Marisa Elena Duarte
Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet across Indian Country
University of Washington Press, 2017
Reviewed by Kaila T. Schedeen
As a child of the internet era who grew up interacting with my peers through early social media platforms such as Myspace, the internet often seemed like a passé and invisible network of communication that mostly consisted of people sharing painfully dramatic song lyrics and acne-laden bathroom selfies. I made a Facebook profile by my sophomore year of high school (embarrassingly late for my age group) and had all but abandoned it for its “cooler” Cousin Instagram by the end of college. The transitions between these platforms happened almost imperceptibly in my life and reflected broader cultural understandings of digital technologies as an ephemeral field of ever-shifting access points, each slightly more advanced than the next. Marisa Elena Duarte’s book Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet Across Internet Country does the difficult and important work of demarcating the outlines of these invisible networks, making their constructed and often exclusionary boundaries transparent in ways that are impossible to un-see. Duarte explores how Indigenous communities use information and communication technologies—otherwise known as ICTs—to practice their long-standing claims for sovereignty within the settler colonial realities of the United States.
Network Sovereignty mostly centers on Native communities in the Southwestern United States as case studies of how Indigenous peoples globally are appropriating ICTs for mobilization on various scales. The book is split into eight chapters, each building upon the last in progressively broad-reaching ways. The most meaningful section of the book comes in Duarte’s preface, where she orients readers to place and story through her personal introduction in Yoeme, the language of her Yaqui people. Here she makes the stakes of her research and one of its target audiences clear by asking readers, “What might our experiences as Indigenous peoples teach us about the ways we conceptualize this ineffable, somewhat immeasurable phenomenon we pursue, which we are calling ‘technology’?” Duarte thus applies decolonizing methodologies to claim that Indigenous communities have always been at the center of technological developments, and that their histories are necessarily intertwined with today’s digital systems of organizing information. A prime example of this is seen in Chapter One, whichfocuses on the #IdleNoMore movement in order to deconstruct the historically antithetical relationship that Indigenous peoples supposedly have to technology and to promote Indigenous frameworks of information flow. Chapter Two delves further into Indigenous relationships to ICTs, using personal narrative to outline how Duarte arrived at her decolonizing method. In Chapter Three Duarte expands this method through examples like the Tohono O’Odham Nation and the Hopi Tribal Reservation to explain the overlap between technology and sovereignty, before turning to the infrastructure of broadband internet and the various tribal bodies that have utilized it for the practice of cultural sovereignty in Chapter Four.
In Chapter Five, Duarte outlines the material complexities of building such networks while still attending to community needs in tribal settings. Though brief, this section is a powerful example of Duarte’s skills in weaving together a macro-level argument from a research methodology that values the varied complexity of Indigenous experiences. Chapter Six returns to the interwoven histories of colonization and ICTS outlined in Duarte’s introduction to show how tribal governments exercise sovereign rights over broadband internet infrastructure to expand the self-governance of Indigenous peoples. In Chapter Seven, Duarte cites decolonizing methodologies from her interdisciplinary nexus to highlight how particular technological systems affirm colonial power in sovereign Indigenous spaces. Attending to these Indigenous understandings of information allows her to explore how “Native and Indigenous peoples leverage information and technology to subvert the legacies and processes of colonization as it manifests over time across communities in many forms.” As Duarte reminds readers in the Conclusion, by utilizing social media and other digital technologies to connect across space and time, Indigenous peoples (particularly youth) directly subvert colonial legacies and engage in self-determination practices that highlight sovereign rights.
The power of Duarte’s text lies in its integration of long-standing critical conversations about sovereignty and self-determination with the newer (and more ambiguous) fields of internet technologies and social media. Network Sovereignty is an interdisciplinary text that includes diverse citations from scholars in wide-ranging disciplines such as anthropology, critical indigenous studies, literature, philosophy, and sociology. These include Taiaike Alfred, Manuel Castells, Vine Deloria Jr., Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour, and Leslie Marmon Silk, among others. Duarte’s overarching Indigenous-centered methodology generates new critical meaning across these interdisciplinary frameworks. In particular, Duarte weaves together these disparate academic conversations with her first-hand experiences in the communities she writes about. She gives just as much credence to ephemeral conversations had around tables in Indian country as she does to the written word, thereby highlighting the power of oral language in ways that academia often ignores. The effect is an exceptional form of scholarship that does the work of story-telling that honors long-standing Indigenous traditions, while still commanding an undeniable presence within an academe that still seeks to deny it.
Network Sovereignty focuses on social media as a network-building platform for Indigenous sovereignty, which attends to the complex personal and communal relationships created across the internet; however, one element of her study that goes mostly unmentioned is the question of the visual. Her book prompts the question, how are images as a particular form of information shared across Indian Country? Additionally, how do social media interfaces not only reflect human-to-human interactions, but also in turn affect the ways we relate to others in the physical world? While Duarte at times references the affective experiences of technology in Indigenous lives, more attention could be paid to the visual nature of social media and its impacts on human and nonhuman relationships in the visual realm. Throughout the book, however, Duarte makes a compelling case for digital technologies as essential—and pre-existing—tools for practicing Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in settler colonial societies around the globe. Her arguments are groundbreaking and necessary beyond the author’s own field of Information Sciences.
Network Sovereignty will undoubtedly add to ongoing conversations on critical indigenous studies, media studies, sovereignty, network theory, and technology. Duarte’s clear and direct form of writing make the book widely accessible for non-academic audiences, though some of the more technical language in the chapters may cause those unfamiliar with ICTs to stumble. Network Sovereignty would be well-placed in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms alike and deserves a place in the ongoing conversations of Indigenous sovereign practices worldwide.