Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 8, No. 2, 1994
Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Re-claiming a cultural identity: indigenous media production in Australia and Canada

Michael Meadows


A common complaint about films which are made by non-Aboriginal producers and which deal with Aboriginal subjects is that they are preoccupied with close-ups and fast cutting. One Aboriginal critic suggests that it is because indigenous people prefer to see 'whole bodies and whole events' (MacDougall 54). But to suggest that it might be possible to define indigenous production style in this way ignores the great cultural diversity which exists within and between indigenous communities. MacDougall describes such an approach as one which tends to deny cultural strength and the possibility of sophisticated responses to change (54).

Culture operating as an authorising agency can be observed in a variety of settings where social practice and technologies intersect. In the Indian film industry, for example, Hinduism and western production technologies seem able to unproblematically interact (Bhabha 50-51). If this notion is extended to include broadcasting, this shows that participatory models seem most appropriate in setting up localised broadcasting communities to counter the centralising tendencies of modern communications technology - with culture mediating the forms of production (see Weatherford and Seubert, Bhatia 53; Molnar "Remote Aboriginal" and "Communication Technology"; Girard).

What this approach is able to achieve is to banish the notion of pursuing an 'idealist authenticity' of indigenousness and instead, consider 'the possibility of thinking through a difference that does not exhaust itself in backwardness' (Jesus Martin-Barbero 460). The interaction of indigenous cultures and broadcasting technologies is one such site at which to investigate such ideas.

Towards the end of 1993, I visited the Warlpiri community at Yuendumu. On the evening of my arrival, all kardiya (a Warlpiri term for non-Aboriginal people) were invited to take part in a public women's ceremony, not only mourning the death of a senior Warlpiri woman, but also celebrating the passing on of responsibilities and obligations to those appropriately linked to her through kinship. Participation in the "finishing business" ceremony, which spanned four nights, involved a wide range of females from the community from primary school students to senior law keepers. However, on the last evening, children were noticeably absent. The ceremony began at dusk and continued through until dawn.

That evening, a visiting education department team was staging a disco for Yuendumu's kids. As senior community women directed singers and dancers in the emotional final few hours of the "finishing business", a few hundred metres away, the voices of Aboriginal rock band Yothu Yindi drifted across the community. That night the children danced to the eclectic style of the yolngu band. There was no apparent objection from the women who continued to sing and paint themselves for each segment of the ceremony. Traditional culture at Yuendumu is strong and has experienced a resurgence, particularly in the past few years. It seems that the impact of television on this community might not have been as destructive as was first thought back in the days before the launch of the satellite. Is it that the fragility of indigenous cultures has been overestimated? Two "versions" of culture exist side by side at Yuendumu - in an apparently unproblematic relationship. Both cultures exist and perhaps, need to exist.

But how Aboriginal people in Australia and Canada dealt with and continue to deal with this cultural hegemony is very different. Technological determinism imposed by a non-Native system has largely determined the broadcasting framework in which Aboriginal people in both countries operate. In Australia, the semi-national, geographic divisions 1 proposed by the Remote Commercial Television Service - in some ways akin to the notion of Television Northern Canada (TVNC) 2 - is unable to make sufficient allowance for regional differences, especially where such differences are paramount to the maintenance of traditional society. Phillip Batty ("Singing" 109) suggests the Aboriginal population might represent the 'most diverse single community of people in Australia'. Direct satellite broadcasting, it seems, cannot respect this vital need for diversity amongst Australia's indigenous people. In Canada, TVNC seems to be acceptable (by Native people) as a means of allowing access to several Native broadcasters, despite its pan-northern orientation, and through this, Canadian Native people have been able to at least gain some form of "air rights".

As an indication of its growing importance as a cultural resource, TVNC recently made a submission to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (the equivalent of the Australian Broadcasting Authority) for it to allocate 25% of a proposed Canadian program fund for the sole use of developing Canadian Aboriginal television programming (Television Northern Canada 15).

It is almost expected that modernisation brings with it a homogenisation of culture, most often ignored by technological decision-makers. Many postmodern observers argue that common experiences which formulate the notion of culture and mass media seem 'inexorably opposed' making an exchange of information 'impossible' (Geertz; Katz 114; Baudrillard 206-207). Jean Baudrillard's solution is to reject the notion of a system of social control altogether seeing this as the 'ultimate political act' (Fiske 254). Baudrillard abandoned his belief in the possibility of revolutionary communication or subversive cultural practices in the 1970s, privileging technological determinism, form and theory over such crucial issues as media content, meaning, cultural interpretation and politics. And Baudrillard attacks alternative media, denying them the possibility of transforming 'both the form and content of the media as well as their organisation and social functions' (Kellner 139-143). Like Douglas Kellner, the evidence from indigenous communities challenges these assertions.

