and common purpose arising from their colonial experiences. Indigenous struggles for recognition and self-determination are shaped by changes in their apprehension of the world as much as by the changing ways in which the world understands them. Global communication technologies are clearly used by some to maintain and reinforce ethnic identity as a specific entity, while also being used to explore a broader sense of pan-identity. Nowhere is the gulf of misunderstanding that frames the clash between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures more apparent than over the issue of cultural and intellectual property rights. Globalisation constitutes an unprecedented threat to the autonomy of Indigenous cultures as well as an unprecedented opportunity for Indigenous empowerment.

2 Resources of hope: Learning from the local in a trans-national era / Faye Ginsburg

Abstract: The author starts this chapter with a story as a way of dramatising the gravity of some of the concerns that surround the development of Indigenous media and their relationship to representational practices in the dominant media, one of the key ways in which contemporary Indigenous cultures are ‘interconnected’ to a range of social worlds. In 1994 the international circulation and critical acclaim of the very successful Maori feature film Once Were Warriors marked a real watershed for the possibilities of Indigenous media productions to receive widespread acclaim and recognition on a world stage. The author briefly discusses two instances in which one can see how different frameworks for understanding globalisation, media, and culture are naturalised, operating daily as ‘commonsense’ in institutions in ways that marginalise Indigenous media (and other parallel activities) either as irrelevant, or to a position of dangerous intervention in the status quo.

3 From clan symbol to ethnic emblem: Indigenous creativity in a connected world / Robert Layton

Abstract: David Turner has described how he began his fieldwork on Groote Eylandt in the late 1960s by mapping the landscape, locating clan boundaries and recording kinship relations, then, finally, making a superficial study of the people’s music. Despite the similar structure of social organization among tropical and semi-tropical hunter-gatherers on different continents, each cultural tradition has created its own representation of, and reflection on, the connectedness of hunter-gatherer society. In broad terms, there are four possible outcomes of the colonial enterprise. Colonial policy towards Aboriginal people has, as is well known, gone through three phases: extermination, assimilation, and multiculturalism and separate development. Several anthropologists have argued that the cults that are performed over much of the Top End of the Northern Territory this century were devised in response to colonization. In 1968, Gurinji stockmen on Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory went on strike and attempted to establish their own station on traditional Gurinji land.

4 Cyberspace smoke signals: New technologies and native American ethnicity / Larry J. Zimmerman, Karen P. Zimmerman and Leonard R. Bruguier

Abstract: American Indians, for their relatively small numbers, are among the world’s most culturally diverse peoples. According to David Maybury-Lewis, ethnicity is like kinship, where people recognise themselves as belonging to the same ethnic group and feel like distant kin, ‘but so far back that no one can trace the precise relationship’. ‘Bulletin boards’ and ‘listservs’ were among the first new technologies available to allow rapid, relatively open-format, multi-user communication of American Indians issues. The role played by CD-ROMs in American Indian ethnicity is not as clear as that of the listserv or the Web, but the great importance of this technology appears to be its use in making accessible historical documents and in preserving culture. The World Wide Web has seen the most dramatic use of new technologies by American Indians. The proliferation of Web pages has made it difficult for many people to distinguish those pages developed by American Indians from those developed by the wannabes.

5 History, representation, globalisation and Indigenous cultures: A Tasmanian perspective / Julie Gough

Abstract: Historically, the West depicted the rest of the world as inhabiting two places, the internal space of the museum with its illustrated journals, globes and labelled specimens, and the external reality of ‘Other People’—languages, climates, land, flora, fauna and incomprehensible histories that were regulated to replicate each other once entering the internal world upon collection, capture or invitation. However, cultures experiencing colonisation since the sixteenth century have negotiated two worlds for four centuries. The skies and the ship this Aboriginal person describes and draws, while seemingly disassociated, are integrally connected. Globalisation dissolves the barrier of distance, and, today, Colonial centre is encountering Colonised periphery on new terms beyond the culture of dogs and guns. Spatiality has been the geographical disposition at the heart of Western dominion, and the urgency of globalisation, according to Morley and Robins is that as it ‘dissolves the barriers of distance makes the encounter of colonial centre and colonised periphery immediate and intense’.

