During the fall of 2020, graduate students in the Ryerson University English Department’s Literatures and Modernity program worked on digital criticism projects that reflected on Indigenous literature in Canada and feminist forms of testimony. This post originally appeared on graduate student Paula Stanco’s Medium.
Jessie Loyer’s essay on the Canadian Arts website, “Indigenous TikTok is Transforming Cultural Knowledge,” brings up an exciting account of Indigenous stories and perspectives being moved to the forefront on the social media website TikTok. Loyer’s delight at this movement is noticeable in the tone of the piece and the myriad of examples used. By “otherwise marginalized TikTok creators add[ing] their own spin to memes and contribut[ing] to a new language emerging from these digital spaces,” these actions are sort of creating an ideal space, and imagining that the world looked and acted this way in reality. The creations of Indigenous TikTok-ers are moving the world one step closer to being an open and accepting place where Indigenous worldviews are acknowledged without being treated as too othered or too serious for the settler culture. The ideal vision for the real world would be one where people of different cultures and languages live side by side and coexist, and no one is excluded from opportunities based on race or class. As the essay states, art institutions do indeed have a long history of belonging to and being meant for exclusive groups, namely white, upper-class settlers. In this way, art institutions mirror colonialism in how they only make space for and prioritize the elite — the “preferred” community in the views of the people who run the art institutions. Because of the accessibility of the digital world, Indigenous creators and anyone else who would otherwise find it hard to break into the realm of art institutions are able to make a space for themselves and defy the “top-down hierarchies that have defined the success of art industries.”
The relationship between creators and audience is crucial to a creator using a social media platform to post content, and the relationship can be framed in various ways. Creators can know and confront their audience, or they can simply perform for them. Some Indigenous TikTok-ers might take on the role of providing education on native topics, while others make content for other Indigenous people; many do both, or alternate between the two methods. Making content for other Indigenous people gives Indigenous TikTok-ers “the ability to make intricate, self-referential jokes in a shared language.” The essay highlights an important shift in the way Indigenous people feel they need to represent themselves; when they move away from the need to portray themselves as “the stoic, proud, resilient Indian” in order to be heard, it makes room for more natural, lighthearted, silly behaviours to come to the forefront. “An affirmation of Indigenous life” is an important and poignant line; just by acting “normal” and not having to talk about or defend Indigenous issues (making their platform be all about this), they can be seen as regular people that are not far removed from Western or internet culture. Also, the article uses the phrase “intergenerational joy,” which I thought was really nice to see, since up until now I had mainly seen the phrase “intergenerational trauma” commonly used. To rephrase and reshape that term was refreshing and would be eye-opening for non-Indigenous people to begin to absorb when they come across Indigenous content. It seems that Indigenous TikTok users and the TikTok platform itself have been able to breathe life into Indigenous people’s culture sharing and ability to become integrated with popular culture.
The TikTok platform demands interaction, in a way that can be conceived of as reminiscent of demanding us to interact with Indigenous people, stories, and culture. This is not to say in an oppressive sense, though; it is showing us the fun, relatable, lighthearted aspects of Indigenous thought and perspectives. The essay gets a bit into the manipulation tactics of the internet and social media, and how it plays on the human brain psychologically. We typically “delight in repetition,” and TikTok uses repetition in showing Indigenous content based on what the user clicked on previously. Because of the way TikTok works, it is like the website is using natural, psychological human behaviour tricks to get Indigenous stories to the forefront of our minds, or to gain awareness of them by them being on TikTok’s front page. Here, Indigenous culture clashes with internet culture, or the mechanisms of social media websites — for example, privacy issues, and suggesting content based on our browsing history. Indigenous culture is brought into this algorithm of eliciting views, making Indigenous culture more exposed. Perhaps the algorithm takes over and disseminates and spreads Indigenous stories for more internet users to view. This phenomenon is like the opposite of the colonialist agenda of silencing Indigenous people — TikTok offers a space for Indigenous content to be seen and shared. While attempts have been made to silence Indigenous people, Indigenous people have also become used to being surveilled. This factors into the way they choose to use and engage with TikTok, by unapologetically sharing their viewpoints rather than hiding or holding back their unique perspective. The essay repeatedly mentions Indigenous joy, which brings a fresh perspective that many non-Indigenous people are not usually exposed to, having only been shown or educated on the hardships of Indigenous history. Bringing up Indigenous joy is refreshing and provides a welcome counterpoint to all the challenges Indigenous people have had to talk about and face. It is nice to laugh for a change, or to show that Indigenous people still like to have fun just like any other culture.
The construction of the essay itself is interesting in that it links to so many Indigenous TikToks. It is like one knowledge space holding and containing several other pieces of knowledge within it. This is similar to the concept mentioned in the lecture 2 video about physical objects holding knowledge, history, and stories — that physical objects which hold knowledge systems are an early form of today’s technologies. TikTok and other social media platforms are now places for Indigenous content creators to enact visual sovereignty. Another point mentioned in the lecture 2 video was the concept of the disappearing Indian, which reminded me of a documentary about the history of film that I watched in a previous class. The documentary addressed how artists’ portraits of Indian people or other people of other exotic cultures back when photographs were first being introduced to the public were more stylized than the real people actually looked; the artist added more costuming and decor, meanwhile in reality the people were dressed more casually. This gave an inaccurate or narrow framework for how the public perceived Indigenous people. In the present, with an abundance of modern technology, Indigenous people can now reach a wide audience with their trendy videos and memes that speak to an authentic Indigenous portrayal of life and culture.