Technological empowerment - specifically, technologies like video - brings with it a change in the traditional view of mass media. Neville Jayaweera argues that 'mass media tends to obliterate identity' with video acting to 'rediscover identity and consolidate it' (Dowmunt 11). But to what extent? Is this confined to the margins of society? Canadians Lorna Roth and Gail Valaskakis argue that the most interesting broadcasting developments in their country are taking place regionally and locally in Native communities, contributing to the distinctiveness and democratisation of Canadian broadcasting. What is clear, they argue, is that prolonged exposure to 'US-style, commodity-oriented programming does not necessarily result in flattening out of social and cultural differences' (230).

Radical, emancipatory media projects are taking place in indigenous communities in Canada, Australia, and other countries, enabling the possibility of a different kind of media in form, content, goals and effects from the mainstream (Kellner 143). Social relations within communities are the very forces which shape community cultural production. Although not specifically referring to the media, Marx made this point in Grundrisse:

The community itself appears as the first great force of production; particular kinds of production conditions...develop particular modes of production and particular forces of production...(495)

What is occurring in indigenous communities in the Arctic is that social relations condition the way in which media will be used - a direct contradiction of Baudrillard's view of media which, by their very nature, 'forbid' a response (Baudrillard 207-208). Ien Ang (255) suggests another contradiction: transnational communications systems more and more are enabling new ways of 'forging cultural communities' through, for example, the exchange of culturally-specific videotapes by migrant groups around the world, having the effect of constructing and maintaining the identity of such communities. While the structure of the transnational media system may be difficult to transcend, it can be 'negotiated in concrete cultural contexts' (257). Ang concludes that 'social groups inside and between nations seem to have found informal ways to construct their own collective identities within the boundaries of the system that limits and binds us all' (255). Roth and Valaskakis suggest it is such 'cracks' in Canadian broadcasting which have become the sites for indigenous media focus:

It is here that we see new constructions: local and regional identity formation, linguistic and heritage differences, possibilities for the development of new interactive relationships between producers and audiences, models for uses of broadcasting to change the consciousness of audiences, and the development of participation and political awareness. (232)

In his book Our Own Image, Maori filmmaker Barry Barclay describes the constant tension between traditional processes of discussion and decision-making, for example, and the constraints of time and technology in program production (9).

Indigenous communities, particularly in Australia and Canada, have appropriated broadcast media in diverse, culturally appropriate ways. But I suggest that it is inappropriate to assume that such inventions of form or style are confined to remote areas where it is often perceived that the "culture is strong". Such assumptions are linked to notions that the very nature of 'remoteness' brings with it an implied traditional purity (Chase; Cowlishaw; Eades "You gotta know" and "They don't speak"; Langton "Social Scientists"). Jesus Martin-Barbero reminds us of the long-standing populist-romantic links between the 'the indigenous', 'the original' and 'the primitive'. It made the idea of 'indigenous' irreconcilable with modernity (459).

These kinds of media responses represent a cultural frontier, offering the possibility of in Jan Pettman's words 'reclaiming language, and of building a culture of opposition' (125). I will focus on two specific case studies - media production by the Warlpiri in central Australia and by the Inuit in Canada's Arctic. But I should make it clear that the diverse nature of indigenous communities informs a diverse range of media responses - from community production in urban centres like Vancouver or Brisbane to regional and rural sites. All are symbolically linked.

Indigenous Media Production: Australia

The way in which video technology, in particular, became available to remote Aboriginal communities, along with the very nature of electronic media, meant that community participation allowed for the negotiation of maintenance of traditional gender and kinship divisions, for example. Michaels argues that the paternalism which accompanied the introduction of print technology and books was absent when video technology became available in the mid to late 1970s. 3 This history, in part, has informed the production of a culturally specific kind of television:

There is what I have called elsewhere a Brechtian violation of the producer/audience boundary made possible both by widespread participation and reduced production costs associated with 1/2" home video source technology. (Michaels "Teleported texts" 25)

