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Reporting From The Rez

October 9, 2012, 10:17 PM by Derek Olson

Reporting From The Rez
PINE RIDGE, SD -

For years, the lives and struggles of people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have generated international interest.  Now, thanks to social media, people on the reservation are sharing their own stories and getting a worldwide response.

With a billion users around the world, Facebook is changing the way people communicate.  That's particularly true in Pine Ridge.

"Several years ago, we didn't have that technology so we were isolated from hearing about what's going on in the world as well as the world knowing what goes on here," community organizer Andrew Iron Shell said.

Iron Shell has been organizing community members on Pine Ridge for decades.

"A small room of 20 people was an outstanding phenomenon to have show up at a meeting," Iron Shell said.

But a couple years ago, Iron Shell's son had an idea.

"My son who was then in high school told me, 'You know, Dad, you're doing community meetings and trying to gather the people, but they're all on Facebook,' Iron Shell said.

"I seen my dad trying to get the meetings and everything arranged and I thought it would help," Iron Shell's son, Terrell Catt, said.

Now, the community organizer has close to 5,000 friends on the social network.  He uses the site to share information and news stories that he thinks are relevant.

"There's positive things going on here that people should know about, but there's also harsh realities going on that the world should have an understanding of," Iron Shell said.

He is not alone.  Other reservation-based Facebook pages include the Lakota Voice Project and the Lakota People's Law Project.

Black Hills State University Journalism professor Mary Canton-Rosser says the pages are empowering.

"Citizens can set the agenda now.  It doesn't have to come from the top-down, from professionals," Caton-Rosser said.

"You know, if you put the word out there and it sparks someone's interest, they're going to want to go check it out and see what's going on for themselves and put their own opinion into the mix," Catt said.

And with almost every cell phone now equipped with a camera, anybody can record events that may have previously gone undocumented.

"You can pull out your own cell phone and take videos of it and show people what happened, what actually happened," Catt said.

"It's very enabling for people to have a device in every pocket and just be able to pull it out, take a picture, do a video, do a recording on that device and be able to send it over instantaneously because of their access to the Internet," Caton-Rosser said.

"Watching other examples like the Arab Spring and how they've used technology to really get their issues out there and to get their voices heard.  That isn't always possible in mainstream media," Iron Shell said.

But citizen-journalism is not without its pitfalls.

"It has its empowering side but it also has its disadvantages that can really blow up and cause a lot of trouble," Caton-Rosser said.

There are legal and ethical boundaries that citizen-journalists may overstep, not to mention the objectivity most mainstream news organizations try to follow.

"They may just use one source instead of triangulating from a variety of news sources that can add various perspectives to any news story," Caton-Rosser said.

In spite of her concerns, Caton-Rosser believes that the use of social media is a good thing and is working to prepare her students for the post-Facebook world.

"Textbooks can't keep up with what's happening right now, and you have to wonder at some point where it's going to plateau.  I can't see it just yet at this point," Caton-Rosser said.

"Any time of the day, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, the access is there.  The communication can happen.  So it's just a phenomenal tool for us in Indian Country," Iron Shell said.

A tool that's teaching people around the world what it's like to live in South Dakota.

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