CON: The media do not cause indigenous people to acculturate to the dominant society, and actually help them resist acculturation.

Steve Mizrach

Mass Communication and Society

Dr. Campbell

Term Paper

December 9th, 1998


Do electronic mass media (especially television) have an adverse impact on Native Americans in the United States?

CON: No, they do not

The Critique of Electronic Media in Indigenous Societies

The author and cultural critic Jerry Mander, in his book, In the Absence of the Sacred: the Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, documents how, from his point of view, indigenous peoples in the U.S. and elsewhere are suffering under "attack" from technology and the world "technoculture." Mander saves his strongest criticism for television, but this is not surprising, as his previous book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, pronounced the "idiot box" to be a scourge on Western civilization. As he sees it, TV has even worse impacts on indigenous people, causing them to lose their traditional cultural practices, making them adopt a Western lifestyle of conspicuous consumption, and severing their connection with nature and the sacred. (Mander, 1991.)

Of course, Mander has not been the first to write in this vein. Many indigenous and non-indigenous writers have suggested that television plays a negative impact in the lives of Native Americans in the U.S. They believe it promotes stereotypes of native people; increased rates of alcoholism, gang membership, and suicide among native youth; and erosion of native values and languages. It is said to denigrate native culture, and to be yet another ‘tool’ by the U.S. government in its quest to eradicate Native Americans as a distinctive group and to assimilate them within the larger white consumer culture.

Perhaps the most derogatory genre of TV productions, from the native point of view, has been the "Western." In most Western movies, the Indians are shown as bloodthirsty savages, obstacles to progress, predators on peaceful settlers, enemy "hostiles" of the U.S. Cavalry, etc. In most of these films, the political context of the Indian Wars completely disappears. Nothing is said about broken treaties, stolen lands, or Indian massacres. Why the Indians would attack these perfectly peaceful, law-abiding, friendly settlers is never explored. So a ‘cowboy’ gunslinger inevitably descends out of the hills to save the townsfolk from the ‘savages’. There are cultural critics who say the cultural schema of the "Western" has underlain all past and present U.S. wars.

The "Wild West" and the "Western Frontier" were presented as things that had to be ‘tamed’. By this, people meant that the people who lived there — the Indian - had to be ‘pacified’, by that curious mixture of law and order with rugged individualism — the cowboy. Many Indian people who remember the 50s and 60s, before the era of AIM and Red Power, also remember watching these Western films and serials as children, helpless to see themselves depicted as brutal mindless killers. In some cases, Indian people internalized these media images, leading to a self-loathing, and a rejection of their own history and their own past.

Occasionally, Indian critics would attack Western media on the opposite grounds — that it portrayed them in an unrealistic Romantic model — the Rousseauian noble savage. While there were occasionally very sympathetic media productions done telling the lives of great Indian heroes and chiefs, they were often played in these films by Italians or Lebanese people, and behaved and spoke like Greek philosophers. Because indigenous people could not portray themselves on their own terms, these films made about them without their own self-understanding were said to constitute "cultural imperialism," an attempt to dominate and destroy their culture.

The Relevant Theories

"Cultural imperialism" theory suggests that one culture (usually the U.S. or Europe or the ‘First World’) exports cultural products (electronic/mass media productions) to another society (usually in the ‘Third’ or ‘Fourth’ world) with the goal of a) eliminating native cultural representations and b) replacing them with "alien" representations which in turn are supposed to c) transform the culture so that it loses its autonomy and becomes ‘assimilated’ into the global capitalist world-system. In many ways, it arises out of the critique of media and ideology from people like Herbert Marcuse. For Marcuse and others, the media are used as an instrument to promote the ideology of the ruling classes, and to perpetuate the "false consciousness" of the masses.

"Cultural imperialism" simply takes this critique and applies it to the world stage, suggesting that now ruling nations export mass media to other nations in order to dominate them. This theory contains a number of assumptions, including the fact that this process is deliberate, directed, and totally unwanted by the recipient society — that these cultural products are forced on them against their will. It assumes that the receiving culture is powerless to stop the importation of these external cultural productions, and that the exporting culture uses them as explicit tools of "electronic colonization." So: if people in Africa, Asia, or the Australian Outback watch Dallas, it’s assumed that they interpret its message of rich Texas families as an outright statement that America and its way of life are better than their own. (Carpenter, 1972.)

