Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

What do potlatches, bagpipes and indigenous languages hold in common – the challenge of uniformity and loss of cultural identity

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and the arts by Timothy Platt on August 7, 2016

A potlatch is a ceremonially meaningful event of a type traditionally practiced by peoples native to the Pacific Northwest of what is now the United States, and Western Canada. And the potlatch represents a time honored tradition that is observed by a wide range of separate and distinct tribes that span that large region.

If you accept the Wikipedia definition of this term as offered in the above link, and certainly as that article is written at the time of this posting, a potlatch is primarily a gathering organized for the purpose of exchanging gifts, but that is in fact way too superficial a description of what these events actually represent, and of the purposes that they serve. It is true that gift giving and gift exchange are prominently important to the potlatch and it is true that gifts given and exchanged in them can be extravagant. But the most important of these gifts have traditionally been ones of long-term historical and cultural significance for the people giving and receiving them and for their tribes. Potlatches were carried out at times of social and even societal importance. For families this might mean marriages and the alliance of families as they join together through them, or at times of funerals to note two watershed event possibilities here. Potlatches have also been carried out at times of political alliance and to honor larger more widely involving societal events too. The potlatch of tradition was a significant part of the glue that bound tribal societies together.

The potlatch came to be seen by the national government of Canada, as representing a threat to national unity and a challenge to national authority, as specifically representing and reinforcing native tribal culture and identity. So the potlatch as such was declared illegal under the Indian Act of 1884. And this legally mandated and enforced ban persisted for generations, until Canada’s national leaders and their government relented and officially allowed them to take place again, in 1951.

There was as much a religious intolerance motive to the Indian Act and its banning of potlatches as anything, with a goal of Christianizing native populations that would no longer be allowed to practice their more traditional ceremonial and socially binding practices. Yes, Native Americans did occasionally hold small potlatches in secret during the years of the ban – but if they were caught, government response was harsh. And much of this tradition died off as the pre-ban communities and their members who had traditionally held these events grew old and died off. Much had to be rediscovered as the potlatch became legal and more public again.

Bagpipes are a traditional musical instrument that are widely associated with Scotland and the Scottish Highlands, though variations on this musical instrument form can be found in cultures throughout large parts of Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus, around the Persian Gulf, Northern Africa, and even in North America. I write of bagpipes in this posting and its context, with Scotland and Scottish culture and tradition in mind, where these musical instruments have traditionally played a very significant role. Bagpipes were played at weddings and funerals and other social events. Bagpipers performed as a part of, and accompaniment to a wide range of civic events. And bagpipes were played when leading troops of soldiers into combat with their tunes and their cadences serving to help organize and coordinate their advances.

Traditional Great Highland bagpipes have played a role in Scottish culture and its expression and in all spheres, and they have at least occasionally came to be seen as a source of challenging difference by the British Empire, its rulers and its national government. They have even at least briefly been banned twice in Scotland: once in 1560 as a part of the Protestant Reformation and again in 1746 after the Battle of Culloden. Both bans were motivated by conflict over what was and was not considered acceptable as religious belief and practice, and both went much farther than simply banning a type of musical instrument. But both did ban the playing and even the ownership of bagpipes for what turned out to be significant numbers of years. And to highlight one detail of the second of these bans here, after the Battle of Culloden bagpipes were outlawed as instruments of war.

What indigenous languages are, is relatively self-evident; in this context they are often minority languages, but more importantly they are the languages of peoples who have come to find themselves living under systems of to-them foreign government and culture, where other languages of outside origin have come to dominate. And the legal systems that these governments and cultures mandate that I write of here, have at times been accepting of diversity and of indigenous peoples maintaining their languages and their cultural identities. But all too often, dominant societies have sought to suppress this diversity by banning use of alternative, native languages. Australians of primarily British origin did this as a systematic practice in dealing with aboriginal peoples there, and Americans did this in the United States, and certainly in Western states there, taking native children and relocating them into schools away from their homes where they could be “civilized” and weaned away from their indigenous languages and customs as a central part of that effort. This is not a part of history that anyone can or should feel proud about but it happened.

What do potlatches, bagpipes and indigenous languages hold in common? They are all parts of indigenous cultures and they are all parts of how those cultures are expressed by the people who have traditionally lived them. And they have all been outlawed, and at least for periods of time as a means of suppressing the cultures and the identities of the peoples who hold them and value them. And they have all faced this censure through conscious and even strategically planned, concerted action. Think of this as the enactment of “hard bans”.

And that brings me to this posting and to this blog with its business and technology focus, and to the potential that technology in general and information technology in particular can create for instituting what might be called “soft bans.” That risk can be expected to become a realized outcome when this technology is widely developed and implemented in ways that turn out to have been ill-considered from efforts to create simplest, leanest possible implementations with only majority-used and majority-needed options included and available, and to all. Information technology and its globally reaching development, hold real potential for supporting diversity and for preserving cultural and linguistic differences as living opportunities. But that possible outcome should never be taken for granted.

• This technology can bring together widely spread communities in ways that help them to preserve their differences and their unique identities as living day-to-day realities.
• And these same technological capabilities also, and just as readily create and hold real potential to pressure minority peoples and societies to homogeneously conform to a more uniformly simplistic global norm.

The global internet offers at least potential support for both paths and often at the same time.

Organizations such as the Native American Languages Net and the more globally reaching Endangered Languages Project make use of the internet and of its capacity to bring perhaps widely scattered peoples together to preserve their languages, and the cultures and histories that they express. But at the same time, this same internet has accelerated an already occurring process of global homogenization and for everything from what is currently active as a fad, to what languages people use in their overall day-to-day lives. And this brings me to two crucial questions that I would raise in this posting, and that in fact constitute the reason why I am offering it here:

• What can and should we do, as members of our own communities and as members of the larger global human community to both capture the value of inclusiveness and connectivity that the internet brings, and still retain our meaningful cultural differences and identities?
• How can we best come together and communicate and work and live together in spite of our diversity and our differences, yet still remain distinctly who we are, and for all of the very real and important positives of both sides to this dual challenge?

I see the challenge of our collectively coming to just and meaningful answers to these questions as constituting one of the key challenges that we face in this 21st century, and globally. And much of the conflict that we see raging around us now and globally, comes from friction between the pressures to maintain separate identities, and the pressures of open connectedness – where that can become pressure towards more individualized cultural identity-denying homogenization.

I offer this as an installment to Social Networking and the Arts as its Posting 8. And see that directory for at least some related material. I also offer this in my Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time, directory (see its Page 1 and Page 2 for related material too.)

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