Across the Tasman Sea, Maori filmmakers, too, see video as an emancipatory technology because of the possibility of using it in culturally-appropriate ways. Barclay (41) recounts how on some occasions, the use of video enables the images (and knowledge) captured to be returned to the tribe immediately. This not only recognises sanctions or tapus placed on certain knowledge, but also returns control of that information to its owners. In one case he outlines, a senior Maori elder who was interviewed during a major national gathering was presented with all of the videotapes of the interview to do with as he pleased - Barclay describes this as 'keeping the trust' (93). The gesture of returning control of the images to their owners, he explains, is culturally important as are notions that Maori film and video makers should not take pictures, they should be given them by the community (84). This has some parallels with indigenous media production in Australia and Canada. The perception of the audience-producer barrier is important here.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander broadcasters working in public radio make similar claims of accountability to their communities (Watson; Bell and Burton; Noah 1988). The idea of a collapse of the producer-audience barrier is suggested by Peter Kulchyski, too, in relation to Inuit media forms - a key topic taken up a little later.

This implies that negotiation of community attitudes to local broadcasting not only is possible, but also would seem to be an essential part of the 'authorising' process, just as the meanings of local video programs are 'authorised' by the community (O'Regan "TV as Cultural Technology" 68). Although drawing on South African community broadcasting experiences, Tomaselli and Prinsloo (156) suggest that the relationship itself may be paramount:

Production is not necessarily the prime purpose of community video. It facilitates a process of community organisation, of conscientisation of both the producers (if external to the community) and the participating community itself.

The objective throughout is to use media in the maintenance of language and culture. And it is this which is perceived as being threatened by the European television invasion - by the nature of mass communication itself. Eric Michaels' interest in how Warlpiri made television is linked to his belief that video and television intrude into he Aboriginal community at Yuendumu to a far greater extent than other discourses - greater potential force than guns or grog or paternalism (For a Cultural Future 74). He concludes that the process of media production - recording and thereby inscribing - contradicts oral systems like that practised by the Warlpiri (For a Cultural Future 35). But the Warlpiri and other indigenous media producers are nevertheless able to negotiate their own production methods.

How could introduced media take into account, for example, that eight identification divisions exist amongst the Warlpiri, positioning each person - men and women - in relation to the rest (Hale and Granites 13)? Cultural expression cannot exist outside such social structures. Thus, at Yuendumu, by arranging who could make video in the community, all four male sub-sections or divisions gained access. Michaels makes no mention of female access although a clear interest by women at Yuendumu has been identified (Reilly).

Access by particular community members is culturally or socially determined. In the Torres Strait, for example, different social forces operate to determine who will work in the media. Almost all of the broadcasters working on the Thursday Island-based radio station are women who tend to stay at school longer than men for social reasons and thus speak English better. English, along with Broken (Torres Strait Creole), is used as a broadcast language. Aven Noah in a 1988 interview (15/9) explains why males don't tend to participate: 'Shame is one of the most important things. Islander people feel ashamed if they can't speak English so more women come in'.

Attention to landscape and "real time" shooting is common in Warlpiri video production and Michaels proposes that such techniques of filmmaking are linked directly to the way the Warlpiri relate to the land (Aboriginal Invention 62-63). In this way, he asserts that the Warlpiri "invented" their own version of television - a highly localised version which is essentially incompatible with mainstream television broadcasting.

Like the Warlpiri, the Pitjantjatjarra are able to translate such concepts as "Dreaming lines" - paths taken by mythical ancestors which help to explain the existence, in part, of landscape features - to video, along with their associated songs and dances. Videotape recordings - around one thousand hours of them - are stored and used to instruct young people in this essential religious knowledge. The recording of these myriad lines which criss-cross Pitjantjatjarra country was one of the major tasks of the Ernabella television project which found video 'a particularly apt tool' because of the possibility of Pitjantjatjarra control of production and distribution (Batty "Singing" 111-112).

Like production by the Pitjantjatjarra at Ernabella, Warlpiri television conforms to Warlpiri tradition, indicating a link between media and other forms of cultural production - a point which is crucial to this discussion. Michaels suggests that the Warlpiri's political survival depends upon their ability to continue to engage in such cultural production and concludes that such a cultural future can result only from political resistance by the Warlpiri and by non-Warlpiri recognition of the nature of Yapa (a Warlpiri word for a Warlpiri person) cultural production - in this case, television. By adopting such strategies, 'it is we who are rendered other, not its [Warlpiri television's] subject' (For a Cultural Future 78).

