Domain Name

How the shorthand term “ndn” signals new ways of conceptualizing Indigeneity

When he came to the supposed new world, Columbus supposed he saw Indians. Some 500 years later, in the supposed new world of the internet, many Indians now see themselves as ndns. Though its meaning may at first have been unclear, “ndn” is now widely understood online to mean Indian. But how does anyone know if they’ve ever actually heard ndn? The word is hard to say aloud in a way that marks its divergence from Indian. I sometimes jokingly exaggerate the undertones of French pronunciation in the nasalization of n-dee-n (or Indienne). Otherwise, I am content to say “Indian” and hope that those I speak to, those in the know, can hear what I’m really saying: ndn.

Ndn is a subtraction made substantive, marking how terms made to describe Indigenous peoples are always lacking — how we are made to lack and always feel lacking

This difficulty in articulation indicates how well-suited ndns are to the internet. Ndn is a subtraction made substantive, marking how terms made to describe Indigenous peoples are always lacking — indeed how we are made to lack and always feel lacking. But in the word’s notes of subversion and irreverence, as well as its widespread use in forming digital collectives and connections, ndn also signals the ways in which ndns build worlds even as ours are invaded and denigrated. This remains true in the ways ndns emerged on the internet and continue to use internet spaces for cultural expression, consciousness-raising and political organization. In my time on the ndn internet, the term has come to signify not just a clever transfiguration but also a digital model for how ndns might form new kinds of relationships at the outer limits of colonial categories.

In 1491, the millions of peoples on the continents now called the Americas had many different names for themselves and each other. None of those words were “Indian.” Indians — though supposed to be all dead or dying by many — somehow continue to be both not real and still living. The word ndn is only one of our latest adaptive transformations in the genocidal landscape of the settler colony. This adaptation is not just a revision of the category Indian, but a declaration against all the categories of containment we have been subjected to through the names imposed on us.

By the time I was born and being classified by various state institutions, the term Native American had taken root. Tellingly, most Native people call themselves just that, Native, without the American. It is the form most palatable to liberal conceptions of minorities and how they should identify themselves, and as such Native American remains the most commonly accepted phrase for public and institutional discourse in the United States. In Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean, the words and terminologies for Indigenous peoples vary, shaped by related but distinct political, geographic, and cultural differences. The slurs directed at Indigenous peoples or used for sporting team names also vary according to national boundaries and race relations.

Despite the continuing anxiety about what we should call ourselves and what others should call us, the word Indian persists both as inter-community self-reference and as bureaucratic identifier. To this day the federal agency responsible for managing Indian lands held in trust by the government is called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and it is the Indian Health Services that runs medical facilities on the rez. The ways in which we call ourselves Indians and the way it is said to us by the government both emphasize the colonial condition. Indian, because it is known to be borne of Columbus’s error, marks the originating colonial encounter and the continuing misrecognition of the colonial gaze. Ndn takes this misnomer and further marks its illegitimacy by stripping it of vowels and diminishing its ability to signify without our own input meaning.

Ndn was born on the internet. Like multiplying fungal fruits, new language forms sprout from disturbances and cross-fertilizations. I can’t pinpoint when or where ndn began, but my feeling is it popped up in various patches simultaneously. Once a large number of Native people got on the internet, we began to build ways of connecting and alerting ourselves to our own mass. Again and again, #ndn emerged as the node we extended into a solidifying network. By the mid-2000s, Ndn Country had arrived.

Some people insist on NDN, which I like for its obstinate appearance, a blockade on the supposedly transparent meaning of names. But my aesthetic preference is for unassuming ndn. One appeal is the term’s elusiveness, manifest also in its difficulty to actually say out loud. In all lower-case, ndn mimics a domain name like .com, but for the ndn net. It suggests the existence of a whole inner internet marked .ndn. As a hashtag, #ndn has been forming an archive of Indigenous people’s missives and creating portals to click through to each other. It provides a sense of multitudinous widespread groups of ndn people, much more in excess of what a word like Indian attempts to contain. Each #ndn is like a little land claim, staking out as Indigenous a much different kind of space than is usually associated with Indigenous territories. In cyber space our claims to collective presence across many tribal and national affiliations may be bound by the constraints of code and tied to physical IP addresses, but an online network also allows people from disparate territories to hold and shape a new kind of digitally-grounded, diffuse territory together.

