Q&A: Indigenous blogger Dustin Rivers on using Internet technology
Dustin Rivers is an outspoken Skwxwú7mesh-Kwakwaka’wakw blogger who plans to produce a podcast that will help young people from the Squamish Nation learn the Skwxwú7mesh language.
The activist, artist, and writer lives on Capilano Indian Reserve 5 on the North Shore.
The Georgia Straight interviewed Rivers at a café at Park Royal Shopping Centre about his use of Internet technology and the digital divide in B.C.
Your blog says you’re an activist, you’re an artist, you’re a writer, and obviously you’re a blogger too. Want to tell me about each of those sides of you?
Sure. Well, growing up, my family always came from a political background. My late uncle was an activist back in the ’60s and the ’70s, with red power and the AIM movement, a lot of the lands-rights activism that was happening throughout B.C. with B.C. First Nations. So, that was there, and I had my great-grandfather, who was always involved with politics. He was trained as a lawyer from a young age. His name was Andy Paul. So, politics always was strong in my family and always fell on somebody to pick it up in the family.
So, I happened to be the one that was always interested in it. I picked it up, and it carried me into wanting to do things through alternative means and not through the status quo. So, it took me to activism, where I felt that community organizing at a grassroots level was the best approach for what I wanted to accomplish and what needed to happen in my communities.
Then, over the past couple years, I’ve been apprenticing with a few artists from my people, my community, who have learned the Coast Salish art form, which was at one time almost a dying art form, where there was very few artists or practitioners doing it. So, now I’m starting to learn it, because I really want to revive it for my people. There’s only about five or six from my nation that do this art form. Most people do northern, like Haida or Kwakwaka’wakw or Tsimshian, but very few do Coast Salish.
Then I do writing through my blog, and then I’ve also done writing for other newspapers or magazines. I was the art director for Redwire magazine for a few years. Just working on that.
Why did you start your blog?
My blog actually originated from an earlier blog that I did. I had two blogs before that were more just my own little pet projects, and I had a few friends reading it.
As I started to develop and read more and look at other blogs and other on-line forms of publishing things, I realized that I wanted to do something that was a bit more expansive, a bit more polished, and could offer something unique—that wasn’t really offered on a digital level for indigenous politics or indigenous views either within our own internal community on a really local, regional, or national level to also to the outside community—but also carrying a very radical or very unique perspective on things. It’s not just going to be a normal, typical political stance on things. That’s where it kind of originated from. That’s where I was writing from in the first place.
Over the past eight months, nine months, or so, it became something more than that, which I thought was really fun and exciting. It became a tool, because I started using it more and more within my own community as a way to get out information, to publish leaked documents, to publish events or news that was happening on a political level within my nation that people don’t know about.
So, I had people from my community reading my blog and finding out about my blog, and learning things about what was happening on a political level within the band council and with the nation from my blog. It became an organizing tool or a way to communicate where there is no communication.
We have no form of media within our nation, so there’s no way for (1) information or events happening within my community to be shared, and then (2) there’s no critique or analysis of the political decisions that are being made. So, any kind of information or any kind of knowledge of what’s happening isn’t shared with our own community. It took on a life of its own from that, which I thought was really exciting.
How are you involved with the W2 project?
Well, I first heard about W2 when I was at Redwire, because Redwire was one of the first groups that became a part of it when Irwin [Oostindie] first started shopping around the idea. Since then, I’ve been mostly supporter, but there’s been ideas and brainstorming between me and Irwin, the executive director, on how I can be involved in some ideas. We’re mostly just in the brainstorming stages for that right now.
What Internet technology do you use?
First and foremost, I have my computer base that I use for my artwork, graphic-design stuff, my blog—all that....Then I use my iPhone, which I’m starting to use more and more as there’s more apps for it to come out. Like, Twitter’s been a fun thing to really catch on to....My laptop too. I have a Mac Pro and then a MacBook.
How do you access the Net? Is it one of the commercial ISPs?
How prevalent do you think Internet usage is in your community?
