Friday, March 31, 2017


Wampum from the National Gallery in Ottawa
Wampum teachings have caught my interest the past few weeks.  The first paper I read was by Angela M. Haas “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice”.  I will review  a couple of the other article over the next few weeks.  This article interested me as I have personal experience of the teachings of beads, a child very interested in computer languages and two children who are learning disabled, so that other ways of preserving and distributing information than written text is of particular interest for me.  As I was reading this article, the children and I also undertook some research on wampum and then they wrote stories in wampum/symbols.

In this article, Haas describes what wampum is and makes the argument that it should be considered as a kind of hypertext and part of the technological history of indigenous people on Turtle Island.  She sets out to show how, "...wampum belts have extended human memories of inherited knowledges through interconnected, nonlinear designs and associative storage and retrieval methods - long before the "discovery" of Western hypertext." Haas argues that indigenous peoples should be recognized as the first multimedia intellectuals on Turtle Island.  She acknowledges that there is not a direct continuity between wampum and hypertext, but rather wants a recognition that wampum is a sophisticated method of data transmition that should be positioned as part of the intellectual tradition of data storage and retrieval.

Hass describes how the messages in wampum records require regular community "reading" of the message while simultaneously revisiting the relationship between the people who are part of the message.  She speaks of it as, "embodied memory...extends human memories of inherited knowledge via interconnect, nonlinear designs..."  We tend to think of this kind of layered communication of text, meaning and message as being a modern development arising from a linear western European tradition. But it is really an integral part of ingenious thinking bringing to mind the medicine wheel and it's multiple teachings and meanings.

Haas argues that the intellectual history of hypertext has followed the western linear story of discovery, exploration and exploitation, but that there is value in reclaiming older Turtle Island stories about hypertext in order to challenge the idea that hyper text, and multilayered storage and retrieval of information are new concepts.  This will support a more exclusive vision about how we study technology.

Wampum beads, their colour and the very linkages of these beads produces nodes of knowing.  As colour and design are used by western designers to signify certain information to, so does the wampum usage of colour and material carry messages.  Like memes, reading wampum is only possible when one is part of the community and maintains the knowledge to read this text accurately.  Outside of this context the message is lost.

The other similarity between wampum and hypertext is their non linear nature where one piece of "information "can have multiple layers of meaning and any one node can lead us to something else without resorting to a hierarchy.  They have thus both subverted the traditional hierarchies in information.  They set us free from the card catalogue, a specific shelf in the library, and a specific book.  They allow us to follow the links to the layer of information that we need.

The story that is retrieved from the wampum at anyone time is based in the needs of the readers and their understanding and ability to access the layers in the text.  Wampum she argues extend the oral story across time and space.  It requires a regular returning of the parties to read and extend the information further into time or space.  It refreshes the information and renews the links.  The dead links cease to exist and the community guards against corruption of links, something that is mostly missing in online hypertext.

Her argument shows how we can reclaim indigenous histories of technology and re-fresh our own understanding of how these intellectual traditions interact with indigenous life.  We can reclaim technology as a solely western idea and question the messages we received about whether a particular culture is technologically advanced or not.  Haas suggests that we extend this rethinking to other indigenous technologies and related "literacies" such as petroglyphs, quilts, beading, songs, drums and baskets. 

She notes that, "such research also answers Osage literary scholar Robert Warrior's call to examine how we can make American Indian discourse more inclusive of contemporary American Indian experiences".  This path shows us the cultural continuity of our modern technological tools with older traditions and ways of knowing.  The ideas of indigenaity and technology are complementary, not opposites as they are often constructed.

It is reclaiming intellectual sovereignty and shaping what that means.  It is thinking critically about what we believe and how we fit into the dominant paradigm.  It is telling our own stories about how we got to be here.  It is querying and indigenizing the ways we ask questions and the questions we ask.  Hass says, "I call that we resists the dominant notions of what it means to be technologically "literate or "advanced"(with roots in manifest destiny) and that we critically reflect on struggles for and engage with discussions about digital and visual rhetorical sovereignty."

In small ways I  bring this into my own work by using stories, creating spaces and sharing images that challenge the idea that economists and analysts must be purely rationale and removed from the work we are doing.  This is the idea that we must be pure and put our untouched numbers out for the world.  Cause numbers don't have any biases.  I try to support people to think about themselves (and their biases) as part of these processes.

Telling these renewed stories about the relationship of indigenaity and technology may be challenging.  They won't follow one path for all indigenous people.  They may not be linear and there maybe no heros to hold up.  This is not history with a great man we can look up to.  These stories will be fluid and adapting to changing needs, while preserving the wisom of our ancestors and other (non-human) relations.  These stories will likely be relational and non-hierarchical and will destabilize the colonizers narrative.  Not everyone will welcome this change.

I found this article  a really exciting reclaiming that also suggests tools to navigate the future. We need to address the legacies of the past, but we live now and live in a very changed world from the ancestors.  I think these discussions about how we thrive as indigenous peoples in the now and future are very fascinating.  What does indigenaity look like in the 24th century? 

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