But this view of the Warlpiri as a discrete formation seems naive. Marcia Langton ("Eric Michaels" 78) suggests that it is mistaken to isolate them from the 'pan-Aboriginal nation forming at larger political and social levels or from the Western, racist society in which we are encapsulated'. She makes a valid point when she suggests that the cultural resistance Michaels describes taking place at Yuendumu is taking place nationally - as are numerous, diverse indigenous media responses. Phillip Batty agrees ("Singing" 109), arguing that although there exists a great diversity within Aboriginal culture, there are nevertheless 'deep cultural commonalities' which enable Australia's Aboriginal people to see themselves working together on crucial issues.

The Tanami Network

Since the Yuendumu and Ernabella communities pioneered local "pirate" television broadcasts in the early 1980s, four indigenous communities in the Tanami Desert have continued to develop innovative uses for new technologies. The impetus has again come from indigenous people - from "the bush", an equivalent in many ways of Canada's remote region above 60 degrees, called "the North". The Tanami Network is an interactive television system which integrates compressed videoconferencing and satellite technologies. 4 The network links four Tanami Desert communities - Yuendumu, Kintore, Lajamanu and Willowra - with Alice Springs, Darwin, Sydney and the rest of the world and is based on three basic criteria:

  • Aboriginal control

  • The need for a mixed package of media services (computer links, fax, telephone, local video production, broadcasting)

  • A wide application of technology to achieve cost effectiveness (Toyne 5)

    The Tanami Network embraces a wide range of applications, all crucially linked to the cultural future of the Warlpiri communities involved. The network has been put to a wide variety of uses by the four communities (see summary). The four communities are separated by up to 20 hours' road travel - some more than 550 kilometres apart - which makes maintenance of traditional links difficult.

    The Tanami Network achievements 1991-1993

  • Hundreds of formal and informal sessions aimed at maintaining community and family contacts; elders planning ceremonies and exchanging information

  • Delivery of tertiary teaching, media, community management and health worker courses; Aboriginal knowledge presented from Yuendumu into formal conferences in Darwin, Sweden, Hong Kong and London; TAFE course delivery; secondary school subject delivery

  • Contacts between nine Aboriginal prisoners in Alice Springs jail (86% Aboriginal - 40% from the Western Desert communities) with around 200 family members from the Tanami communities; use of the facility to monitor community detention order recipients

  • Health worker in-service course delivery

  • National and international (London) presentation of paintings and crafts from the Tanami communities

  • Witness testimony delivered from Tanami communities to most Australian capital cities and one in the USA

  • Consultation between community members and service agency staff

  • Delivery of a media training and support structure in conjunction with Batchelor College

  • Staff recruitment interviews

  • International indigenous links

    The Tanami Network has entered into an agreement with a United States company to develop the marketing of art and open learning internationally. This is in keeping with recent moves by the Warlpiri communities to forge political and social links (via the network) with indigenous groups in North America - the Tanami communities linked up with a group of Sioux in October 1993 for the first time. Tanami Network adviser Peter Toyne argues that on economics alone, use of the network by government and non-government agencies involved with Aboriginal communities is in the region of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. For example, the network is used to reunite prisoners in Alice Springs jail with their families, by satellite, and has attracted a high degree of support from community members (Tanami Network "Submission to ATSIC").

    The Warlpiri are greatly concerned about the drift of young community members to urban centres where many succumb to grog and grog-related violence. In 1991 alone, Yuendumu lost 26 family members in these circumstances. In the same period, just one person died in the community itself. Extension of family influences on rehabilitation of young offenders through the Tanami Network and the use of community detention orders might help to reverse this alarming trend (Tanami Network "Potential uses of videoconferencing"). The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody identified the need for such measures.

    The crucial element throughout is local control and the way in which the network is structured. Like every other structure within the Warlpiri community, the operation of the network is governed by cultural rules. The owners of the enterprise - the Tanami Network Trust - hold the assets of the company as well as the 'traditional knowledge and social outlooks of the Aboriginal groups involved'. Between the workers and the owners are four directors, chosen from each of the four communities, whose job it is to 'interpret and bring into harmony the intentions' of all users of network services (Toyne 6).

    The development of such a telecommunications network by an indigenous community has profound implications for community activities, including broadcasting. The appropriation of media in this way clearly demonstrates the possibility for empowerment inherent in such technology. The technology itself is not a threat - it is how the technology is used which is at the centre of this debate. The Tanami communities' use of state of the art satellite videoconferencing technology represents a radical opposition to postmodern notions that a system of social control and power inherent in mass media, making exchange of information 'impossible' (Baudrillard).