In my community, it’s pretty prevalent....When I was in the middle of a lot of controversy back in January and February with my community with stuff that was happening, Facebook was actually one of the things that really helped me get the stuff out there. I have a lot of my community members on my friends list, and I created a group for my community. So, there’s like a few hundred of my community members in this Facebook group.
So, I was able to put out information and it just spread, and it quickly spread faster than, I think, anything else could have as quickly and as wide. Because even if I did, which I did end up doing for another strategy—I ended up delivering paper letters to each of the houses on the reserves, but there’s still a proportion that live off-reserve that I couldn’t reach through those means—that really helped.
Have you seen that there is a digital divide between First Nations people and other people in B.C.?
How do you do define digital divide?
The First Nations Technology Council, I think they define it by the differences in the access to Internet, Internet skills, and Internet technology, like the availability of computers, Internet connections directly to homes—that kind of thing.
I think the digital divide is definitely more prevalent within rural communities and a lot of the First Nations communities that are more spread out through B.C. There’s a cultural difference too. My nation, the Squamish Nation, and a handful of others are in a very urban setting. So, there’s blessings and a curse to that.
But part of it is that our people and our community is very technologically adept, and they’re very involved or they’re very connected to technology. I see it more here than when I go back home to some of these other rural communities, where it’s constantly—everybody has something that they use and they connect with. So, I see that on that kind of divide, definitely.
Part of the divide, I think, that is going to be more interesting to watch as the generation gets older but is the younger generation and how they kind of grew up with technology and what that means on a social, on a political level, a cultural level for Native people, because it’s going to be just a part of our lives. What that means for how we interact, how we organize, how we connect to other First Nations in other communities is going to be different than anything our previous leaders or previous generations had to deal with.
You said that in your community, being an urban community, the divide manifests itself more in a cultural way. Can you explain that a bit more?
I think that there’s a generation of people who had to move on to technology, and it’s something really new for them. Then there’s a generation that kind of grew up with it, where it’s a generation that doesn’t remember life before everybody having a cellphone. I don’t remember life before everybody having a cellphone. But I have friends that are three years older than me, and they remember what it was like. But I don’t, and everybody younger than me doesn’t. That’s where you can kind of place the mark on that area—between older and younger than that.
With that, what you’re seeing now is that technology is a way to not only access information but to express and to create. I’m seeing that more now, as technology becomes more portable, more accessible. Things like blogs, things like podcasts, things like Web sites, and Facebook, and different things like that where I’m starting to see it being used as a forum to connect and express where there isn’t anything happening on a cultural level on a real sense.
So, do you think the digital divide then hasn’t really affected you?
Not that I can think of.
Do you think that Internet technology and skills help empower young urban First Nations people like yourself?
Because I grew up with it and it was so connected to what I did and what I wanted to accomplish, it empowered me to do a lot of things. Part of it was that it empowered me to learn a lot, but it also empowered me to create a lot. What I’m experiencing now is that there’s more opportunities and more abilities to do things. I’m seeing new ways to accomplish stuff.
Like, one of the projects that I’m going to be working on over the summer is I’m going to be producing a podcast—language revival through a podcast. So, this is something that is so ripe within my community, because of things like every young person I know that’s my age has an iPod or an iPhone or something, and every single one of them is downloading any language podcast where they can spend five minutes a week and learn a bit of our language, which is pretty much dead right now.
Dead in the sense that there is no one under the age of 75 that is actively learning it as a fluent language. There’s only 10 fluent speakers out of 3,500 people. So, it’s either going to be extinct or it’s pretty much dead. It isn’t actually moving or growing.
So, getting hundreds of youth within my community, who all actively want to learn it—there’s an interest, there’s a desire—to tap into something like that, where they already have the capacity there. Everybody has an iPhone or iPod, and it’s going to be bringing it to them. They don’t have to go anywhere. It’s just coming to them on their home, on their computers.
So, I see things like that. Things like issues that we can find solutions—unique solutions—to because it’s never been offered before, it’s never existed before within First Nations communities.
Have you seen any negative impacts of Internet technology?