To understand what ndn country is, and the possibilities for Indigenous futures it engenders, we need to trace the history of Indigeneity and the internet. Even before the advent of the world wide web, the labor of Indigenous women made possible the mass production of semiconductors used in early electronic computing devices, as digital media scholar Lisa Nakamura has written about in her work on racialized tech labor. In 1964, the Fairchild corporation opened a plant for the manufacturing of integrated circuits in Shiprock, New Mexico on the Navajo reservation. Navajo women were the vast majority of people hired because of the supposedly translatable skills of Navajo weaving to the fine detailed work of building circuits, though the less romantic desire for cheap labor most certainly animated the corporation’s decision. After ten years, the Shiprock operations shut down and the Fairchild corporation decided to gain even more of a profit exploiting workers in Asia. While tired conceptions of Indigenous life in America continue to assume a divide between the traditional world and the modern, Navajo women’s experience with the Fairchild corporation demonstrates a much more entangled view. This early moment in internet history also illustrates the often unseen material basis from which online communities we are familiar with today emerge.

Ndn takes the misnomer borne of the colonial gaze and further marks its illegitimacy by stripping it of vowels and diminishing its ability to signify without our own input meaning

When the internet did come into the mainstream, internet connectivity was disproportionately unavailable or difficult to access on Indian reservations. Many Native peoples continue to face material barriers to internet access in the United States and the Americas more broadly. This means the world I’ve outlined as ndn country includes only a certain subset of Indigenous peoples globally. There have been some efforts to bring online spaces and the infrastructure they require to reservations and other under-resourced Native communities. Launched in 1996, CyberPowWow was an early site of online Indigenous collectivity for Native artists, and users also created physical “Gathering Sites” in different cities and towns where ndns without their own computers could meet others with computers and get online. In 2017, there are pervasive assumptions that everyone is “plugged in.” However if we want ndn country to continue to be a site of political and cultural collaboration and resistance, we should continue and extend the work of groups like CyberPowWow in creating infrastructure and access points that allow those in under-resourced communities in Indian Country to get online and join networks.

Since the mid-oughts, ndn presence online has exploded, and digital platforms have increased while, in a certain sense, narrowing: Instead of occurring in multiple connected chat rooms hosted on one niche website, most internet conversations today take place on a handful of well-known mainstream platforms. On CyberPowWow and its offspring, AbTec (short for Aboriginal Technology, incorporating and chopping up the Canadian term “Aboriginal”), ndns discussed ndn issues with other ndns. On the social media platforms popular today, our conversations occur in a more public sphere, which can lead to un-ending call-outs of cultural appropriation but also mass mobilization of support for Indigenous movements. On these more mainstream platforms, where a term like ndn is more widely used, it seems a way not only to represent ourselves to each other but to make a statement about ourselves to others.

I recently reached out on Twitter, by far the space where I most interact with other ndn people outside my family, to see what recollections people had of when they first encountered “ndn.” Ndn first appeared for one friend on chat boards and forums that were admined and frequented by Natives. Another person remembers seeing it used as a URL abbreviation for a law firm website. For many, ndn would emerge on Tumblr. Almost everyone noted how ndn, perhaps because of its opaque pronunciation and meaning, appeared at first as a kind of winking in-joke and declaration of post-modern presence and re-appropriation. In a world determined by genocide and now overdetermined by the dominant narrative of Indigenous disappearance, to find new ways to appear and proliferate is endlessly important to Native peoples.