    The Tanami communities' involvement in cultural production is not merely self-serving - although a primary driving force is the maintenance of local languages and culture - but it also offers the possibility for co-productions which might herald a new era of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cooperation (Langton "Well I heard it"). Recent SBS involvement in such a venture - the filming of Jardiwarnpa (the Warlpiri Fire Ceremony) - is evidence of the possibilities. An earlier collaboration by the Warlpiri Media Association resulted in a nine-part children's television series, Manyu Wana, made entirely in Warlpiri. Some episodes were sub-titled in English and have been broadcast by Imparja Television.

    Observers like Peter Toyne remark that despite the arrival of satellite television, Warlpiri culture remains largely intact and appears to be growing in stature in recent years. There have been an increasing number of "bush trips" - in effect, cultural journeys - involving a wide ranging cross section of the community at Yuendumu. These have been the subject of a great many Warlpiri videos, typically featuring seemingly endless pans and zooms of landscape, often accompanied by dubbed traditional songs and minimal editing (Warlpiri Media Association Yanpirri to Labbi Labbi). They are still popular and are often requested by community members for replaying through local television, despite the appearance of Western genres on the 20 or so existing television sets in the 1,100 strong Yuendumu community (Reilly).

    While regular production of videos has slowed at Yuendumu, Margaret Reilly and Peter Toyne - both long-term residents involved with media production - argue that the community has emerged as highly media literate. The media association, in particular, acts as a watchdog on outside media intrusions and stories abound of community elders' altercations with foreign film crews attempting trespassing on Warlpiri land.

    The process of video production at Yuendumu has become part of ceremonial life. During an afternoon of singing and dancing to honour the passing away of a senior Warlpiri woman in 1993, the video operator's presence was clearly incorporated into the performance. Margaret Reilly, who operated the camera, explains that for the Warlpiri, the performers and their advisers become the directors of the video. As she videotaped a group of women dancing in a circle, someone called out 'pitiyawu!' ('video!') and the circle opened to enable the camera operator to get a better shot of a small fire being lit at the centre of the circle. Reilly recounts how she is always told where to stand by senior Warlpiri in charge of "directing" the ceremonies.

    The former chair of Imparja Television's board of directors (and one of three original founding members of CAAMA), Freda Glynn, describes Aboriginal broadcasting as 'creating a new industry for Aboriginal people. And who should control Aboriginal culture? It should be Aboriginal people. And who can best do it? It's Aboriginal people' (ABC). Such an industry encompasses the creation of new cultural forms across a diverse range of broadcasting environments: from indigenous program-making units within the SBS and the ABC with their own institutional constraints; through the commercially-driven and financially-hamstrung Imparja Television and other Remote Commercial Television Service licensees; through metropolitan and regional public radio; to local community television. From each of these communities of interest, cultural products have emerged which are related to the push to ensure a cultural future. And as Langton suggests, all are conceptually a part of such a movement. Speaking of the existence of one form in political isolation runs the risk of authorising one version at the expense of others. Clearly, as there is a diverse range of cultures existing within Aboriginal Australia, a diverse range of media forms would be expected to emerge from these.

    Indigenous Media Production: Canada

    In discussing indigenous media emerging from Australia, I have argued that it is mistaken to consider only those communities which fall into a narrow definition of traditional. Just as new media forms are negotiated by the Warlpiri, so community groups working in Brisbane or Sydney on community radio - and now, community television - are negotiating their responses through their own forms of media. Similar concerns arise when considering this discussion in terms of Canadian indigenous media forms. Gail Valaskakis helps to place this into perspective by proposing a working definition of culture ("Communication, Culture" 75):

    Culture is, at the most basic level, a patterned response to environment based on selected values. It is rooted in shared social practices and experiences - the context of social relations - which are maintained through communication.

    Thus the Inuit are able to appropriate square dancing, the mouth harp and the accordian, trapping, the Christian Church, syllabic writing etc as aspects of their own culture and label it "traditional". Younger Inuit may well include such activities as radio bingo, Native rock bands or involvement in municipal elections within the sphere of this definition (Roth and Valaskakis 228). Valaskakis suggests an identity dilemma here between young Inuit and their elders ("Communication, Culture" 75). Perhaps the definition of a "real Inuit" now incorporates the notion of modern snowmobiles and other technological creations which increasingly make up part of Inuit society. The media's role here is critical (Valaskakis "Communication, Culture" 76):

    As non-natives associate traditional Inuit activities with precontact behaviour, young Inuit experience the cultural struggle related to the concepts of traditional and real Inuit. At the same time, assimilation characterised by the control patterns of earlier Euro-Canadian contact have been encouraged by satellite access to southern broadcasting.

