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  • Native to the DeviceThoughts on Digital Indigenous Studies
  • Joanna Hearne (bio)

In studies of Indigenous film and video, the camera has been a powerful metaphor for Indigenous struggles over control of the image. This is articulated most vividly in Māori filmmaker Barry Barclay’s invocation of the camera’s contrapuntal position, embedded in the mechanics of shot / reverse shot, to characterize Indigenous and settler filmmaking in his seminal essay “Celebrating Fourth Cinema.” He imagines the settler perspective—“First Cinema”—represented by “the camera of the ship’s deck,” while an Indigenous perspective—“Fourth Cinema”—arises from the “camera ashore” (8–9). Barclay visualizes this staged encounter, from ship to shore, in terms of lines of sight—the eyeline match edit—and the politics of conquest. It is a metaphor with geographic specificity (in Aotearoa) that is also global, connecting lands, peoples, and representation through the articulated positionalities of encounter. Barclay applies it broadly, asserting that Fourth Cinema exists “outside the national orthodoxy” altogether while tracing the transnational heritage of dominant film storytelling to the originary scene of settler colonialism (9). He illustrates the camera of the ship’s deck with examples from the film Mutiny on the Bounty. To show the global relevance of his vision of the camera ashore, we might take up the example of Abenaki director Alanis Obomsawin’s 2002 documentary Is the Crown at War with Us?, in which we see home videos of Mi’gmaq tribal members’ confrontation with the Canadian federal fishery office over fishing rights in Miramichi Bay. From the shore, Mi’gmaq cameras capture evidence of Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ boats violently running over the much smaller boats of the Mi’gmaq fishers of Burnt Church, New Brunswick. [End Page 3]

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Fig. 1.

The camera on the ship. Mutiny on the Bounty, Frank Lloyd, dir. Starring Clark Gable. mgm, 1935.

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Fig. 2.

The camera on the ship. Mutiny on the Bounty, Lewis Milestone, dir. Starring Marlon Brando. mgm, 1962.

In these examples, while the camera of the ship’s deck activates pre-circulating settler colonial origin stories—in this case, the hoary tropes of available land and women (see Marubbio)—that continue to shape the legal and social structures affecting Indigenous lives, in Obomsawin’s film the camera ashore reveals evidence of the ongoing, state-sponsored violence of territorial and oceanic domination. My point is [End Page 4] not that Indigenous cameras unmask First Cinema’s colonial fantasies (although they do that here also) but rather that politically oppositional locations are embedded in the function of the camera, its mimicry of a gendered, colonial gaze, its formal grammar, and its imbrication in systems of dominant cinema production.

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Fig. 3.

The camera ashore. Is the Crown at War with Us?, Alanis Obomsawin, dir. nfb, 2002.

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Fig. 4.

The camera ashore. Is the Crown at War with Us?, Alanis Obomsawin, dir. nfb, 2002.

[End Page 5]

But the metaphor of the camera—and the sovereignty of the camera that has been the focus of Indigenous media studies—works less well as a descriptor of digital Indigenous studies. The singular directionality of the camera doesn’t represent such elements of the digital as 360-degree virtual reality and gamic space; interactivity; mobile computing; spatial tagging and locative media; asynchronous and networked communication; the archival, sonic, and visual collage aesthetics of sampling, mashups, and remixes; big data and data surveillance; data visualization; changing software, platforms, and interfaces; hypermedia documents in Hyper Text Markup Language (html); textual and linguistic codes developed for brevity (e.g., ndn); gis and digital mapping; ecomedia and the planned obsolescence of hardware; or digital media’s privileging of animation and graphic design. As this list suggests, the digital is not without its own symbolic (and actual) apparatus, but in place of the metaphor of the camera, with its powerfully directional prosthetic eye, we find new sites of coercion, resistance, intervention, and expression in the multidirectional uptake of hardware, software, and code. Digital media upends the indexicality of the photographic image, as...


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