How NFTs are transforming Indigenous economics
The 400 Drums project doesn’t just offer a marketplace for Indigenous creators, but beats a path to a new way of self-governance.
Members of the 400 Drums team, including David Fierro (left), Tamara Goddard (second from left), and Squamish Chief Gibby Jacob (centre). Photo: 400 Drums
Advocates for NFTs focus on how it can open up new markets for underrepresented creators – a terra zero for people of colour, women, and other marginalized groups to build a new economic paradigm. In many cases, the reality has failed to live up to the hype. Crypto bros and NFT buyers are still predominantly white and male – but as the market begins to mature, so have actionable ideas about how the technology can be used.
Tamara Goddard, lead strategist and creative director of the 400 Drums project, immediately saw the links between NFT protocols and Indigenous culture. As the CEO of the Four our Future – an organization founded by Indigenous leaders in Canada that builds business plans and economic development models for communities – the Saulteau Nation member was struck by how closely blockchain’s principles mirrored Indigenous economics.
“Our clients are Indigenous businesses and organizations,” she tells Vancouver Tech Journal. “And so as you can imagine, during the pandemic, nobody could get off the reserve to sell their products. We set out helping Indigenous businesses tackle markets digitally. [In the case of drum master-builder David Fierro], we did that by filming, and working out how to re-record the sound — how to really represent culture and cultural art. So his drums, he's not allowed to just sell them because they're ceremonial. He earned his income by teaching, and, of course, he couldn't get on the reserve to teach. We filmed his whole drum-making workshop. [...] And then blockchain showed up.”
Most Indigenous nations have complex rules for selling ceremonial pieces and sacred works of art. Rather than putting them on a public market, communities make revenue when people come to experience a ceremony, meaning that artisans work for a lifetime to become masters of their craft, but can’t directly monetize their work. Through NFTs, Goddard saw, Indigenous creators could digitize their pieces and market themselves, but not actually sell the physical item.
“It's an aspect of trade and gifting,” she said. “We had to work with the Elders, actually, to find a way to do this. We're allowed to raise funds or carry our protocols. And with NFTs, as you can imagine, your brain is blown, because it really matches Indigenous economics. That's the key. It's decentralized as our people are. And so our Elders really get this: that Web3 is like a potlatch system, which is how we organized our communities before colonization.”
Banging the drum
Blockchain’s potential to help Indigenous peoples is realized in Goddard’s ambitious project, 400 Drums. It’s a complex proposal. As part of the first collection, the organizers will mint 444 NFTs, with each one depicting a drum handmade and painted by Fierro. But unlike a Bored Ape, the token is more than an image. Holding one of the NFTs gives the user access to a decentralized app, which offers a host of utilities. The first will be the ability to access an Indigenous marketplace. Although Indigenous art is ubiquitous in stores and galleries, at present, close to 85 percent is not made by an Indigenous person. 400 Drums’ Web3 store will offer the chance to purchase authentic art, alongside other traditional products.
“We're releasing this just for a beta-test section,” says Branden Dame, Web3 developer and blockchain author for the project. “The Indigenous marketplace [...] will give holders access to all these Indigenous medicines, food, and small crafts that are actually made by Indigenous artists. So if businesses wanted to support Indigenous art and have true Indigenous products in their shop, they would have to hold an NFT and buy it through the Indigenous marketplace. And then they would know it came from an Indigenous hand. And I think that will really reverberate across Indigenous communities, too, when [the artists] can see a route directly into small businesses that will support true Indigenous culture.”
“We're doing two massive proposals right now to procure Indigenous art for 30,000 buildings in Canada,” Goddard agrees. “At Four our Future, we work with corporate industry and governments. And we work obviously with artists. So we know that there's a massive market for legitimate Indigenous artworks and culture.”
Access to the marketplace is just the beginning for 400 Drums token holders. After the online bazaar is up and running, Dame will be working on the digital drum studio, where users can play their NFT instrument by tapping the image – much like Apple’s GarageBand. Each drum will be recorded in a studio to capture its different reverberation, ensuring the digital percussion sounds exactly like its real-world counterpart. Token holders will also be entered into several raffles to win one of Fierro’s physical drums. Possessing a drum is a high honour. The master craftsman painstakingly fashions each instrument, handcrafting the skins and carving the wood, and treating the creation with bear grease. Fierro’s drums are typically at home in Indigenous big houses – spaces for governance and ceremony – and although they cannot be sold, when a single Fierro piece goes to auction, the starting bid is $5,000.
The final utility, the team thinks, will be an AI language-learning platform. Working in tandem with a software company that processes ancient languages such as Aramaic and Cree, the 400 Drums NFT will offer a new avenue for language revitalization. The AI is quick to learn. Elders and Indigenous-language speakers can instruct the engine for just three hours, teaching it text, grammar, and pronunciation. The software will then grasp the language, and offer auto-generated courses that token-holders can access
“It’s perfect for our model, because now Indigenous language-holders get to create their own language teachings and earn money,” Goddard says. “Everybody wins in everything that we do.”
