Hinzo & Clark, 2019

Hinzo, A. M., & Clark, L. S. (2019). Digital survivance and Trickster humor: Exploring visual and digital Indigenous epistemologies in the #NoDAPL movement. Information, Communication & Society, 22(6), 791–807. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2019.1573911


The decolonizing turn in the humanities and social sciences calls for scholarship that analyzes social media practices through the lens of Indigenous epistemologies. In this article, we model the ways that Indigenous epistemologies might contribute to theories of social media practices as we explore ways that the digital image can drive identification with and engagement in political acts. The article analyzes social media tropes circulated across various platforms among Indigenous communities and allies in relation to the #NoDAPL movement. We argue that attempting to analyze Native American traditions through Western theory will only work towards colonizing these Indigenous texts. Thus, whereas we employ insights from digital and visual methods of analysis (Highfield, T., & Leaver, T. (2016). Instagrammatics and digital methods: Studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to memes and emoji. Communication Research and Practice, 2(1), 47– 62), we also highlight the strategic use of humor in the visual materials shared through various social media platforms utilizing the framework of the Trickster. We argue that the visual and digital phenomena we studied might best be understood as a form of digital survivance, drawing upon Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor [(1994). Manifest manners: Postindian warriors of survivance. Hanover, CT: Wesleyan University Press]. term ‘survivance’ as a portmanteau that combines ‘survival’ and ‘resistance’ in its characterization of Indigenous storytelling traditions. Whereas centering the Indigenous figure of the Trickster might suggest that social media has failed to live up to its promises, this epistemological approach also explains the hope that Indigenous communities hold in uniting via social media for what has been and continues to be a long-term battle for sovereignty and for the protection of the earth and all of its beings. Extracted Annotations (2019-11-05, 6:06:06 AM)


#NoDAPL; Indigenous; Identity; social movements; digital and visual methods; decolonizing internet studies (p. 792)

Introduction (p. 793)

This legacy of the imagination has meant that Indigenous peoples rarely have been depicted as complex persons of the present day, let alone as technologically proficient ones. (p. 793)

Decolonial thinking is understood in relation to the racial discrimination that justified the economic and political subordination of Indigenous women and men by Europeans beginning with the colonial relations of the sixteenth century that socially and culturally constructs the nation as a White possession (Mignolo, 2012; Mortenson Robinson, 2015; Quijano, 2000). (p. 793)

Here, we understand sovereignty in relation to the need for Indigenous persons to defend against those who would lay claim to sovereignty and rights over Indigenous communities under the authority of systems like the State (King, Gubele, & Anderson, 2015). We also understand rhetorical sovereignty to refer to the right for Indigenous persons to name and analyze practices according to Indigenous epistemologies. (p. 793)

In this article, we have organized our data in relation to Indigenous humor and Indigenous publics that evoke thefigure of the Trickster, who is called into being, we argue, through the sharing of memes. Particularly central to these memes is the use of irony, understood here as a rhetorical device that signals a difference between appearance and reality, using language to express meaning that is exactly the opposite of the literal meaning of the words used. Indigenous humor has long been a form of resistance to colonialism (Jones & McGloin, 2016). (p. 794)

As renowned Standing Rock Sioux scholar and advocate Vine Deloria, Jr's statement in the epigraph indicates, Indigenous humor is an indispensable tool of survivance for Native American political movements. We see the evidence of Indigenous humor in digital spaces as an important continuation and extension of this long tradition. (p. 794)

The first author of this article is a Ho-Chunk scholar, an enrolled member of the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska, who has conducted research on the Trickster figure within her own tradition and contributes this knowledge within our analysis. The second author is a non-Indigenous feminist academic who, like most non-Indigenous people in the US, has a family legacy of immigration linked to settler colonialism and the benefits derived from that legacy, including a longstanding connection to several elite institutions associated with internet research. This collaboration weaves together Indigenous epistemology with practices of visual and digital social media as a means to both generate new insights into Indigenous digital practices and to generate new perspectives for social media theorizing. (p. 794)

The Trickster in Indigenous epistemologies (p. 795)

Anthropologist and ethnographer Paul Radin (1956) details the Winnebago Trickster Cycle and The Winnebago Hare, describing the Trickster as 'creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself' (p. ix). Radin continues in his description of the Trickster: He wills nothing consciously. At all times he is constrained to behave as he does from impulses over which he has no control. He knows neither good nor evil, yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of his passions and appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being. (Radin, 1956, ix) (p. 795)

Methods (p. 797)

We argue that the Trickster is called into being in Indigenous social media through the practices of meme-sharing. (p. 797)

  • studying images and other visual materials requires different methods cf texts
  • hashtags (clarify intent and context)
  • location data
  • follow prominent individuals and communities
  • pay attention to platform policies
    • transition from chronological to algorithmic feeds
    • policies constantly changing ... difficult to keep up
  • followed materials across platforms
  • looked for links between images and hashtags
  • categorized into themes

