Written by Alan Zhang, GMTaC Lab Research Affiliate & Graduate Student, MIT Sloan School of Management
The Blackfeet nation counts among the ten largest Native American tribes in the United States. According to oral tradition, Blackfeet warriors have roamed the Great Plains for more than 10,000 years. However, following the Treaty of 1855, and successive land claims by the federal government, Blackfeet people have repeatedly had their lands stolen from them. Yet they are one of a handful of tribes in the lower 48 states that remain on their traditional lands, though their territory is now much smaller. The headquarters of the Blackfeet agency moved permanently in 1895 to the town of Browning, Montana. 2 The stark plains of the reservation lay incongruously at the eastern foot of Glacier National Park. These park lands were taken away from the Blackfeet people, and more than 2.9 million people now pass through them annually. 3 The reservation is home to about 7,000 of the approximately 15,560 enrolled tribal members, and others live scattered across the country. 4
Annual ceremonies during the North American Indian Days each July are, for many families, the only occasion to connect, onsite and in person. Technologies—mobile phones, internet, social media—enable more regular correspondences, but sometimes at considerable cost. When Professor Lisa Parks and I arrived in Browning in late June 2019, the opening ceremony for the summer—called the Sun Dance—was under way. While we caught a glimpse of this sacred gathering from afar, we came in earnest to understand local use of information technologies. Working with staff members from Blackfeet Community College, we organized community discussions and listened to residents of the area discuss the impact internet services and social media have had on their lives. Participants spoke in passionate and plaintive tones, unveiling a double-edged sword.
Glacier National Park (on left) and gathering for Sundance ceremony (on right)
More than a quarter of households in Browning live below the poverty line. There are few buildings in town. On our drive to Blackfeet Community College, we saw a motel, pawn shop, and liquor store. There were a few fast-food shacks marked by hand-painted signs, a closed public library, and a still-active but boarded up grade school. Glacier Peaks Casino stood out as the largest and most modern building in town, beyond the College. And the Town Pump, an all-purpose gas station, convenience store, food court, and ATM haven adjacent to the College, seemed one of the most frequented sites in town. While entertainment facilities are scarce in this rural town of roughly a thousand people, mobile phones are not, despite the high cost of mobile phone service and internet coverage. When asked who had a smartphone, all hands in our sessions were raised. The penetration by Facebook and YouTube was similarly sweeping, reaching youth and elders. This showing owed in part to federal policies designed to support tribal infrastructure and rural broadband services. Joining us in discussion was a staff member of Senator Jon Tester, who continues to be a strong advocate for such services. 5 “Internet should be an essential service and a basic right”, we heard people repeat. Whenever someone hailed social media in that way–as a utility necessary for life on the reservation—that same person would then, almost reflexively, express deep concern, kicking off conversations with heart-wrenching reminiscences.
Water tower overlooking Browning (on left) and houses in Browning (on right)
A cheery young woman sporting a windbreaker and denim shorts, sitting off by herself in the discussion circle, listened attentively as elders took the floor. After more than half an hour of parents sharing tips on protecting youth online, Lisa asked the woman whether she had thoughts about the impact of social media on the community. The response was immediate, and heavy. “My best friend died a few months ago. She was bullied on Facebook.” This kicked off rounds of stories, and people expressing similar sentiments of fear toward the “monsters on social media,” as one grandmother put it. A father admitted that he had dropped out of high school because he “was bullied and it got out of hand.” He said, “I was fighting all the time. There are monsters out there that will drain you until you ain’t a good person no more”. A high school teacher corroborated: “it [social media] is a disaster”, “I’ve seen very shocking things. The cruelty is much worse this year than it has ever been.” He indicated that at least 3 times per hour his class is disrupted by social media use. High school students complain about fake news, fake accounts, nasty videos, and cruel messages. Parents and grandparents told stories of domestic abuse manifesting through Facebook posts, sex traffickers baiting children during livestream gaming, and daughters shut off in their rooms, downtrodden by low counts of likes on Facebook or Instagram. These stories are certainly not new or unique to Browning, but for a rural community also facing grave challenges caused by drugs and poverty, where broken families and alcohol abuse are common, social media has intensified resentments and dissociations. “Many of us are addicted. It is a drug. Literally,” a participant called out, clutching his phone. “It brought out the worst of me”, said the young woman whose friend was bullied to death.