    In Alaska, for example, the vast majority of communities there had no access to telephones, radio or television in 1970. Virtually overnight, all these arrived with no attempt to encourage users to participate in the processes of designing, implementing, and operating the new system (Daley and James 25). The authors argue that technology and science have become leading productive forces which enable political decisions to be made - and justified - on a technical basis (26). The same accusation can be levelled at technocrats in Canada and Australia.

    But the development of Alaskan television did enable some experimentation with local production. In 1974 the Alaskan Educational Broadcasting Commission gained access to NASA's ATS-6 satellite and encouraged local production in three remote locations. Although just one of the three villages taking part produced programs which dealt with local culture, a series of 'consumer committees' were set up to monitor the types of programs which might be suitable for broadcast via satellite to remote regions (Daley and James 28-32). However the project was short-lived. After seven months, more than 100 hours of local television were produced. It was subsequently replaced by a system, still operating today, which essentially is able to offer programs produced by the three major US stations, ABC, CBS and NBC, along with some material from the Public Broadcasting Service. There is very little local production possible in the broadcasting model chosen (Daley and James 37-39).

    Nevertheless, alternatives which challenge the cultural hegemony of non-Native broadcast television have emerged. Valaskakis ("Communication and Control" 245) has suggested community-based use of 'specific media' might allow the Inuit, for example, to respond to social issues by adapting social institutions, like the media, to suit their own purposes. Accompanying such claims, however, are the realities of the enforced introduction of satellite technology, in particular, and strategies of empowerment. Valaskakis suggests that cultural incorporation and adaptation play a key role in defining the languages and cultures essential for the survival of contemporary Native communities:

    These processes also relate to the media products that reinforce native languages and cultures. Recognising this has challenged broadcasting policy and programs to defer to native nations in determining the cultural or linguistic definition and relevance of indigenous media products. (Valaskakis "Communication, Culture" 76)

    Many suggest (Kulchyski) that we may have misunderstood claims that technology itself threatens the survival of gatherer-hunter societies 5 like the Inuit - and, I suggest, Aboriginal Australians. The Inuit, for example, have embraced advanced technologies like broadcasting, computers, all-terrain vehicles etc to strengthen their culture and economy, albeit creating a kind of "mad eclecticism". This suggests that technology alone is not necessarily a cultural destroyer (Kulchyski 50). It challenges historical debates suggesting the fragility of indigenous economies and cultures but advances this notion further, suggesting the possibility of a subversive strategy at work. Inherent in such advanced technology is an emancipatory possibility lending itself to emancipatory social projects. Kulchyski challenges Jean Baudrillard's contention that media 'induce a social relation', suggesting instead that 'it is social relations which condition the way in which media are used' (50).

    Political control becomes a crucial issue when such an adoption of technology as is being suggested here takes place. Many Inuit communities, for example, voted to refuse offers of satellite dishes until the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation had control of content, recognising the dangers of the new broadcasting technology. In the Torres Strait Islands and in Aboriginal Australia, some communities have threatened to return their satellite dishes unless some form of local control - through training and maintenance support - is forthcoming (Corker 43-44; Doolan; Noah; Meadows "Television in the Torres Strait"). The irony is clear.

    Like the situation in Australia, Inuit control raises its own internal difficulties. Because virtually all of the Inuit trained to operate the new technologies are young, their possession of the tools for information transfer represent a threat to traditional authority. Some younger Inuit see their duty to "get the news out" as outweighing their elders' beliefs (Atagoyuk interview 15/4/1991). There are other more fundamental difficulties in dealing with stories which emerge from within the western news genre. For example there is no word for "says" in Inuktitut, making attribution in news stories impossible. Similarly, "alleged" does not have an equivalent in Inuktitut and other Native languages like Cree and Chipewyan, making the coverage of court stories particularly difficult (Morris interview 3/4/1991; Awa interview 15/3/1991; Desjarlais interview 15/4/1991). Inuit CBC broadcaster Joanna Awa summarises the dilemma like this:

    There is conflict with the newsroom because some stories they write don't suit an Inuit audience. Inuit don't like to hear about bad news - sexual assault, murder and so on - it touches them more and ruins their day. Qallunaak [white] society accepts this as news. Most of it deals with problems, bad news.