I came to Tumblr a little late, in 2011, convinced to join in part because of the promise of being connected to other similarly alienated, similarly queer Indigenous people. The term ndn seemed to have been around for awhile already, and coming across the term, and the network of ndns it both described and manifested, gave me a sense of pleasure through expansive intimacy. Tumblr is also where I connected with people who were interested in what we were in earnest starting to call Indigenous Futurism. Greatly indebted to the Afrofuturists and their inspired ilk, Indigenous Futurism was a broad label for music, visual art, fiction, fashion, and weird internet posts with sci-fi aesthetics that disrupted the colonial association of ndns with static past-oriented tradition. My Tumblr URL was the-red-planet, which I liked as a triple entendre on Mars, ndns, and communism. The red planet was also a digital spatialization of a utopic Indigenous Futurist vision. If I couldn’t actually go with all the ndns to Mars, we could type certain smaller worlds into being on the internet-verse. Writing on Indigenous Futurism in 2015, I described the “space ndn” as the central figure in my futurist imaginary as someone who complicates notions of where Indigenous people belong. The space ndn might leave the grounded space of ancestral territory, but the practices borne of those places do not die, they adapt, both transforming and being transformed by the demands of interstellar travel. This concept of an indigeneity in flux was something I was already experiencing.

If by 2011, ndn signalled for me my inauguration into an online community, the next year would make clear the power of online organizing to coordinate and influence group actions offline. It began in December 2012 with the proliferation of another three-letter clarion call, #INM, or Idle No More, a declaration of renewed fervor in a long history of Indigenous resistance. The hashtag at first marked an internet teach-in about the Canadian bill C-45, an omnibus budget bill put forth by the Conservation administration of Stephen Harper that removed environmental protection measurements on almost all Canadian waterways and opened up tribal lands to leasing. Striking down this bill remained the central tenet of INM, but the larger movement also demanded a total undoing and reworking of relationships formed under illegitimate domination by foreign powers.

The immense role of digital platforms in structuring and supporting this political action is reflected in the 2014 anthology The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future and the Idle No More Movement. A majority of the pieces were first published online either on blogs, in magazines or in Facebook groups, and their titles incorporate the hashtags from which the movement was defined. Many, such as Leanne Simpson’s Fish Broth and Fasting, were viral instant classics of the movement’s ethos. More than just a public forum for discussing the struggle, the internet was also a crucial organizing tool for orchestrating the large flash mob round dances that began to garner the movement more public attention, and disseminating information about blockades of the trans-Canada highway and points along the railways. The widespread use of live streams at blockades and public protests has continued with the digitally-uploaded real-time coverage of the protest camps at Standing Rock. Both the on-the-ground and online activities around Idle No More and Standing Rock demonstrated Indigenous disruptions of public spaces that, far from democratic, were structured around Indigenous displacement and death, histories forced to the surface of North America’s consciousness by the insistence of Indigenous peoples. These moments in struggle are when we work towards a commons that is not premised on continuing colonial occupation.

Idle No More, the struggle at Standing Rock, and the interplay between these places and the internet illuminate for me the ways in which Ndn Country changes our conception of Indian Country. Indigenous struggles against colonial governance and resource extraction all come back to a question of land. But what do “land” and “territory” mean in the context of the internet? There is both the land and resources from the land that make our software, hardware and networks possible, most of which is stolen from Indigenous peoples, and also the territories of the internet built from what CyberPowWow users called “unnatural resources” such as pixels, data, computing power, bandwidth. Though even online territories can carry all the Western notions of territorial rule or sovereignty, ndn territory must necessarily be theorized and enacted in radically different ways. Ndn territory is not about private ownership but building a decolonial commons. One example of this might be the @IndigenousXca twitter account, which is run by a different Indigenous host every week and has more than 10,000 followers. The account does not have a sovereign, but a series of facilitators who allow it to become a high-traffic node for ndn conversation.

