July 1998


"Ain't Gotta Do Nothin But Be Brown and Die"*

by Ellen Baird

Introduction to the Internet and an American Indian Chat Room

The Internet has given us a new way to communicate with each other, with new forms of language, customs and norms. Now that Internet services are affordable, and computer prices keep dropping, access to the largest section of the Internet is available to more people then ever before (Browne 1997). The focus of this paper is to explore the world of Web-based chat rooms for American Indians (Levine 1996). The worldviews of Indians and non-Indians are still as different today as they were 500 years ago. American Indians have a unique set of cultural and social norms that still exist in electronic media as much as they do in real life. I would like to thank the participants of WBS, Native American Chat for their cooperation and permission to use what they have written, and also for the use of their 'handles' for the purposes of this paper.

This paper examines chat rooms from the standpoint of Goffman's on and offstage behavior.  There are certain chatters who are the 'room police' and will ask questions to identify illegal behavior or identify the secret deviant (false claim to Indian identity) (Goffman 1963). There is an undercurrent of ferreting out illegal behavior such as people trying to uncover illegals claiming to be Indian when they are not when a new person logs on for the first time.

American Indians in general resist assimilation and take offense at someone who is trying to pretend to be Indian, and are vigilant about protecting Indian identity on the Web. Clues are watched for that give identifiers, and questions to the person are worded to elicit a specific response. Ironically, it is the Indian participants who sound more mainstream then non-Indians in this observed chat room.


The selection of a nickname that gives clues to a person's self identity or the persona they wish to project. People tend to feel safer then in real life with all the anonymity that is part of this medium, so they tend to disclose more on line then they would in real life.


The persona of the handle only exists in real time across an electronic medium, and only becomes real if the people wish to meet or give personal information. From the data that has been collected, it is apparent that real life friendship bonds have been formed, personal relationships started and the ability to speak with people from the same ethnic group happens often. This room, which will be referred to as NAC from this point has only been in operation for 2 years and began with word of mouth between people who knew each other in the 'real world' (Hafner 1997). People are willing to travel to meet others from this room. They feel particularly comfortable making plans to meet at pow wows and other social events. People now can travel without having to get dressed up and leaving their own homes.  Ethnicity is conveyed  in the way that words are used and cultural argots stand out that identify the writer (Hernandez-Avila 1994). This is an artifact that shows that with new forms of media, the way that people adapt to them is within the framework of their familiar world, and they retain many of the same behaviors and ways of thinking while plugging in an adapting device to communicate in the new medium.

Limitations and Positive Points:

Some of the limitations of this work are: Only people with computers and Internet connections can participate; computer availability is the physical gatekeeper in this medium. Most participants are computer literate enough to figure out how to run the Web site. This is just a sample of the educated or middle class Indian population that has the money to afford computers or have access to one. Due to the confidentiality of the medium, it is difficult to discern false information unless it is specified somewhere in what people wish to disclose.

On the positive side,  participants get to hide behind a stage name to protect their identity. People tend to be more open with words when their privacy is protected. The group can actually be observed without researcher interference.

 Identity in the Chat Room:

Identity in a chat room is created by first designing a stage name. In this room, there are 2 distinct groups: Indian and non-Indian people. All name spellings are shown as correct for the people who use them. Indian people tend to pick stage identities that tend to be in the active voice, a play on words common to Indian humor, in their own native languages, or are action oriented:

  • talks
  • Oglala Joe
  • She Who Bitches
  • 2bndn
  • Snaggs Twice
  • Rez Follies
  • Ani Kituh

Non-Indian people tend to pick stage identities that tend to be in a passive voice, include some form of animism, seem more serious or mystical, and if in a native language, the syntax may be wrong:

  • Rainbow Warrior
  • Gentle Cherokee
  • Proud Sky Eagle
  • Vision dreamer
  • Morning Feather
  • Sunrise Buffalo
  • eagle cloud

Note: No editing was done to the following narratives, to help retain the 'feel' of the conversations.

Stilted Language:


This method of communication is common with stereotyping. It is common in the 'wannabe culture' fantasy world, as a return to the past, supposedly. This form of stilted language is not to be confused with legitimate usage of native languages, because language structure and choice of words are used to evaluate identity (Turner, Strong & Van Winkle 1996).



hahahahahahahaha APPLE! go back in your trance and have a vision and clank your crystals together.... you are funnier then...."

Racism is a 2 way street, not only from the majority culture towards minorities.  It can go the other way, in this example, as a tease. Usually, the first comment is a joke and the second is the actual insult. In this example, the Indian person is accusing another Indian person of being red on the outside, white on the inside.


Personal networking:

"I am Gracie's cousin......You know My mom..... Bessie.......? Half Red **** but don't say what the other name is if you know it..........I might have some stalkers in here........Yeah My mom is a Red Shirt........

Personal networking shows communication that would be more of a real life situation.  With comments such as "who are you related?" to or "could you be a relative?" Native language usage gives a connection to people who may be separated by physical distance from their culture.

 Osiyo aquatsely y vwi ani yunwiya! Osiyo tyua, tohitsu, osigwu..? OSDA, SHEGWU....NI HI NUH? Tohiguu tuya, Wadon uwoduhi!!"

The italic question is eastern band and capital replies are western band Cherokee. Both people are members of the bird clan so they welcomed each other as relatives.

