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Review: Unmasking deep democracy: An anthropology of indigenous media in Canada

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Budka, P. 2015. Review of Unmasking deep democracy: An anthropology of indigenous media in Canada, by S. B. Hafsteinsson. Aarhus: Intervention Press, 2013. Social Anthropology, 23/2: 240-242.

In the book’s introduction Sigurjon Baldur Hafsteinsson declares that the anthropological study which resulted in Unmasking Deep Democracy will, on the one hand, challenge the anthropology of visual communication and, on the other hand, contribute to the sub-discipline’s arguments. The anthropology of visual communication, like the anthropology of media, focuses in particular on the relational aspects and characteristics of (visual) media, such as television. This volume is about indigenous television in the Canadian context. By analysing communicative and journalistic practices of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) it aims for gaining an insight into the sociocultural agency of indigeneity and its (media) politics.

Hafsteinsson criticizes that research about indigenous media ‘largely ignored questions proposed by indigenous peoples themselves’ (p. 11) focusing rather on theorising indigenous media in relation to ‘Western’ concepts. By following Eric Michaels’ (e.g. 1985) research, who worked with indigenous media producers in Australia in the 1980s, the author intends to understand ‘the importance of media of indigenous social and spatial relations’ (p. 11). This means to consider media’s cultural, societal and linguistic particularities and limitations as well as the rules, norms and regulations of knowledge and information production and circulation in an indigenous context.

Hafsteinsson, moreover, discusses quite extensively the methodological challenges in his study. Instead of the aspired twelve months of fieldwork at the APTN office, the network officials granted him only one month for research on their premises. Interviews outside the office, e-mail interaction and phone communication, therefore, became important means of data collection. Through his fieldwork he learned that APTN’s media practices are basically democratic practices ‘which include respect, protection, promotion of diversity, and universal human rights’; practices which Appadurai subsumes under the concept of ‘deep democracy’ (p. 12).

In chapter 2 Hafsteinsson develops his account of indigenous media practices as ‘deep democracy’ (p. 66). To situate and understand ‘indigenous democratic concerns’ in relation to media, he suggests to talk about ‘narratives of democracy’ (p. 50) rather than of theories of democracy. In doing so, the author understands democracy in this context as an ’emerging narrative field’ rather than as a political form or ‘thing in itself’ (p. 68). ‘For indigenous people’, he continues, ‘democracy means inclusion and participation and not necessarily elections and representatives’ (p. 68).

Hafsteinsson identifies three distinct types of narratives about indigenous media: (1) the colonial, (2) the activist and (3) the democratic. While the colonial narrative underlines the overall domination of ‘Western’ media technologies, denying thus indigenous agency, the activist narrative, as a response to the inadequacy of colonial theories, highlights indigenous media’s potential for structural change, cultural representation and political inclusion. As an alternative to these two narratives, Hafsteinsson suggests the democratic narrative about indigenous media which ‘seeks to respond to the concerns of indigenous people regarding what indigenous media is all about’ (p. 51) by considering not only structural changes, but also individual and local changes and related social transformations and consequences invoked by indigenous media. Such practices of deep democracy, moreover, include ‘an extension of aboriginal peoples’ cultures’ (p. 71).

In chapter 3, Hafsteinsson analyses APTN as a case for the institutionalization of indigenous experience through establishing a distinct management structure and a mandate for indigenous media broadcasting in the Canadian context. This mandate also includes the bridging between indigenous and non-indigenous people and therefore a translation between cultures. He continues in chapter 4 to explore the ‘aboriginality’ of APTN’s programming by ‘unmasking’ the complexity and diversity of indigenous programming production, which also uncovers the ‘complexity of ‘aboriginality’ within Canada’ (p. 137). Chapter 5 discusses journalistic practices in the APTN news department and how they are recognized as practices of deep democracy by focusing on local news and community issues which are not covered by Canada’s mainstream media.

At the end of his book, Hafsteinsson reminds the reader that his study should be perceived as an encounter between the author and ‘the many ideas that radiate through and around’ APTN (p. 169). Again he highlights the cultural diversity of indigenous people in Canada and APTN’s challenge to reflect these differences. For him, the founding of an indigenous owned national TV network is an example for practices of deep democracy. Hafsteinsson’s book is a valuable contribution to the growing body of literature about indigenous media and the anthropology of media. By focusing on indigenous people’s own articulations of media practices – for their specific communication and information needs – it takes research in indigenous media back to Michaels’ work and, at the same time, one step further.


Michaels, E. 1985. ‘Constraints on knowledge in an economy of oral information’, Current Anthropology 26(4): 505-510.

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