January 21, 2015

Indigenous Engagement with Digital and Electronic Media: InDigital Conference at Vanderbilt University

Update Nov. 2016: Call for papers now open for InDigital Latin America II at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, March 16-18, 2017

A cartoon by Gary Larson from 1984 shows natives in grass skirts rushing to hide TV, VCR and telephone before the anthropologists arrive. As these devices have become smaller, cheaper, and more widely available, the penetration of electronic media into indigenous cultures has only grown.

Native peoples of the Amazon and elsewhere in Latin America have become engaged consumers of electronic media, while also making use of video cameras, cell phones and laptops to create and transmit their own artistic and cultural productions and political views. The results can be complex and surprising, ranging from videos about traditional ceremonies to catchy electronic music and even a native-language cover of the Beatles. Among the works made by Kayapó film makers I trained as part of an indigenous media project at the Goeldi Museum in Brazil are films documenting tug-of-war at an interethnic sports competition; a professional soccer game in Rio de Janeiro; the “Miss Kayapó” beauty contest at a local fairground; and a concert by the indigenous pop star Bepdjyre, who composes his own lyrics in Kayapó but sets them to popular Brazilian dance rhythms.

Bepdjyre's stage show includes Kayapó girls showing off sensual dance moves gleaned from watching TV and DVDs.

This conference, held March 25-28, 2015, sponsored by Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee University, brought together anthropologists, media scholars and indigenous filmmakers to reflect on the appropriations and interpretations of digital media by indigenous peoples, and to discuss the transformations this use of technology is bringing about.

The "Miss Kayapó" beauty contest captured by film maker Tatajere.

Faye Ginsberg of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University gave the keynote address at the event. Kayapó film makers Bepunu, Krakrax and Kiameiti showed works produced on their own village-based laptop editing suites as part of the Goeldi Museum media project. Richard Pace of Middle Tennessee University presented results of a study financed by the National Science Foundation on the uses and impacts of satellite TV, DVD players and cell phones in a Kayapó village. 

An edited volume including many of the works presented at the conference is currently in preparation at Vanderbilt University Press.

A call for papers is now open for InDigital II to be held at Vanderbilt University, March 16-18, 2017. For more information, visit vanderbilt.edu.

Updated from the original posting by The New York Review of Books.


  1. Thanks for sharing knowledge impossible for most of us to attain. Part of me hates how global culture has penetrated into almost everything often at the expense of local culture, though I know it is the decision of the communities.

  2. I find it fascinating how indigenous people, far from assimilating, have appropriated digital technology in their own unique ways, for their own purposes. Don't forget about the Bering strait and the Polynesian Argonauts: the world has always been globalized.