I’m reminded of this one story that my teacher told me about. There was this First Nations community, and they had this tradition where they would only, when a lot of the new technology—and this is back in the 1800s, 1900s when this story happened. Whenever something new would come into the community, whoever discovered that new thing would be the one that could only use it for like eight years, seven years before anybody else in the community could grab on to it.
So, for that amount of time, everybody else would be watching this person and seeing how they change, how they acted, what was different. Was it useful/not useful? They can kind of gauge whether it would be something beneficial to the community as a whole or if it was just going to be something that was just going to be a detriment....I have a hard time answering this one, because I’ve just been such a proponent of it.
Do you think government should help the rural First Nations overcome some of these Internet connectivity and skills barriers?
One of the things that I always thought was really interesting and unique was the comparison between the use of technology in 1990, with the Oka crisis and Kahnawá:ke groups, is the Caledonia standoff in Six Nations in Ontario was that technology had a very different effect on what happened in these two communities, these two incidents. Although they’re not completely similar, there’s similarities.
So, I was talking to a few friends, and we were noticing how back in the ’90s—I was just one at the time, so they’re telling me—communication back then across First Nations, across the national level, it was telephones, faxes, mainstream news. With Caledonia, when the police and OPP raided the standoff and the blockade, all they had to do was send out one blog, one e-mail, and it spread. Within the next day, there was protests, standoffs being organized across the country.
The ability to communicate on a level that quickly changed how decisions were made. It changed how the response was made from government. So, things like that—communication like that—is very powerful.
So, giving First Nations or supplying First Nations with the means to communicate on that level—when there’s crisises happening in these communities or when there’s stories that aren’t being told because no mainstream news media is going to go into some of these really remote communities and find out what the real issues are in these communities—having this technology, it then opens them up to the world or opens them up to a larger community to be able to share those stories, share what’s happening. On that level, I think it’s very important, because they get to have the benefit that a lot of us—some of the more urban First Nations—have.
Tell me about how you’re using Internet technology and how you plan to use it.
A few months ago, I started using my blog and a few other ways through Facebook to be able to send out information and to offer critique, analysis of some of the events that were happening within my community and a really local level within the Squamish Nation. So, there was a lot of decisions being made that weren’t being informed by the community, a lot of information that was really unknown by the community.
So, I was able to use these technologies to massively send these out, distribute these to my community and to my people both within on-reserve and off-reserve, and I was able to extend it off-reserve and across pretty far distances to band members that live on Vancouver Island or down in Washington state. And through this I was able to organize and to be able to connect with a lot of people who were really concerned, who were really feeling the same kind of distress that I was about some of the political decisions that were being made, where in our community we don’t have any form of media to actively distribute information about what’s happening or to offer critique, analysis of the political decisions that are being made. So, on that level, I was able to accomplish a lot through blogging and through Facebook—through technology like that.
One of the projects that I’m working on over the summer is to develop a Skwxwú7mesh-language, or Squamish-language, podcast for my community, especially our young people. So, I’ll be able to—I want to—produce, I’m going to produce this podcast that’s going to feature youth from my community speaking the language, doing one on one time with them to work on them one on one, and then to just publish this podcast to my community and youth. I mean, every young person I know has an iPod or iPhone, and they’re able to connect with this. So, doing this language revival, where I’m in a community where there’s 10 out of 3,500 people who speak the language fluently, there’s no one under the age of 75 who’s learning it as a fluent language, so it’s a real crisis mode for our people.
So, I’ll be able to offer—I want to offer—something to the young people, instead of them having to come somewhere. There’s a massive interest, a massive desire among our young people in my community to learn the language. So, this will be a way to help bring it to them, help offer them something, and they’ll be able to grab on to it.
And then from there we can start pressing forward where we want to go, instead of having a traditional sense of them having to go to the teacher or them having to go to the elder, when realistically it’s just not possible to have hundreds of youth under the age of 25 go and sit down with 11 elders and try and learn the language, and try and revive the language that way. Bringing it to them will essentially give them something they’ve never had before.
You can follow Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.