 Commercialized Spirituality:

"is anyone familiar with Eagle Man (Ed McGaa? Know a mailing address?

I know his daughter kibby......... but I think he is in Minnesota........but I don't like his work.......

...he writes about Indian wisdom, I'd like to reach him and share some thoughts.

you know I could help you out....... I don't think he is interested unless you got some bills.......tell me what you got.......

isn't Ed McGaa down in north east Alabama with the Hawkwind bunch *** is correct about McGaa he is with a bunch of old sun bear tribe folks who have a spiritual weekend or ritual for hire gig going down in Ala. if its for sale it ain't real

..I've been searching for someone who could share ideas with me. I'm a college student, not even Indian, but have always enjoyed Indian spirituality. I've done alot of reading, but you can't carry a conversation with a book!

......the spirit world is as real as the computer we type on........and that can be manipulated........You know I think that we have to realize that we cannot separate something we cannot control........the spirit are real and they are now where does that leave us........ does one open to this path?"

There are hundreds of books and groups that are trying to recreate Indian spirituality. Many people enter this chat room looking for the 'experts' in Indian spirituality (Jackson 1995). Spiritual beliefs vary according to tribe, language, and location; there are no hard and fast rules except a general framework for the ceremonies. Identity is closely related to how an Indian person relates to the spiritual traditions and is closely guarded, and never to be spoken of in a public medium.

Indian Humor:

"****** you bet you worth the pickup and tell ***** that I will give him a full tank.......

 ...true...they are much tougher than Oglala's! Be careful ***, I'll send her over to Pine Ridge village!! *ROFL*

 ***** you are just a big Indian..........Hey is *****small........I bet you are like 5 foot five..........  hey you send her to Pine Ridge and she may not want to go back........

 ...she says, 'maybe, but their cars don't run over there' and she has to have a car! At
 least 450 horses!! *LOL*  ..she's just a 450 horse woman!!!


 ..I haven't seen our yard, through a window in 7 years, she don't do windows except WINDOWS 95! **

 now that was Indian Humor.............she must be happy with you.........Hey you know I have been humbled............except Windows 95 ............  hahhahahaahahahhaaha

 ...We are in agreement (go figure) See, you and I can get along and live in harmony!

 plus I think you have a great wife.......she is awesome .......hey our Lakota women........... Right.......I respect you.........She is good........just feed her some shunka wahumpi because I hear that at  Rosebud they don't have no more dogs....... enit..............

we know that your mate is your equal. its only those who are ignorant and jealous that doesn't know and understand that.. He is Heyoka. I think.."

 Humor is highly valued in almost all Indian cultures, but is rarely seen in a public area for many personal and cultural reasons. Usually, Indian humor is a play on words, often has sexual overtones, can seem to be racist, sexist, and is usually mixed with traditional beliefs and culture
(Day 1995, Hatwell 1996).

The first comment refers back to land for grazing ponies before contact. Ponies and horses equaled wealth in pre contact time (Murray 1994). This comment refers to both modern wealth by having not just a $200 pickup, but also a new Toyota 4 Runner, which aren't cheap! The traditional standard for a good woman is community service, taking care of her own family and generosity (Jacobs 1996).

The comment she must be happy with you shows a woman valued for her independence and her willingness to stay in a marriage not under patriarchal standards, accompanied with teasing slang used to defuse a situation. "enit" is reservation slang for don't you know, the people have identified themselves as still living or having lived on a reservation. For the comment at the end of the example, it is obvious that the person doesn't understand the context of the joking style because it was understood that the woman in this case is the man's equal. Using the word "heyoka" in this context is the wrong choice. They should have chosen witko, which means crazy. Heyoka is the name for a sacred society. Shunka wahumpi is the name of ceremonial soup that is served for special occasions.



Real friendship bonds are formed in this chat room, much the same as in real life (Van Biema. 1994).  This chat room allows Indian people to network in a way never possible before. The identification of being Indian is strengthened because when something happens in real life that creates anxiety such as racism or intolerance, there is a safe haven to go to where being Indian is a plus (Kidwell. 1996). This Web site shows facets of American Indian life to outsiders that are usually private and gives real clues to contemporary Indian life.

* The title of this paper is the "tagline" or phrase placed after the signature of one of the American Indian members of the chat room, used with his permission.


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  • Goffman, Erving. "Stigma" 1963.

  • Hafner, Katie. "Look Who's Talking: Yes, Online Chat Rooms Are Mostly Boring and Bawdy. But Get Ready For The Next Step; 'Virtual Communities' Where Talk Is Anything But Small." Newsweek. Feb 17 1997. v129, n7, p70(3)

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  • Murray, Stephen O. "On Subordinating Native American Cosmologies To The Empire of Gender." Current Anthropology. Feb. 1994.

  • Turner Strong, Pauline and Barrik Van Winkle. "Identity.(Resisting Identities)" Cultural Anthropology. Nov. 1996.

  • Van Biema, David. "Of Spirit and Blood: A Museum Showcases Native American Treasures While Posing the Question: Who Is Indian?" Time. Oct 31 1994. v144, n18, p72(3)

This article was presented as a preliminary paper at the Great Plains Sociological Association Annual Meeting, 1997.

Ellen Baird is an instructor, a teaching assistant, and a doctoral candidate at South Dakota State University.  Her interests include American Indian sociology and the sociology of deviant behavior.

Copyright © 1998 by Ellen Baird. All Rights Reserved.

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