ndn: From Internet Abbreviation to 21st Century Identifier

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Debbie says:

This article by Lou Cornum is two weeks old, which means that in Internet time it’s practically last year’s news; fortunately, Cornum’s analysis goes back to 2010 and earlier and will not be out of date any time soon. I wanted to write about it because so much of this is new to me — and shouldn’t be.

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.

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.

I am, of course, familiar with reclaiming terms that are historically used pejoratively. In a week that just saw the Dyke March, and a lot of queer culture, that transformation is easy to see. This struck me as a qualitatively different kind of reclaiming and transformation: not simply reframing a term in common usage, but repurposing an abbreviation-for-convenience and recognizing the effect of its content: as Corum says above, using the way terms for their people are “always lacking.”

I also appreciate the way ndn takes advantage of current technology in a culture rightfully known for upholding ancient traditions:

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. …

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.

Cornum’s article is long and thoughtful, and goes into contemporary politics (including Idle No More and Standing Rock), their internal experience, research into the history of ndn, and more. If you aren’t already familiar with this term and its resonances (as I really was not), or if you swim in these waters, you’ll appreciate the whole piece.

I appreciate the effort of this particular ndn exploring their own digital landscape and personal history in public, and being gracious enough to let me watch the process.