A missing child ad in a local fabric store
Within families and local circles, social media may have deepened social challenges in Browning, but we heard hope in testimonials too. Community lines have been extended beyond the physical confines of the Blackfeet territories. That same young woman was among the first to shift the mood. Extolling the merits of social media, she explained that, in a town as remote as Browning, it was only through YouTube that she was able to pursue music. She learned to play the Tuba watching tutorials, and has been invited to tour Europe to perform. A gentleman, also sitting at a distance from others in the circle, agreed that “it [social media] is the only way to connect with the outside world, the only way I can find a community of people like me.” As a gay man and someone who loves to write poetry, he found through Facebook: Native gay support groups and poetry slams and “friends I will never meet [in person]”. Social media also brought outside recognition to the Heart Butte Warriors, the local high school basketball team that went undefeated; and it connected another attendee more deeply with Native traditions. He learned ceremonial songs and dances from other tribes in Utah and Washington, enriching his spiritual potential. A mother in our circle admitted to employing the screen as a babysitter to occupy her son so she could pick up a second job: “At least I will know where he is if he is online playing a game.” Another mother, a makeup artist, learned techniques from YouTube, and now, a contributor herself, has a source of income from makeup requests for proms, graduations, and weddings. It soon became clear that benefits extend beyond individual gain. The community maintains a Browning Online Yard Sale page on Facebook where residents not only post their wares to sell, but also to share warnings and notices, such as about missing people, stolen property, untrustworthy figures, and local scandals.
Participants in discussion at Blackfeet Community College
More than once, participants spoke fondly of the public library as a place where children could go for cultural activities and adults for internet access to fill out financial forms and job applications. Its hours have been rolled back recently, and is now closed weekday evenings and on weekends completely. An explanation we heard was that the local drug trade was possibly being coordinated via library computers. Browning public high school also adopted policies restricting hours of mobile and social media use, concerned less about distraction than the torment. Several participants suggested the need for more community discussion and workshops about severe cyberbullying and digital literacy.
Starr School – Browning, MT
Social media remains a fraught issue in the Blackfeet community, but, an issue members of the community seemed eager to engage in and committed to addressing. While many acknowledge the rifts and problems caused by use of social media, they recognize too its necessity for expanding tribal community, virtually, within and beyond Blackfeet territories. Members of our lab will return to Browning throughout the summer and in the coming year. In partnership with students and staff at Blackfeet Community College, we will conduct further interviews and conversation circles to explore the potential for network sovereignty in the Blackfeet Nation.6 The lab also hopes to work with Blackfeet Community College to seek funding for further IT-related projects that support digital empowerment, education, and employment in the Blackfeet community.
Three Rivers telecom station
Our appreciation for the Browning Community cannot be overstated. We are grateful to the administrators and staff at Blackfeet Community College for hosting these discussions, and to all the participants for taking the time and sharing their experiences. A special thank you to Blackfeet artist, Valentina LaPier, who attended both sessions, for agreeing to render the spirit of our conversations in painting.
Lisa Parks and Alan Zhang at Blackfeet Community College, Browning, MT (on left); Artist, Valentina LaPier (on right)
Author’s Note: Thanks to BCC staff, Victoria Augare, Sarah DeRosier, and Tara Hite, and students, Brenda Arrowtop and Jenna Powell for their feedback, insights, and input.
2 LaPier, R. R. (2017). Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers, and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press. Page 16.
6 For further discussion of the concept of “network sovereignty,” see Duarte, M. E. (2017). Network sovereignty: Building the Internet across Indian country. Seattle: University of Washington Press.