The deep space of Indigenous futurism shares some features with the digital ndn’s cyberspace. Both are expansive territories with certain edges and contours but resistant to being overlaid with the forms of the bordered world

The futurist modes of thinking that a dis-identity like ndn allow can stretch our considerations of how we formulate politics “on the ground.” José Esteban Muñoz used disidentification as a concept to illustrate the ways people of color maneuver the restricted models of subjectivity imposed by dominant straight white society. As a disidentification with Indian, ndn is a marker of a flexible, irreverent relationship to the discourses ndn people must move through to make claims for resources and land. It can also shape our engagements on the cacophonous space of the internet, where many different kinds of people are making claims to their right of presence. The pedagogical aspect of online communities in this context can’t be understated. From Tumblr to Twitter, I continue to learn so much about historical relationships between Indigenous peoples and descendants of previously-enslaved Black peoples. There are also posts and threads akin to scholarly-level output describing Black Indian experience (shout out to @chipotalosa for tireless work on this front). These are forms and objects of knowledge production that are routinely dismissed in universities but proliferate in different corners of Ndn Country as it exists within and alongside other online territories. On the internet it seemed it was possible to connect in ways that had been outlawed by the settler plantation. Not on a huge scale, but in moments and flashes, through the signals people send by manipulating media to show appreciation, resonances, and recognition, if not always understanding.

The use of ndn also lends itself to a transnational conception of settler colonialism and the people it dispossess, similar to the way Indigenous has become a global category for political organizing against land dispossession and genocide in its ethnic, cultural, linguistic and other forms. Earlier I mentioned how the defining words and categories used by governments and Native peoples differ considerably depending on which foreign settler government has dictated the terms of engagement. I’ve seen ndn used, however, by people of various national origins. Part of its irreverent tone is tied to the ease with which it can be picked up and used without reference to one nation, whether a colonial one, or a misidentified origin as in the case of the India in Indian.

While I do not want to flatten a term so thin it loses all shape, one of the useful things about ndn is its capaciousness. There is a lot of rightful mistrust among ndns about those who claim Indigenous heritage for personal gain or recognition. There are also a lot of overdetermined narratives in reaction to fears about what constitutes authentic Indigeneity. Claiming to be ndn rather than Native American or something similar is for me a disavowal of authenticity as something possible or worthy. All Indians are simulacra, as argued by Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor, borrowing from Jean Baudrillard to describe how we are seen as copies of some original Indian, a figure who does not exist. The ndn internet makes obvious the simulation, instead of hardening ideas of a transparent self marked by a legible history.

I move through and think of the internet as a place of dynamic tensions between territories of defined subjects and unenclosed formations of distributed selfhood. The space ndn of Indigenous futurism is a figure I’ve written about because they insist on a certain kind of Indigeneity that is also in flux far away from traditional territory and traditional forms of thinking about territories. I am prone to this kind of thinking because I am someone who lives thousands of miles away from my ancestral territory. This imagining of what deep space means to the space ndn shares some features with the cyberspace of the digital ndn. Both are expansive territories, sites of collective belonging with certain edges and contours but resistant to being overlaid with the forms of the bordered world.

The nation has become one such form. While many Native peoples make a claim for nationhood based on pre-contact forms of governance, and while I respect these histories, the nation as it is enacted now for Indigenous people is little more than a colonial tool of co-option. Thus I consider the nation, like the category Indian, as something given to some of us without our consent, and that we can choose to transform or deconstruct for our own decolonial purposes. “Ndn” helps me conceive of ways of talking about Indigeneity and decolonization that are not necessarily expressed through desire for a resurgence of nationhood because “ndn” speaks to how we can still claim space without requiring exclusive forms of citizenship.

I am used to disagreeing with other ndns, feeling alienated from Indigeneity (especially the associated forms of spirituality), and questioning the validity of my Navajo membership despite family relationships and the bureaucratic stamp of a Certificate of Indian Blood. Being an ndn on the internet has thrown into high relief these disagreements and discomforts with a lot of common expressions of Indigeneity. Some days I plug in to ndn country only to find myself scrolling in muted anger and disappointment. However, being an ndn on the internet has also made it possible in many ways for me to keep living as an ndn. I am only ndn because I am in relation with other ndns. In the amorphous territory of Ndn Country, I find many ways to be ndn, different ways to have relationships to territory, and most importantly, tools for creating ways to live together outside colonial enclosures and categories.

Lou Cornum was born and raised in Arizona. They now live in Brooklyn and study Black and Indigenous science fiction at the CUNY Graduate Center. They can be found in the park looking for mushrooms or on twitter @spacendn.