In an era of social media, as Matzner and Ochs (2017) have pointed out, the concept of privacy must be understood as inherently social, relational, and sociotechnical, not merely evaluated in relation to individuals (p. 796-7)

Zimmer, M., & Kinder-Kurlanda, K. (Eds.). (2017). Internet research ethics for the social age: New challenges, cases, and contexts. Retrieved from https://dlnext.acm.org/doi/10.5555/3169874

Ascertaining the extent to which online visual material was intended for a broad public or a more private audience can be challenging. Thus, even as an image might be available for examination and analysis, any such material must be treated responsibly through an 'ethics of care' by the research team, which seeks to do no harm in the communities in which we work (Luka, Millette, & Wallace, 2017). Given the fact that FBI have infiltrated Indigenous activist activities (Parrish, 2017), it is worth considering how best to conduct research that benefits the Indigenous community while preserving its members' safety. (p. 798)

Between January and August 2018, after eliminating advertisements and other content that was not linked to #NoDAPL either by hashtag or time frame, we curated 463 visual artifacts of digital survivance in a Pinterest file so that others in the Indigenous community could view and comment. (p. 798)

Because of the small size of the sample relative to how many images were shared, we were less interested in counting how often instances of humor appeared or how frequently they were shared than in exploring why these instances might have had resonance among those who shared them. (p. 799)

We note, therefore, that studying social media phenomena involves not only exploring the practices of users, networks, content, and interactions, but understanding the social contexts in which such materials are shared and the relationships between various social media platforms, and we recognize the limitations of this study. Of particular interest to us, however, were the many instances in which the visual materials included intertextual references that would be recognizable, legible, or humorous primarily to members of Indigenous communities and their allies. (p. 799)

Results (p. 799)

In this section, therefore, we focus on three ways that Trickster-like ironies emerged in our sample, each of which highlights the historical and contemporary experiences of the relationships between Indigenous persons and the settler-state: land dispossession and immigration policies, media (in)attention, and ironies related to criminalization and the sacred. (p. 799)

Land dispossession and immigration policies (p. 799)

The history of Geronimo and this image in particular, has been used to remember instances of Native American resistance within the US and the absurdity of immigration policies constructed by a settler state built on Native American land dispossession and violence committed on Indigenous populations. (p. 800)

Media (in)attention (p. 801)
Criminalization and the sacred (p. 801)

Discussion (p. 803)

Indigenous people and their allies have long utilized visuals and storytelling as a means of conveying and celebrating community and solidarity, yet these approaches have come into focus relatively recently in scholarship on social media. Media scholar Silvio Waisbord (2013) has observed the Western centrism of media and communication theories and has argued for the need to widen the'epistemological and conceptual horizons' of the field by studying media and communication processes in alternate settings (p. 182; see also Chakravartty, Kuo, Grubbs & McIlwain, 2018). (p. 803)

Our work follows that of Weaver and Alberto Mora (2016), who view the Trickster as a precursor of change that disrupts the normative, opening new spaces for social activism and critical consciousness. (p. 803)

What the Trickster brings to light is the instability of the relations between symbols and meanings. Trickster humor in Indigenous publics intentionally generates ambivalence, which, in online spaces,'collapses and complicates binaries,' thus calling attention to issues of power, access, and voice, as Philips and Milner (2017) have argued regarding the ambivalences of online spaces (p. 13). In this way, the Trickster enables Indigenous communities to speak truth to power. (p. 803)

In the context of social media, we might consider the'giants' of today to be an abstract assemblage of non-Indigenous/White beliefs and practices that perpetuate Indigenous oppression and that are part of and contribute to the emergent multinational social media platforms of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Wak'djunk'agafinds he can exert little control over these entities, but Wak'djunk'aga mightfind satisfaction in the use of these mammoth platforms for the spread of humor. But these giants are similar to Tricksters in their own right as they possess no moral or social values on their own and are constrained to follow impulses (or in this case are ruled by algorithms) over which they ultimately exercise little control. (p. 804)

In the Ho-Chunk/Winnebago tradition Tricksters are at the mercy of their passions and appetites, yet through their actions all values come into being. They are mutable and capable of conveying messages that disrupt, but over time they also have become less and less capable of embracing their culpability and have therefore become more and more foolish. Expecting today's social media platforms to serve emancipatory purposes simply because they can, or because they were ostensibly created to do so, is also foolish. They disappoint, further demonstrating the unstable, chaotic, and uncontrollable nature of the Trickster spirit. (p. 804)

The Trickster is constrained as the giants' frameworks and beliefs are reinforced through content moderation and design and from policies to algorithms. (p. 804)

Conclusion (p. 805)

Indigenous publics on social media - Tricksters - enact a form of digital survivance and, we believe, thus have the potential to change'the giants,' including those contemporary post-colonial assemblages that are not life-affirming or nature-protecting. (p. 805)