6 Indigenous presence in the Sydney games / Lisa Meekison

Abstract: The Olympics are coming, the Olympics are coming! And Sydney prepares: the Olympic site of Homebush is bustling, main streets downtown are getting fixed up, and parks are being replanted. Enter the Sydney 2000 Olympics: vast, expensive, exciting and attention-grabbing, the Sydney Games are going to be a major marketer and exporter—maybe even creator—of Australian culture over the next several years. It is important to remember, however, that whatever the intent might be when non-Indigenous people use Aboriginality to promote a product (including Australia) and/or what they perceive to be the nation’s interests, the actual consequences for Indigenous people might be something else altogether. Many forms of social behaviour and expression fall into anthropological definitions of performance, but in this chapter the author would like to take a very literal interpretation of performance and briefly discuss Aboriginal participation in the performing arts.

7 Elite art for cultural elites: Adding value to Indigenous arts / Howard Morphy

Abstract: Marketing Indigenous culture as art has to be seen as a moral act. Art is a value-creating process: it involves both the creation of new kinds of values in objects and the increase of their value in terms of exchange. Phenomenological analyses of Aboriginal art emphasise the ways in which art mediates people’s experience of world and enables them to see their lives as acting out the ancestral past. Sociological analyses have an overlapping focus but have tended to emphasise more embeddedness of art in social relations. The marketing of Aboriginal art involves its movement from one context of production and consumption to another. Aboriginal people have been involved in discourse over art with outsiders long before European invasion. Aboriginal people, far from being passive victims in this process, were active agents. The process of acceptance happens as part of a process of transformation and metamorphosis, not only in the Aboriginal artefact, but in the ongoing Euro-American category of ‘art’.

8 Cultural tourism in an interconnected world: Tensions and aspirations in Latin America / Penny Dransart

Abstract: In this chapter the author explores some of the aspirations and tensions that arise as people in the Andes sell their own craftwork to tourists. The particular focus in this chapter is on textiles, which are convenient items for tourists to carry in their luggage but which, in the form of clothing, signal conceptualisations of identity on the part of the wearer. Aboriginal acrylic paintings have achieved the esteem and status they deserve in a fine-art market. It is worth pausing, therefore, to consider the historical background before proceeding to examine the present-day production of textiles in the Andes. A specialised form of tourism has preceded the hostellers and backpackers who are now reaching isolated parts of the Andes. In many Latin American countries, weaving or embroidery are skills practised often, but not exclusively, by girls and women, who have risen to the challenges of producing vibrant and technically accomplished work despite the pervasiveness of Western goods.

9 Past and future pathways: Innu cultural heritage in the twenty-first century / Stepehn Loring and Daniel Ashini

Abstract: In this chapter the authors focus on role of archaeology in contemporary Innu society, exploring how trails leading back to the past are anchored in the present and lead to the future. Throughout the North, it has been less than 50 years since economic, political and technological developments have enabled business and government to radically develop the lands and resources. The official correspondence of nineteenth-century Hudson Bay Company officials stationed in northern Labrador consistently laments the stubbornness of the Indians, their ‘tiresome independence’. To the Western science of archaeology, Labrador remained essentially terra incognita before research launched by William Fitzhugh in late 1960s. With few exceptions, the practice of archaeology (especially in the North) has not paid much attention to the concerns and interests of the native communities that were in the vicinity of ‘digs’. Ironically, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington is an important repository for the study of Innu history and culture materials, with collections dating back to 1881.



Increasingly, Indigenous people are being drawn into global networks. In the long term, cultural isolation is unlikely to be a viable even if sometimes desired option, so how can Indigenous people protect and advance their cultural values in the face of pressures from an interconnected world?

Indigenous Cultures in an Interconnected World is a comprehensive, thought provoking discussion of the challenges that globalisation brings to Indigenous peoples. It discusses successful strategies that have been used by Indigenous peoples to promote their identities and cultural values. It looks at their roles as equal and active participants and, indeed, as innovators and leaders in an interconnected world.

The chapters in this book present a global perspective on Indigenous issues. They feature a cross-disciplinary integration that takes a holistic approach in-line with that of most Indigenous peoples and include vignettes of Indigenous cultural practices.