Tribalism and Technology: Computer Liberation

Right now, there is a young girl in each of our tribes who is working her way through the lesson plans at Code Academy. Or she has taking it upon herself to work through the CS50x course that is available free and online from Harvard University—or any of the other tech certificate courses offered through edX. Perhaps she is a student in one of the Bureau of Indian Education schools or she is attending a public school in Oklahoma City. Regardless of where she is now, we know that she and the other like-minded girls and boys who have an aptitude for programming will play an essential role in the 21st Century for Indian Country.

Computer programming, software development, or any of the terms used to describe a skills-set or technological culture is an ideal way to explore both the practical and the visionary aspects of tribal nation (re)building. Tribal nation (re)building and all that it involves—a strengthened land base, the indicators outlined in the Gross National Happiness index, and the tribal cultural and political values we maintain (and are in the process of recovering and re-implementing)—can be coalesced under the concept “tribalism.” If you read the New York Times or study the works of some of our academics—you would walk away thinking that tribalism is a pejorative or a synonym for savage, factionalism, or some other negative association. I may be alone in this belief yet I argue it is a term of affirmation. I love the word. For me, tribalism specifically refers to our internationally recognized right of sovereignty; turning that right of ours into reality through our self-determination efforts; the fostering of the sustainability of our nationhood; and (an important goal in this interconnected world), our demonstrated commitment to respectful coexistence.

What does tribalism have to do with programming and, by extension, technology?

Tribalism encourages us to consider the roots of our economies, the viability of the Trust Responsibility for our tribes, and even the possibilities of integrating the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into our homelands. So, actually, the question(s) ought to instead ask how programming—and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) in general—will assist us with our local economies, with the quality of living in our communities, and with the other components of tribalism.

This leads us to two immediate considerations.

First, on the practical end, the forecasts for programming careers remain optimistic. In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projected the demand for programmers to grow 30 percent by 2020. And encouragingly, this percentage does not take into account the supportive roles needed for the programming sector. In addition, news stories report that even in our current mess of unemployment and the economy, employers still struggle to fill positions in programming jobs. So these jobs do exist. Consequently for us, as more of Indian Country gains access to broadband technologies (cable, DSL, fiber, cable, and wireless), then programming is an ideal job for remote regions since software development is a field that easily allows for telecommuting. In addition, with our support, programmers can play a vital role by bringing innovations into our own communities. And importantly, according to the definitions set by O*NET, programming is a green occupation.

Secondly, although capacity building in our communities is an obvious concern, we tribalists are interested in more than employment occupations per se. This means that when we think ahead, and when our elected, Traditional, and appointed leaders think ahead, what do we all visualize coming to fruition for Indian Country within 100 years from now? 300 years? In addition to protecting our tribal languages and ceremonies, what else do we prioritize in the ordinary, practical day-to-day life of our reservations and other Native regions—in our villages, pueblos, and towns? Arguably, any vision has to include the presence of a workforce—a vision that ensures we have thriving communities that support numerous jobs beyond necessary governmental positions. Obviously this is an important issue for many reasons, some of which are addressed by the recent reporting of Mark Trahant regarding what the U.S. government’s austerity measures and possible sequester will mean for Indian Country. (His columns are required reading and can be found here.

Among our children and grandchildren are future computer programmers, data crusaders, and internet activists. Some of them will be formally trained and degreed, others will bootstrap their education. All of them can assist us in staying current with sociotechnical changes and with providing a strategic tribal-directed infrastructure for our communities. Technology’s ability to assist tribalism arises not from computer literacy, which is a superficial understanding of hardware and software, but rather from computer liberation. Computer lib is an ethos developed in the 1960s and 1970s that maintained computers belonged in the hands of the people and not under the control of governments and corporations. This philosophy hints at what we can ethically direct technology to do for us. Supporting our tech-minded people ensures that we have a robust democratic technology culture in Indian Country, a culture that we need in this radically-interconnected world.

Julia Good Fox is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation (from the Kitkahahki band) and a direct descendant of Curly Chief who was born and raised in Oklahoma. She now resides in the Midwest and teaches in an Indigenous and American Indian Studies Program at a tribal college. She is also a researcher, traveler, and writer.