    If Inuit adopt broadcast technologies, is it not reasonable to assume that in the mere act of doing so, they are subverted by the dominant system? Kulchyski puts this question, again rejecting Baudrillard's notion that media 'fabricate non-communication'. He suggests that what is missing from such arguments is a concern with the ideological content of the media:

    While it is recognised that in changing the messages Inuit people will have adopted a political strategy that ultimately does nothing to vitiate the hegemonic power of modern communications' technology, there is nothing inherent in the technology that suggests they cannot change the form in which their new messages will be broadcast. (Kulchyski 57)

    And this is precisely what the Inuit do. IBC programs are broadcast entirely in their language, Inuktitut, and essentially reflect visually on the Inuit way of life. IBC executive producer Blandina Makkik acknowledges that it is the smaller Inuit communities which produce the 'more traditional...Inuit style TV', dealing with such issues as Shamanism, for example. Such programs feature long pauses in what little commentary is used - producing television which is "not so pacy". Such programming uses natural sound and "real time" extended duration shots, for example. Scripts are written in Inuktitut so that "Inuit thinking" finds its way into such programs. Inuit broadcasters recently completed an anti-drugs rap video, written by Blandina Makkik, and produced entirely in Inuktitut. Inuit children were soon singing it to their parents. It was part of a successful promotion by the IBC to 'make Inuktitut cool' amongst the younger Inuks, raised on a diet of cable TV video clips (Makkik interview 20/3/1991). In a similar way, Aboriginal rock band Yothu Yindi were enlisted to 'authorise' a campaign against alcohol abuse amongst Aboriginal communities (Land Rights News, May 1993).

    The IBC, like many other Native television producers in Canada, makes use of extended duration shots, opposing western news and current affairs criteria which limit each shot in a television story to a few seconds. But Inuit stories made within the CBC's Arctic Northern Service production units take on a similar form. In one CBC example from an Inuit-produced program called Aqsarniit (Northern Lights), a closing sequence showing an Inuit dog sled handler was broadcast in real time, with virtually no editing.

    Similar examples emerge from the archives of the Warlpiri Media Association. One videotape, which runs for more than 90 minutes with virtually no editing at all, demonstrates the art of making a boomerang in close to real time. We are able to see the entire process from selection of a piece of wood to techniques used to shape it - it begins with an axe, progressing to a tomahawk, an adze, a rasp and finally, sandpaper (Warlpiri Media Association 1990). In the Inuit example, we are able to see exactly how the dog handler unharnesses his dog team, and carefully folds and stores the equipment - again in real time.

    I do not suggest a particular meaning here, agreeing with Burnett (121), that it is presumptuous to attempt this in dealing with other cultures. However, I am attracted by Kulchyski's suggestions (57) that such 'differences' in production form might be explained by the absence of 'performers' in Inuit television - there is no separation between Inuit television producers and audience because both are part of the Inuit community. One Inuit broadcaster described it like this: 'The most dangerous thing about becoming well-known is ego. If you lose touch with people, you lose their respect but they treat you like a star' (Awa interview 15/3/1991). Michaels referred to this as a 'Brechtian violation of the audience-producer boundary'. The similarity is clear.

    When television training began for Ojibway and Cree broadcasters at Wawatay Communications Society in northern Ontario in 1987, problems arose when non-Native trainers applied Western methods. Executive director of Wawatay Lawrence Martin (interview 16/4/1991) observes: 'They wanted us to get close ups. We preferred wide shots. It was a cultural difference we overcame but a medium shot is as far as we will go. We have a different concept of space'.

    Thus indigenous program makers in Canada, as in indigenous Australia, have created an intimate relation between community and producers:

    The relation takes place on multiple levels: perhaps most importantly, that of the everyday. An Inuk producer will watch her program with other Inuit who will comment on it; the producer and her production live in the community that is the object of their reflection. (Kulchyski 57)

    This process, Kulchyski argues, creates a specifically Inuit visual language through the process of public learning - training session tapes are often broadcast, for example. The Inuit have begun to take control of training, too, with interesting results. The first Inuk television trainer, appointed in 1991, soon discovered he could teach his students three times faster than using English, simply because he could speak Inuktitut. Like the visual language of the Warlpiri, the Inuit are making their own form of television:

    Since in the mid seventies the IBC simply sent out video cameras to small communities, with a minimum of training support, the visual results often showed no predispositions as to what television "should" look like. (Kulchyski 58)

    This produces what Kulchyski describes as 'interactive television' because of the intimate relationship between producer and the community in which it is produced. There is no gap between audience and entertainer in this context. In this way, the community "speaks its own language", unlike the situation in so-called postmodern culture where the audience impact on programming is virtually nonexistent. Thus, communications technologies in such settings have a potential for emancipatory social practices. By not accepting such notions, Kulchyski argues, we run the risk of excluding possibilities that such communities can adapt technology to their own uses and retain their integrity (61).

