Last winter, months before your Facebook feed started filling with videos of folks taking the “ice-bucket challenge,” Native Americans did the “winter challenge.” Participants jumped in ice-cold streams or banks of snow and challenged others to do the same. Imagine what could happen if Indian Country focused social media on addressing health or civic issues.Last winter, Native Americans adapted an old practice of private challenges to the new platform of social media. A swarm of Canadian cold-water plunges resulted.
I remember getting in trouble as a teenager. The story beat me home. I was stunned at the velocity of information in a small community. The chain went like this: Something happened. People talked. And the story spread. Fast.
I guess that’s why social media, to me, is an old form of storytelling. It’s how we naturally tell stories, spreading the word to one friend (or follower) in real time. And then another. And again. But while the forum is essentially the same, there are two new twists: the use of digital tools and the increased size of our network. (A generation ago our “network” might be a few friends gathered for coffee at the trading post. Today it’s a thousand friends on Facebook, their thousand friends, and definitely more on Twitter, Tumblr or Snapchat.)
The ice-bucket challenge to raise money to prevent ALS — Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — or Lou Gehrig's Disease is a great example of how social media works. The brilliant campaign has earned more than $70 million with the goal of creating a world “without ALS!”
Every day my Facebook feed has new posts from someone taking this challenge.
Of course this whole challenge thing is familiar anyway. It’s a lot like the Winter Challenge that spread across Canada and Indian Country. Carielynn Victor, from Chilliwack, B.C., told Global News Canada that the idea was not a new one, but the concept of taking it public was new.
So why ALS? It’s a fabulous cause and worth doing. That said: What if Indian Country could harness social media to affect the diseases that are killing most of our friends and family?
So heart disease is the leading killer in Indian Country. What if we raised money for research and action for American Indians and Alaska Natives? Or diabetes? Or any disease that affects most of us. It could be money targeted to make a real difference in our lives.
Then, the power of social media is not just about money. Imagine what we could do to health disparities if social media challenged tens of thousands of people to walk more. Or eat better. Then post results in real time so that we all stay on task.
Beyond disease and public health, social media could be used to “challenge” American Indians and Alaska Natives to register and vote at levels that are unprecedented. If the same intensity of the winter challenge, or the ice bucket challenge, or any social media phenomenon, was applied to November’s balloting, well, it would upend the status quo. Guaranteed.
One reason the winter challenge and the ice-bucket challenge worked so well is that they were simple to do, and easy to pass along virally. It’s fun to see a friend jump in a creek. We laugh at the way people met their challenge. (I did a snow angel in the shadow of Denali courtesy of Laura John at the Montana Policy and Budget Center.)
So any election challenge must be simple and fun. And be specific. Laura challenged me. Then I added friends, creating an exponential network.
There have already been some really smart efforts to increase Native voting. Indeed, the last election cycle produced record numbers. In New Mexico and Montana, for example, Native Americans voted at a higher percentage than the general population, 77% and 64%. That could be across the country. Especially in Alaska, Oklahoma, Arizona, the Dakotas. Already this year, the National Congress of American Indians has called for a summer of action for the Native Vote (there was a Google hangout that explores details) to do just that.
Now it’s time to add to those efforts and tap the awesome power that is social media. If we can ask our friends to jump into a creek, we sure as hell can ask them to vote. We ought to do that in a video and on our Facebook page. Let’s take the ice bucket into the voting booth and really change the country.
Mark Trahant serves as the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.