Culturally Appropriate Community Building using
         Internet Tools - Issues, Risks, and Opportunities

The Issue

Some would say there has evolved a self-destructive culture of powerlessness with Native Americans rendered helpless by federal policies intended to 'care' for them.

As documented many times over, the introduction of communications technologies such as radio, TV and now the Internet have radically shifted the community learning relationships structure of Native communities, often in negative and perhaps irreversible ways.

The Questions and Opportunity

Youth can learn and assimilate new information far faster than adults,   particularly where technology is involved, as can be seen dramatically in most families who bought a computer.

In question is how best to reconcile protecting the existing cultural relationships, and worldviews, while adopting those new skills, perspectives and technology tools which will truly empower the community in this fast-changing world.

Can youth learn to focus more on how they can help preserve cultural traditions, and values, while elders focus more on how they can support their youth in learning new skills from, and knowledge of, the outside? "Young people only care about the outside now."

Can strengthening the "self-determination" learning relationships of the entire community become an explicit shared goal for both youth and adults?

How does this hinge on the self-identify growth process for youth?

How your tribe answers these questions will define your tribe in fundamental ways.

How many youth are ready to assume the responsibility for such leadership? Many youth are perhaps seeking both their spiritual and cultural centers, and real community solutions, for integrating the best of the old, and the new. Perhaps this question of readiness can be articulated and presented directly to the youth, and projects can begin working with those who step forward?

Here is an article from the August 2001 issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly,, which is wonderfully written and makes some very important points. (This article is posted here with permission from the author.)

Learning Relationships & Community Wellbeing

by Dianna Wuagneux

Djupurula's community looked like so many indigenous villages, dilapidated and
silent. It's the silent part I always find most troubling. So often, communal
enterprise breaks down, replaced by individual interests that don't really benefit
the individual or the tribe. Djupurula, a young Aboriginal man, and I met in the
Outback, some 30 miles outside Alice Springs. When he discovered that I was an anthropology
professor, he invited me to go out hunting bushtucker. Miles from anywhere, we found a bit of fruit
and a few grubs, then sat down out of the sun to snack. Aside from a stark green and white band of
ghost gum trees, the land was a deep red. I leaned back, listening to my companion's ancestral
creation stories. Djupurula's uncle had mentioned that morning how important it is that his nephews
and nieces listen to the stories. "That's the problem, you know," he said. "The young people only
care about the outside now." This, I had heard countless times before. Djupurula finished the telling.
He sat drawing circles in the sand with his digging stick. With huge eyes, he looked at me and,
whispering as though someone might hear, said, "Tell me, where did we really come from?" I was
glad to be able to tell him that although there are theories, I honestly didn't know. It's not always that

One similarity among nearly all First Peoples is a deep respect for the power of information. They
share knowledge with care. Knowing that we have evolved to live in communal groups, it comes as no
surprise that what keeps communities like Djupurula's healthy can be found in the most basic of
human pursuits: learning and relationships. The healing of damaged communities likewise depends
on the preservation of traditional relationships—storytelling, for example—and the development of new

Learning and Relationships

Learning is the biological mechanism of adaptation; we are designed for lifelong learning. If our
ancestors were unable to learn as conditions changed, they wouldn't have survived long. It helped, of
course, when they shared information vital to survival. In our earliest history, the only ways to learn
were firsthand, which could be very dangerous, or from others. Because we couldn't learn everything
in one sitting, we went back, again and again, to those who knew to further our understanding. Group
storytelling, or communal learning, benefited everyone. Even today, when people share in this way, it
reinforces a sense of obligation and builds mutual respect. Sharing valuable information creates

People love to share information; that's how they learn from each other and get to know one another.
Until recently, most tribal peoples learned from those they knew well, and were most likely to share
knowledge with others within their own group. Like the stories Djupurula learned from his uncle, these
exchanges helped new generations learn who they were and how they fit into the community. To the
young, adults were sources of wisdom. They passed on the knowledge needed to survive, not only
physically (building shelter, finding food, water, etc.), but socially and spiritually. But knowledge
sharing does much more than pass on information; it adds to the self-esteem and self-worth of those
sharing, and allows group members to see each other as capable. This kind of information sharing
also brings about an obligation base of exchange (if I do for you, you do for me) by building reciprocal
relationships. People in different social groups have always interrelated through trade, intermarriage,
and other means; cultivating mutual respect by fulfilling reciprocal obligations. This sharing process
builds powerful bonds, improves solidarity, and brings about more cooperative, collaborative
behaviors; all necessary for communities to thrive.

Information Without Relationships

Giving information from an outside source to groups of people showing a strong correspondence
between information sharing and relationships can be disruptive. All too frequently, caring,
well-intentioned outsiders take on growing levels of responsibility for tribal community needs, and as
they do, community members let go. The question, then, is how to be of assistance without
interfering with the community's natural and necessary interdependence—so important to the cultural
visioning required as part of a group’s Plan B (see Downing and Downing-Garcia, this issue).