    Conclusion - "The Way People Want to Talk"

    What emerges from the kinds of indigenous production being discussed here is an engagement with construction of identity as well as attempts to reclaim control of histories and knowledges. Throughout, the crucial social links between producers and audiences re-emerge as a powerful mediating influence in the kinds of cultural production underway. This is essentially management of cultural resources in Gramscian terms (Gramsci; Mercer). As Ginsburg and O'Regan and Batty assert, indigenous media production is a hybrid process - 'a multifaceted and heterogeneous mix of policy issues, practices, and tactics' (185). O'Regan and Batty suggest that the diversity which exists in indigenous broadcasting should be considered within three frameworks - the differences within broadcasting itself, indigenous community aspirations, and the influence of government policy. Indigenous broadcasting thus becomes the result of a negotiation by indigenous people of the very nature of the broadcasting industry and their relationship to cultural, policy and funding issues - the links are 'inextricable' (189-192). I suggest that such discussions must necessarily be framed within notions which recognise the multifarious and linked influences on indigenous cultural production - ceremonial processes, the production of art, provision and operation of community services, local media production, kinship affiliations and obligations etc. These discussions must also acknowledge indigenous people's prior and continuing relationship to the land (and the sea) and law, as well as the effects of dispossession. Omission of any of these removes a critical context from the debate.

    Four indigenous communities in the Tanami Desert in Central Australia have moved away from video production and have adopted interactive television as a medium to provide them with a wide range of applications. The operation of the network is tightly governed by cultural rules. Just as the Warlpiri making video were socially organised, so too are the participants in live television exchanges through the Tanami Network. Four specially chosen directors, one from each of the four communities, interprets and 'brings into harmony' the intentions of all users (Toyne). Like all cultural and spiritual activities within Warlpiri society, the Tanami Network is inextricably linked to the social structure of the community. Thus, it represents 'the way people want to talk' (Yuendumu Community Education Centre). Clear parallels exist between Inuit and Warlpiri forms of cultural production, particular television - attention to landscape, the use of "real time" in videotapes, and importantly, the absence of "performers". This collapses the audience-producer boundary in Inuit television, essentially authorising the product.

    The kind of cultural production which emerges in both countries - as a response to insensitive and ideologically bound policies - is diverse. It is about reclaiming identity and the right to participate in identity construction. It is about appropriating technologies and managing them as cultural resources whether they be computers, telephones, video cameras or satellites. The operation of culture as an authorising agency is evident in these many locations. Despite fears that an assumed fragility of indigenous cultures meant they would be automatically overwhelmed by mass media, this does not seem to have been the case. Evidence exists for the often unproblematic coexistence of two versions of media - local and introduced - side by side in various cultural settings. This interaction with media is evidence of the importance of political and cultural influences inherent in the notion of active audiences. Such notions challenge postmodern critiques of mass media which privilege technological determinism over cultural interpretation, for example. It is the social relations within indigenous communities which determine the nature and form of media responses - a strategic management of cultural resources in the Gramscian sense. This approach rejects notions which align indigenous with such concepts as "the original" or "the primitive" enabling an active engagement with technology, creating a new kind of cultural frontier.


    1. The Remote Commercial Television Services divide the Australian continent into three broadcast zones the western zone (Golden West Network), the central zone (Imparja Television), and the north east zone (Channel 10 Regional or QTV).

    2. Television Northern Canada is a dedicated Native television channel which began broadcasting across the Canadian Arctic in January, 1992. It provides around 100 hours of indigenous and educational programming each week across five time zones with frequent programs in several dialects of Inuktitut, Cree-ojibway, and Dene languages. It is now recognised as offering a first level of service to remote indigenous communities in the Canadian north.

    3. Jack Goody suggests that access to particular technologies like writing in oral societies is a crucial question. He espouses this and other ideas in his The logic of writing and the organisation of society and The interface between the oral and the written.

    4. The videoconferencing network uses video compression technology which means that a fraction of the bandwidth normally needed for such transmission is used. Digital compression video technology transmits an initial picture, but subsequently only updates those parts of the picture which change, obviating the need to continually transmit all of the picture, all of the time.

    5. The term 'gatherer-hunter' is used here by Kulchyski after its adoption by feminist anthropologists like Eleanor Leacock. Such a reversal stresses the importance of women's roles and the 'roughly egalitarian gender relations' which inform them.

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