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CHAPTER 11 INDIGENOUS INTERFACES
Kristin L. Arola Washington State University
This is a story about what happens when college-aged American Indians are asked the question, “What would Facebook look like if it were designed by and for American Indians?”2 This story emerges from my embodied experiences as a Finnish and Ojibwa woman, and my desire for digital spaces where I can com- pose myself and my relations with rhetorical sovereignty (Lyons, 2000). This story also emerges from my own explorations of how the design of online spac- es invites certain ways of being and understanding (K. L. Arola, 2010, 2011, 2012). While I continue to believe the design of online spaces is rhetorical and does encourage certain compositional affordances and relations between and amongst users, I’m less inclined than I once was to believe in the rhetorical sway of interface design itself. That is, while an interface can encourage certain uses, this small study illustrates how the visual design of an interface, in this case the social media interface, does not necessarily imply one set of compositional af- fordances. Instead, visual design is only one element within the web of relations within which communication and representation occur.
Not so long ago, I returned to my hometown in order to attend the Spirit of the Harvest Powwow—a powwow sponsored by my alma mater, Michigan Technological University, and largely attended by members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Lake Superior Band of Chippewa Indians, one of whom includes my mother, a powwow jingle dancer (among other things). I spent a week with Michigan Tech’s American Indian student group attending rega- lia-making workshops, helping make frybread for the powwow, and interview- ing powwow participants (both dancers and those organizing the event) about their cultural crafting practices. While my work was most focused on material crafting practices, I concluded most interviews with the question, “What would Facebook look like if it were designed by and for American Indians?” Overall, I interviewed twelve people, and while these results are of course by no means representative of one fixed American Indian worldview, I share here the answers in order to problematize a conception of race and representation based solely on
2 Within my own tribe, “theory” as we know it within academe is generally told through stories. This is common within indigenous cultures. See M. Powell et al. (2014).
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the visual; as well, I interrogate the compositional affordances encouraged by the visual design of a social media interface.
RACE AND THE INTERFACE
The idea of an ideological rhetorical interface—that is, that the design of a dig- ital space persuades users to engage in particular actions, representations, and relations, and that it is always already embedded in existing belief systems—is not new. Consider Cynthia L. Selfe and Richard J. Selfe’s (1994) exploration of the ways in which graphical user interfaces are always political and ideological, or Anne F. Wysocki and Julia I. Jasken’s (2004) look at the rhetorical work of the interface, or Teena A. M. Carnegie’s (2009) understanding of the interface as ex- ordium. Those of us who work with digital rhetorics understand that interfaces are value-laden and work to position us and relate us to information, ideas, and each other in particular ways.
I’ve argued before that “the act of composing a [social media] profile is an act of composing the self ” (K. L. Arola, 2010, p. 8). I would add that the act of composing within a social media space—be it to post a picture, respond to a posted link, post a status update, etc.—is also an act of composing the self in re- lation to, and with, other people and ideas. However, the fixed template-driven design of most social media platforms appears to limit the ways in which one is able to compose oneself and one’s relations online. Lisa Nakamura (2002, 2007) has done a good deal of work exploring the ways in which race and representa- tion are figured and refigured through the use of digital media. Nakamura and Peter Chow-White (2011) have argued that “the digital is altering our under- standings of what race is as well as nurturing new types of inequality along racial lines” (p. 2). Nakamura (2002) has suggested that this inequality comes, in part, through cybertyping, or a menu-driven identity whereby certain prefixed racial categories are available for one to choose from when composing the online self. Her claims about race online—that it doesn’t simply go away but is reinscribed with similar baggage from offline spaces—hold true today. However, her work on menu-driven identities is now a bit dated. While it was true in early versions of MySpace and Friendster that one was encouraged to define oneself from a limited set of racial categories, Facebook doesn’t even have a category for race or ethnicity. The categories Facebook does have for self-identification, such as lan- guage, religious views, and political views, include both drop-down options and the ability to both fill in the blank and add a description. Additionally, there is no requirement that one fill out these categories to have a profile. You can simply ignore them. The menu-driven identity of Nakamura’s early 2000s Internet is no longer as visibly fixed as it was once, but the choices a social media site offers
afford particular types of representations and relations. Rhetoric and composition’s exploration of the ideological interface, along
with Nakamura’s exploration of race online, both suggest that the design of on- line spaces function from a “white as default” premise, as well as an arguably straight and male premise (Alexander, 2002, 2005; Alexander & Banks, 2004; Barrios, 2004; Blair & Takayoshi, 1999; McKee, 2004; Rhodes, 2002, 2004). This interface presumes a monolithic user. I asked the question, “what would Facebook look like if it were designed by and for American Indians?” as I was curious how this supposed default white position presumed by many digital cultural scholars was understood by American Indians themselves. Would they imagine a space differently? And if so, how?
In asking what Facebook would look like if it were designed by and for American Indians, I was largely relying on the assumption that visual design guides a user’s composing practices in a space. That is, I was thinking that were a social media interface to “look” a certain way, it would attract a specific set of users and would enable a specific set of uses. I presumed that an interface could, in some ways, be Indian. Within American Indian Studies as it is found in the halls of academe, as well as American Indian thought generally, there is an ongo- ing tension between this sense of being Indian and doing Indian. Ellen Cushman (2008) suggested this shift from being Indian to doing Indian so as to move the focus of “Indianness” away from preoccupations with blood quantum and phe- notype, and toward issues of what’s at stake and for whom when Indianness is categorized in particular ways.1 Similarly, in interrogating the notion that there is something identifiable and representable to being Indian, Scott Richard Lyons (2010) reframed the question, “what is an Indian?” to “what should an Indian do?” This shift from being to doing “would mean a move away from conceptions of Indians as ‘things’ and toward a deeper analysis of Indians as human beings who do things” (p. 59). In short, the presumption that one can be Indian tends to fall prey to notions of the visible as a burden of proof. For example, one must have a certain skin tone, a certain color and length of hair, and be adorned in the proper jewelry to be seen as Indian. 1 Blood quantum, a colonized conception of race, remains a frequent battleground for Indianness. The question “so how Indian are you?”—as though a certain percentage will satisfy someone’s desire for one to be a “real” Indian—exemplifies this problem. Meanwhile, tribes have varying requirements for quantum, some requiring ¼ or ½ to enroll as a tribal member, whereas other tribes focus on lineage (if a direct descendent is on the Dawes Roll, you can enroll). This “proving” of race, be it through percent blood or a family name on a document, has been inter- rogated and challenged by many native scholars (Bizzaro, 2004; Garroutte, 2003).
Given the visible burden of proof that many Natives live with on a dai- ly basis, it’s perhaps not surprising that the most common answer I heard to my Facebook question referred to the four colors important to most tribes.2 3 Five respondents simply answered, “Red, black, white, and yellow.” Anoth- er s