In most cases, indigenous communities facing development projects see a new information source
as a combination of threat and salvation, but always as an authority—one that takes the place of a
source of information within the community. The result is a corrosion of communal capacity. Internal
information sources (often the elders) are considered less important; they lose value within the group,
and the group loses value as a whole. When external information is considered "right," community
members think that they have been "wrong"; that those once thought of as wise are, in fact, ignorant.
Respect breaks down, and community members stop seeing themselves as a problem-solving group.
Cooperative, interdependent behaviors begin to disintegrate. Even more damaging, this new source of
knowledge has no provision for exchange. Group members ask:"If I am now being told without being
asked in return, where is my self-worth? What do I have to offer?"

In most indigenous communities, the conditions that encourage group bonding and collaboration have
ceased to exist, undermined by the decline of internal interdependence. Even tribes that have grown
in population are marked by less depth of social relations. Most indigenous communities have been
left considerably weakened by contact with development projects or with larger society, and many in
these communities now display a strong feeling of neediness, coupled with a diminishing sense of
obligation to the community itself. These are learned behaviors. Groups tend to exhibit passive
behaviors when they discover that a particular choice will make others take care of them; and yet, it
leaves them feeling victimized, helpless, and resigned. Without realizing it, they shift their focus from
what they have to offer to what they are offered. Interdependence is replaced by dependence.

Moving Forward

Years ago, I read about an effort by the British to introduce rural communities in India to the outside
world. Radios were supplied to a half-dozen or so of these communities. Because young people can
absorb large amounts of information very quickly, and because they are more likely to be interested
in the modern, the children and adolescents of these communities spent a great deal of time listening
to the radios. Suddenly, the youth were interested in things the adults knew nothing about. The result
was an abrupt and lasting rift between the youth and the adults.

As with all living systems, communities can withstand (in fact need) challenges, and have the ability
to heal themselves—if given the chance. As a rule, however, policy makers and program designers
know little about the dynamics of group behavior. It's not surprising that they prefer quantifiable
solutions (cash payments as compensation for land use, for example) to problems over solutions
based in human relationships and designed by the people themselves. Material improvements are
easy to defend; they offer the kind of achievement demanded by funding organizations and the
resolution of problems demanded by project financiers. Yet creating programs to help communities
survive without an understanding of communal relationships can intensify, rather than relieve,
problems. The unfortunate design of many international aid programs, for example, has led to
communities of people who understand themselves in terms of their deficiencies, rather than a belief
in their capacity. This mindset can influence choices in leadership, with groups preferring individuals
who can attract additional aid by downplaying local strengths and amplifying limitations. Policy
makers and liaisons with indigenous communities should be wary of such programs. Progress toward
healing can often be made by implementing group learning initiatives.

Communal Learning

Communities that regularly involve themselves in group learning efforts
report a greater internal sense of optimism and control; more
goal-directed behaviors; incorporation of traditional and new knowledge;
and a rise in mutual respect, self-esteem, and group empathy. In
contrast, communities relying on learning from an external authority
exhibit difficulty in applying what they learn in new situations, a
tendency toward either/or thinking, trivialization of traditional knowledge,
and less interest in the opinions of group members. Group empathy
consistently decreases when the teaching source comes from a
different social group.

If a group is to survive, new information must be internally generated,
combined with the knowledge base, and shared. If indigenous peoples
are to adapt their own cultures to a changing world, they will need to
repair and perhaps transform most of the social relationships that have
been injured by accidental (or intentional) interference. A culture of
learning is the antithesis of a culture of dependence; it keeps people
from feeling powerless. When groups begin learning together and formulating Plan B responses to the
problems they face, relationships regenerate, complacency falls away, problems are faced, and
group confidence returns. Members of most tribal communities have capacity, but often lack
information access and have suffered damage to their internal lines of communication. These
communities need the chance to initiate communal learning efforts in order to re-establish the
internal, interdependent relationships and obligation-based exchange necessary for individual and
collective wellbeing.


Thank you, Djupurula, for reminding me how important it is to share what I've learned with my

Dianna Wuagneux holds a Ph.D. in international business with an emphasis in community wellbeing.
Dr. Wuagneux is a professor of cultural anthropology, and co-founder of Adaptive Solutions, an
international consulting and policy advisement firm. She can be reached at . For more information on community wellness, visit  and go to "research."

References & further reading

Cross, P. (1981). Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1993). The Evolving Self. New York: HarperCollins.

Sowell, T. (1995). The Vision of the Annointed. New York: Basic Books.

Wright, R. (1994). The Moral Animal: Why we are the way we are; the new Science of Evolutionary
Psychology. New York: Random House.

Young, F.W. (1979). Reactive Subsystems. American Sociological Review 35:2, pp 297-307.