The other theory that bears on this debate is the theory of "technological determinism." In its general sense, this theory suggests that the introduction of new technologies is the primary force in creating socio-cultural change, and that when one culture takes on a technology diffused from another culture, the second culture will take on the socio-cultural attributes of the diffusing culture. So, if indigenous societies accept technologies from Western societies, their values and beliefs and cultural practices will become like those of the dominant society. Technological determinism would suggest that as the Lakota Sioux and other cultures use Western technologies such as television, computers, and the Internet, they will become like us, losing their culture, and becoming acculturated and assimilated into Western culture. (Worth and Adair, 1972.)

The specific variety of technological determinism theory vis-à-vis electronic media originates from the Toronto School — the writings of Marshall McLuhan and others. McLuhan argued that as new technologies of communication are introduced into a society, they would change the balance of peoples’ sensory perceptions, and even their ideas of authority, identity, or meaning. Just as the phonetic alphabet transformed early Greece, and the printing press transformed medieval Europe, so, McLuhan predicted, would electronic media transform modern civilization. Paradoxically, even as these technologies would unite the peoples of the world into a modern "global village," McLuhan also felt that they would "retribalize" the industrial world and bring back a "secondary orality" where the linear consciousness of print media would no longer reign.

Unfortunately, while both of these theories would suggest that electronic media would have acculturative effects on indigenous people, both of these theories are intrinsically problematic. Cultural imperialism theory has been critiqued in many other parts of the world on several grounds. Firstly, it seems impossible and unlikely that one society creates media with the goal of deliberately acculturating other societies to its own values. Such "electronic colonialism" cannot be proven. Although certainly the United States wants to sell as many Hollywood films abroad as possible, it does not seem to be the case that Hollywood filmmakers create these films with the express purpose of transforming other societies so that they mirror our own.

Secondly, even though Western media productions contain messages that "encode" and perhaps even assert the superiority of Western beliefs and values, most audience response research suggests that non-Western cultures do not simply accept the values offered by these programs as a substitute for their own. Often, non-Western viewers will critique these media programs for their lack of "appropriate" (from their cultural standpoint) behavior, and use them as fodder for arguments about the inferiority of Western belief systems. Thus, while Americans might admire the wealth and power of the Ewing family on Dallas, Arab Bedouin viewers watch the show and declare it to be evidence of their belief that worldly wealth leads to corruption and immorality. Rather than the show causing them to give up their Bedouin ways for a life of sedentary consumption, Dallas helps reinforce their belief that staying in one place for too long leads to moral decay.

As for McLuhan’s theories — he has been proven empirically wrong on several grounds, including his belief that the game of baseball would vanish in a decade, due to its ‘unsuitability’ for television. McLuhan’s theory has been accused of being simplistic, since no technology of communication ever totally replaces another in a society (although we have the Internet, we also still use TV and radio, print, writing, and speech) and studies show that the transition from orality to literacy in developing countries as not as dramatic as proponents of the "Great Divide" between oral and literate cultures might suggest. If this is the case, we can also expect that the transition to electronic media in an indigenous culture (or in our own) might also not have such dramatic effects, either.

Technological determinism theories like those of McLuhan’s are weak because a great deal of anthropological research suggests that when people are exposed to new technologies in their society, they often repurpose or modify those technologies so as to use them in their own particular cultural contexts. Rather than changing their culture to fit the new technology, many societies will alter the way the technology is used in order to fit their culture. For example, the Ayatollah Khoemini used audiocassettes during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, not to spread popular music (which is how audiotapes are often used), but instead to send his Islamic sermons to followers, and to preach against the modernizing government of the Shah.