The Indigenous Economic Lens
Making sure everybody wins is central to Goddard’s vision, and to Indigenous culture as a whole. The NFT protocol has its basis in collaboration, which, she suggests, maps onto the Indigenous Economic Lens: a system built on traditional knowledge, values, and planning processes. Western market ideologies are focused on capitalism or socialism: a competitive or egalitarian method of splitting resources. The Indigenous Economic Lens offers a third way, and one that mimics the patterns found in nature.
“Indigenous people believe that when you have wealth, you give wealth away,” she says of her study. “And so I was actually surprised when I did my thesis. I thought everybody would have less, but everybody would be more equal – almost bordering on socialism. But that wasn't the case. In mathematics, the growth pattern of nature is a regenerative, circular, fractalized growth in the whole ecosystem. If you're a sapling, you're taking a little bit of energy, and you're giving a little bit of information back to the ecosystem. But as you grow, you take in more energy, and that mother tree becomes the caretaker of the entire ecosystem. So the bigger you get, the more that you're reaching out and engaging in an ecosystem with other plant species. That's Indigenous economics. We give back, and every time we do, somebody forms something new.”
The link between Indigenous “eco-nomics” and 400 Drums is by design. By using its NFT as the key to a marketplace, the project not only introduces thousands of Indigenous artisans to Web3, but offers a new way for them to collaborate and monetize their work. As their sales accumulate, each vendor grows from sapling to mature tree, and is able to put more of their own resources back into the community.
NFT protocols, too, lend themselves to Indigenous environmentalism. The technology is built upon scarcity. NFTs have value because they are rare, and only a finite number can be minted. Goddard finds parallels between those built-in restrictions and the way that Indigenous peoples connect with nature. Indigenous sustainability is built on the principle of the honourable harvest – taking, sharing, and using plants and resources mindfully. NFTs, too, are bound by maximums.
“What's so great about NFTs is that we have a limited number, and can choose partners to share utilities,” she says. “So we have a limited market. It's so great for small Indigenous providers. Because if I'm a medicine woman, I can only take so much from the land. It harms the land. So I'm never going to be an Estée Lauder. I need to have a small captured market. And so this is great for people again in terms of expanding their market, but within limitations and reason.”
Beyond the drums
Blockchain’s impact isn’t just limited to marketplaces and language-learning. Rather, Goddard believes it has the ability to shore up the very foundations of Indigenous self-governance. With her personal and academic background in business and leadership, much of her work focuses on forming development strategies for Indigenous communities. Blockchain’s ledger, she says, can help put power back into the hands of Indigenous peoples.
“Our blockchain research came back and said, ‘Okay, we need to own our data,’” she says. “Here we are, impoverished, whilst we have the most valued data in Canada: Indigenous rights and title. So blockchain is one of the ways that Nations can own control of their data, including land, LiDAR [underground scanning], knowing what resources are there, who their people are, what businesses [are present], what the economic status is. Indigenous businesses can move away from the databases, and have the businesses voluntarily share their data, because they maintain control over who gets to look at it.”
That vision, she admits, will take years to build. But in the meantime, blockchain is already being used to help with governance and preservation of treaty rights. Two Squamish Nation Chiefs recently approached Goddard to record their amalgamation agreement from 1923: the moment where 16 communities from the now-called English Bay, False Creek, Burrard Inlet, and Squamish Valley areas united in the face of violent displacement. Putting this account on the blockchain, she says, ensures that the pact is faithfully chronicled.
“[Squamish Nation hereditary Chiefs] Bill Williams and Gibby Jacob – they're between 70- and 85-years-old,” she said. “So we're going to record them. Their amalgamation agreement and the recording of each of their agreements will be made into an NFT with non-monetary value, but the Chief will get this digital asset and be able to hand down that amalgamation agreement so that it never gets lost. And so when municipalities or industry have to learn about it, they can pay a subscription. So corporate Canada or governments can pay to view the amalgamation agreements as part of their legal negotiations. And it's just a little bit of money that would go to the elder center to help with food, and whatever they need.”
Goddard and her team’s foresight for blockchain technology has far-reaching implications. Moving to an ownership model for Indigenous data can offer a new way for Nations to control and monetize their traditional knowledge, with the proceeds flowing back into the community. The 400 Drums marketplace, too, offers an innovative revenue source and secure way for artisan creators to be paid for their work. The project, however, doesn’t just stop with Indigenous peoples in Canada. The relationship between blockchain and Indigenous culture is equally relevant south of the 49th parallel, and the 400 Drums team hopes that blockchain can prove similarly revolutionary to Indigenous peoples all over the world.
"400 Drums is an enterprise to float all boats upon the tide,” drum-maker Fierro says. “It is a collaboration of many talented people working cohesively, for the health and wellness of Indigenous economies in Canada and abroad."