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Natives use Twitter to showcase sacred site

OXFORD, Ala. – A growing number of Native American Internet users are turning to the popular social media Web site, Twitter, to get the word out on issues of traditional and cultural importance.

One of the most recent examples of the phenomenon is the vast amount of energy many users have spent raising awareness of the desecration of a stone mound in Alabama created by American Indians approximately 1,500 years ago.

The hill, which many Native Americans from several tribes use for prayer and make pilgrimages to each year, is being torn down in order to provide fill dirt for a new Sam’s Club store, which is a partner of Wal-Mart.

Sam’s Club officials have tried to alleviate concerns, saying the city of Oxford is overseeing the moving of the dirt, but they have also acknowledged knowing that many people are concerned about the situation. Still, store officials have not asked for the destruction to end.

At the same time, the multi-billion dollar company has received assurances from Oxford Mayor Leon Smith that the city isn’t really damaging anything of significance.

But Smith’s claims go against the findings of researchers who have said the hill and structures on it are of traditional importance to various tribal members. A city-commissioned study has even found tribal artifacts in the clay that composes the mound.

As the bulldozers started digging, all kinds of information about the sacred site began to be distributed online by Native activists from coast to coast. Facebook and MySpace pages, as well as other Web sites, have sprung up in dedication to the issue, with some now having thousands of group members.

Of those who have gone online to raise awareness, many have found Twitter to be an especially effective messenger.

The site was set up by technological entrepreneurs in 2006 as a free social networking and micro-blogging tool that allows its users to send and read messages known as “tweets.” The messages can be up to 140 characters in length and are displayed on the author’s profile page and delivered to the author’s followers.

While company officials have said the tweets are intended to provide a simple answer to the question, “What are you doing?” many people have used the site to explain what’s going on in the world around them.

So, for some Natives, that has meant sending multiple tweets per day over the last several weeks with messages like, “Tweeting about Michael Jackson still? Tweet something valuable; save a Native American mound from Sam’s Club desecration.”

That tweet has been written many, many times over by Twitter user Alonis Urell, who is of Sierra Miwok and Seneca heritage.

Urell said she first learned of the digging on the Alabama sacred site very recently, but it didn’t take her long to get involved. She said it’s in her family’s blood to take a stand on Native issues.

So, for over a week now, she has sent out dozens, if not hundreds, of tweets per day to friends and new supporters under the username @Sinola.

An advanced user of the service, Urell soon began adding what are called hashtags, represented by a pound sign, to her tweets, which is sort of a filing system that allows others to find the information based on keyword searches.

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“We are trying super hard to make #SamsClub a trending topic on Twitter,” Urell explained.

“This is rather difficult unless you are tweeting about a celeb, natural disaster or major event like Mumbai. When something is a trending topic, all of the general public and media takes notice. We want to achieve that.”

As of press time, the #SamsClub hashtag has been re-tweeted and viewed thousands upon thousands of times on Twitter.

Some users have also begun adding what are called “twibbons” to their on-screen avatars. In this case, they are small graphical banners that say, “Boycott Sam’s Club,” and they are meant to discourage people from shopping at the superstore.

“When people see me in their Twitter timeline, they see my avatar with this ribbon, and they ask ‘why,’” Urell said.

Russ Brien, a tribal lawyer of Baxoje descent, said his curiosity was recently piqued when he saw that a number of people he follows on Twitter were tweeting on the sacred site topic.

“One of the tweets contained an embedded link to a brief discussion of the issue,” Brien explained. “After reading about the situation, I simply ‘re-tweeted’ that post so all of my followers would see the information. After that, whenever I saw an especially useful post, I would re-tweet it.”

Brien, who can be found on Twitter under the name @BrienLawLLC, thinks more and more Natives will begin using social media to get out broader messages and try to bring attention to various issues that affect them.

“Social networking clearly permits people interested in a common cause who were previously isolated or unaware of each other to band together and generate a critical mass,” Brien said.

“[T]he interesting thing about social networking is that the cost of participating in efforts to achieve change has suddenly been lowered. For example, someone that may not have been in a position to get on a bus to Alabama to stage a sit-in can certainly text information to people in their personal network and e-mail decision makers.”

Despite the plusses of social media, few believe that using Twitter alone will put an end to the sacred site plunder.

Vera Francis, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, views the site as one of many tools in her arsenal of resources. In addition to using the site to raise awareness on an issue like the Alabama mound, she also likes the freedom it gives her to build coalitions.

“Bringing an indigenous voice into the ‘Twitter stream’ has been effective in growing allies – we all need allies to stand beside us during our struggle,” said Francis, whose Twitter name is @schoodic.

“When non-Natives speak up about injustice done to Native American people, things change. Sam’s Club does not want them to speak up, either.”

Readers can follow Indian Country Today on Twitter at http://twitter.com/indiancountry.