Flaws of the "Pro" Position

Although proponents of the idea make a number of arguments concerning the negative effects of television and electronic media on indigenous peoples, many of these arguments can be refuted. Often, people will state that once indigenous people use new technology, they are no longer "Indian" anymore. Similar arguments are often made over subsistence technology. People will claim that once the Makah begin whaling with mechanical harpoons and motorboats instead of traditional canoes, they are no longer "true" Makah Indians; or if the Lakota Sioux use a mechanical bison-processing plant to ‘farm’ and raise bison, they are no longer "true" Sioux. But this assumes that cultural identity is based on some kind of technological toolkit, rather than a series of beliefs, social structures, and practices for survival. Do we consider our own identities to be rooted in merely what things we use?

So, are indigenous people who use video cameras are any less "Indian" than their counterparts? The answer is no, and the idea that they are seems to be rooted in peoples’ deep-seated notion that indigenous people are somehow rooted in a romantic or idyllic pre-technological state of ‘nature’. That is why indigenous people often appear in "natural history" museums, naked, without tools. But new understandings of indigenous people show that they have long pursued a strategy of technological adaptation — borrowing tools from enemies and allies, neighbors and conquerors, in their struggle to survive. New media technologies do not represent a "dilution" of their identity, but rather a reaffirmation of it through adaptation to new circumstances. (Frota, 1996.)

Another argument often made for the idea that electronic media are a threat to indigenous peoples is the claim that they give up their traditional customs, rituals, and practices in favor of the new technology. However, my research with the Lakota Sioux showed that this was not the case. People who used new media technologies did not necessarily participate in fewer Lakota cultural activities, or have less familiarity with the Lakota language or knowledge of their own history. In short, there was no evidence I could find which suggested that Lakota who had more technological items in their home, or watched more television than their peers, showed any evidence of being any more ‘acculturated’ to Western norms and behaviors. While there was plenty of evidence for acculturation, much of it seems to date from far earlier periods of culture contact, and it did not seem to be rooted in television or media technology.

Anthropological research (primarily time allocation studies) has shown that people do not necessarily give up older, more traditional activities in favor of new ones. People who are heavy readers do not give up leisure reading when they buy a television; in fact, they usually find creative ways to combine both activities ‘multi-modally.’ In fact, new technology often provides them with a new impetus to pursue old activities. Today’s ‘traditional’ Indian powwows would not be possible without amplified sound, auto highways, and lighting, which makes it possible for a large number of people to attend and an even greater number of people to participate later into the night. Likewise, new animal slaughtering and processing technology has made it possible for the Indians to revive their own bison herd and profit from it commercially.

A third argument for the "pro" position is the idea that electronic media will undermine the strong "oral" character of indigenous societies. As preliterate cultures, many indigenous groups are rooted in a strong ‘tribal’ identity based on charismatic authority, oral traditions, and face-to-face forms of participatory democracy. People feel that new media technologies, such as print or television, are threats to the more immediate and direct character of Indian societies. If knowledge is no longer transmitted orally through the generations, then that knowledge will be lost. If ceremonies and oral histories are recorded through videotape, they will not be passed on with fidelity and accuracy to the next generation.

Once again, this position fails to understand that indigenous cultures always recreate their own traditions from epoch to epoch, to meet the changing needs of their historical situation. Further, it assumes that electronic media are incompatible with ‘orality’ or the right-brained nature of indigenous thought. However, as Ong, a fellow-traveller with Marshall McLuhan, once argued, the electronic media create a sort of ‘secondary orality’ which brings some of the earliest tribal characteristics of humankind to the forefront for a second "replay." If this is the case, surely they must be compatible with indigenous oral societies; in fact, such cultures might excel in using them effectively, maybe even more effectively than print-based civilizations could.

Video recordings of traditional ceremonies do not supplant the oral traditions of indigenous cultures any more than writing down accounts of those ceremonies. Both are valid efforts at cultural preservation. Indeed, many Indian elders think that putting indigenous knowledge on television may be the only way to get their own indigenous youth interested in it, since boarding schools and other factors have often severed the intrinsic intra-generational link, and many elderly speakers of indigenous languages or practicioners of traditional medicine are dying off. Some sacred rituals will always remain "off limits" for recording of any kind, but others do not have their value or importance diminished by recording them.

