Maka Monture is one of at least 20 Indigenous artists trying to figure out with Instagram accounts are being tampered with. Photos by @madmenstudiosak (Instagram) (left) and Danica Freeborn (Instagram) (Right)
More than 20 Indigenous artists have rallied together to investigate why some Indigenous beaders on Instagram have either received warnings or had their accounts shut down with no explanation, prompting fears they’re being racially targeted by a third party and might be next.“I spent a weekend crying over this because the issue goes beyond an account,” said Maka Monture, a Lingít and Kanien’kehá:ka artist living in Alaska. “It’s about contemporary digital erasure of Indigenous people.”
Monture said the community has spent weeks trying to contact people at Instagram to no avail. “At first we thought it’s because we aren't allowed to sell on Instagram, but technically we can,” she said. “There are rules around how giveaways need to be worded.”Until the platform makes it easier to seek support, it’s not doing enough to protect its racialized users, Monture said. “There has to be a process put into place where if we need help we can get into contact with someone,” Monture said. All of the sources confirmed they’ve been unable to reach people at Instagram, owned by Facebook, to explain what’s happening. Facebook spokesperson David Troya-Alvarez confirmed his team is looking into the matter and told VICE World News two accounts have already been reinstated. “We absolutely want Indigenous communities to feel welcome on Instagram, and we apologize for the unintentional hurt caused by the mistakes we made here,” Troya-Alvarez said.A mixed Cherokee and Mescalero Apache beader who goes by @beadingismedicine on Instagram, or Ahyoka, started receiving warnings from Instagram on Wednesday.“I posted my first real post on my profile—just a picture of earrings from my new collection—no sale or anything, and now I’m blocked by Instagram,” the artist said.Ahyoka, whose name has been withheld to protect her identity because she is a human trafficking survivor, recently set up her small business to sell beadwork and raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women.
“A large portion of our community beads to connect with culture,” she said. “But in a situation like this when we’re unable to work or work from home (because of the pandemic), we also need income...Instagram makes that accessible.”While she can still log into her account, any time she tries to engage with users or look at other pages, a prompt pops up saying, “Try again later: We limit how often you can do certain things on Instagram to protect our community. Tell us if you think we made a mistake."The account issues started about a month after Indigenous beader @ken_yew_knot went dark, multiple sources confirmed. Kindred Post, a woman of colour-owned store in Juneau, Alaska, that sells Indigenous art, was also taken down, while the page @harvestmoondesigns has allegedly received several warnings.Another Indigenous-owned Instagram account, @SWTGRSS, was hacked twice in October. Page owner Danica Freeborn said Instagram stopped responding to her requests for help the second time, and whoever has taken over her account has sent lewd messages to others from the page. “My main concern is that my face is still on that account, so whoever has it can do God knows what,” Freeborn said. “At this point, I just want the account taken down.”Following VICE World News’ media request, Troya-Alvarez said he will work with Freeborn to reinstate her account. All of the accounts are part of a burgeoning Indigenous beading trend on Instagram at a time when conversations around racial justice have become more mainstream, and consumers are prioritizing Black and Indigenous businesses. According to The New York Times, the artwork is in high demand, with collections often selling out as soon as they drop.
The owner of Kindred Post, Christy NaMee Eriksen, said Instagram is sending a harmful message to Black, Indigenous, and other women of colour. “It’s suspicious when I see that multiple accounts that we are connected to—and that are BIPOC-women-led businesses—are being taken down,” NaMee Eriksen said.When Kindred Post was locked out about a week before Christmas, NaMee Eriksen had 7,000 followers, a platform that took her seven years to build. She said she repeatedly reached out to Instagram, but has yet to hear back. In the first post from her new, three-week-old account, which so far has just under 1,500 followers, she wrote, “Instagram is an important tool for us—especially in the COVID era—to stay connected...and to foster connections between our artists.”“I don’t have enough information yet,” she told VICE World News. “The coincidental nature of multiple accounts being deactivated at the same time feels personal. It’s hard to not feel racially or politically targeted when all the accounts are BIPOC women-led and social justice-led accounts.”Troya-Alvarez said reviewers go through regular audits to ensure their decision-making isn’t racist, but he admitted that sometimes mistakes happen, which is why users can request an appeal when their accounts or posts are taken down. (Sources told VICE World News they tried this.)
He added that the pandemic has resulted in delays. “Due to COVID-19, we are prioritizing content that has the greatest potential to cause harm,” Troya-Alvarez said . “This means some reports will not be reviewed as quickly as they used to be and we will not get to some reports at all.”Kindred Post has promoted several Indigenous artists, including beaders. “It's an important part of our work to make sure we have a strong representation of people of colour, and being in Juneau (Alaska), it's important for us to especially lift up Indigenous artists,” she said.Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.This story has been updated to include comment from Facebook, Instagram’s parent company.