Arguments for the "Con" Side

Many people who think that electronic media are having deleterious effects on indigenous societies are unaware of the technological revolution that has occurred among indigenous peoples worldwide. Australian Aborigines, Canadian Inuit, and Brazilian Kayapo are now running their own satellite TV networks, carrying their own media programming in their own indigenous languages. (Michaels, 1994.) Here in the U.S., in our own "Indian Country," a similar revolution is occurring. Indigenous groups are starting their own radio stations, TV broadcast facilities, film productions, web sites, newspapers and magazines, and multmedia CD-ROMs, with the purposes of telling their side of the story, revitalizing their culture, unifying different tribal groups into common coalitions, preserving their native languages, archiving their cultural knowledge, and asserting their tribal power as sovereign nations. The electronic media have become tools of their cultural resistance.

Rather than having these media technologies imposed on them from outside, indigenous activists have been going out and accumulating these technologies for themselves. They have been sending native people to film schools and journalism schools in order to create a new native-driven journalism to cover events in Indian Country from their own perspective. Like many other examples of "ethnic minority media," the new indigenous media operate within an "indigenous aesthetic," trying to discuss the news from a perspective that they feel gets left out of the ‘mainstream’ mass media directed at non-Indian audiences. The more familiar indigenous groups are with the new media technologies, the more interested they are in using them to revitalize their own, often declining, cultures.

The evidence suggests that native people do not use media technology in the same way that Western people do. Most indigenous groups often try to "embed" their media productions within their indigenous value system, trying to incorporate them in ways which dovetail with their lifeways. (Ginsburg, 1994.) Indigenous-run cultural centers and museums use these technologies to retell traditional folkloric stories in new creative ways, explore problems in their communities (such as alcoholism), and deal with problems on the reservation. They also use them for economic development, by using them to attract sympathetic "eco-tourism," sell traditional arts and crafts, and archive repatriated artefacts (such as the ones returned from NAGPRA.) Many are interested in the ‘silicon economy’ as a more sustainable alternative to heavy industry or gambling.

The Maya in Chiapas, as another example, have learned how to use the media to call attention to their plight (especially the underdevelopment of their region and their confrontations with the military) and their struggle against the PRI-dominated Mexican government. Indeed, many commentators have noted just how media-driven their struggle against the Mexican authorities is. The Maya Zapatistas know they will not triumph in their fight without enlisting the help of international allies, so through the fax machine, shortwave radio, and the Internet, they send their "communiques" to a global audience who in return sends them donations of money and other assistance. (Castelis-Talens, 1994.) Media technology has become essential for indigenous groups who have long been ignored by the dominant governments of their colonizers.

When indigenous people are able to understand and control new technologies introduced into their cultures, they are able to assimilate the technology into an appropriate cultural context, rather than being assimilated by it. (Weatherford, 1990.) When they can control how these technologies are implemented and where, and how they are used and for what purposes, these technologies work for cultural revitalization. When they cannot control the processes of technology transfer, and the technologies are introduced in ways that make them passive and helpless in the process, then they suffer acculturation and cultural decline. Media technology seem usable for cultural revitalization because indigenous people can effectively ‘repurpose’ them for their own cultural use. Recent changes in media technology have made creating media programming simpler, cheaper, and easier, and thus enabled indigenous people their own chance to ride on the ‘info highway’.


Although many technologies have had negative effects on indigenous people, the electronic media have a lot of positive potentials for them. While many critics of television and the electronic media see these things as threats to indigenous cultural survival and tools of "cultural imperialism," in point of fact, these technologies may be the instruments of their technological survival in the modern era. Television, radio, and other electronic media are allowing indigenous people to reassert themselves on the global stage and have their voices heard. Rather than viewing these as uncomfortable impositions from outside, they should be viewed as the latest way indigenous groups have acquired new tools to confront new historical circumstances. There’s little empirical evidence that media technologies cause acculturation in indigenous people, and some suggestive evidence that they can help resist assimilation and cultural decline. On that basis, one would have to say that, on balance, the electronic media are not antithetical or dangerous to indigenous societies.


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