Decolonizing the Digital: How to Bring Indigeneity to Online Spaces
Indigenous stories are all too often relegated to the past. This nurtures assumptions that indigenous lifestyles are ill suited for present times or, even worse, that indigenous peoples are disappearing or have already disappeared. The idea that “All the Real Indians have died off” is another one of the countless myths surrounding the lives of indigenous people.
How to best combat this overarching, pervasive narrative of indigenous erasure? One possibility is to locate indigenous stories in spaces that are perceived as modern or revolutionary: the digital world.
There are many different approaches to indigenizing the digital and varying perspectives on it. But as the role and capabilities of the internet continues to expand, it’s crucial to consider the ways indigenous knowledge is spread through these digital platforms, and some of the potential shortcomings of these tools.
At Amherst College, conversations around the possibilities for indigenizing the digital world have already begun. There, library/archival staff as well as members of the faculty have been working to grow and strengthen The Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Native American Literature Collection. The collection’s goal is to comprehensively document the work of Native American authors from the 18th century to the present day.
The collection also serves as the center point for a conversation surrounding the possibility of creating a national native-authored digital network, aligning archives with best practices and methodologies for indigenizing the digital. According to the project proposal, the goal of this larger project, which is associated with the Kim-Wait/Eisenberg collection, is to respond “to the need for integrated, culturally sensitive access to Native American library and archival collections from across the United States; for building relationships and community among the stakeholders; and for enhanced tools and interfaces that further public understanding of Native American histories, cultures, and intellectual traditions.”
The project began with a planning meeting in the summer of 2016 that invited in numerous representatives from indigenous organizations and communities. This meeting highlighted the importance of face-to-face conversations and relationship building in the process of considering indigenous knowledge in the digital realm. promises a bright future for the indigenization of digital spaces. Considering these efforts helps to show shortcomings within previous work of bringing indigenous knowledge to the digital and helps paint a clearer picture of how to best move forward.
Currently, the clear frontrunner in the purview of indigenizing the digital is a web service called Mukurtu. Mukurtu is a platform designed to better facilitate sharing of cultural knowledge within Indigenous communities. The site offers privacy. Tribal leaders have complete control over who can access files. “Mukurtu” is a Warumungu word meaning “dilly bag” or “safe keeping place.” The tool was created with the Warumungu people, a community located in Tennant Creek, a town in central Australia.
“If the colonial idea of the archive was to collect and store the world’s treasures for the betterment of mankind, this emerging Warumungu archive is part of an intimate set of kinship relations and a dynamic socioterritorial network that rubs up against national territorial boundaries and legal structures aimed at protecting indigenous culture,” Mukurtu founder Kimberly Christen writes. Christen’s site promotes a revolutionary conception of an archive, one that challenges traditional ideas of online archives and reforms the concept to fit the needs of indigenous communities.
Online archives from museums and other large institutions often present other examples of Indigenous cultural resources using the digital sphere. Collaborations are one of the key ways in which a collection thrives and are crucial to projects. For example, the Yale Indian Papers Project (YIPP) has been successful through collaborations with many institutions and, perhaps more importantly, numerous tribal/first nation partnerships, including The Mohegan Elders Council, the Eastern Pequot Tribal Council, and the Hassanamisco Band of the Nipmuc. By maintaining these partnerships, the YIPP ensures that the material being presented to a digital audience is fair, accurate and that it should even be made accessible in the first place.
Part of YIPP’s mission is “to re-inscribe indigeneity into a collection of documents that represents a shared history between Americans, Native Americans, Britons, and the Atlantic World by fostering participation of Indian scholars and tribal members in the editing process and in discussions by acknowledging them as colleagues, scholars, intellectuals, and representatives of the Native voice.” This goal is noble and should be at the heart of any indigenous digital project.
However, even with this goal as guiding principle, there are areas where the YIPP falls short. Some objects in the archival database have information and provide context for objects, but not all of them feature this information. There is no apparent sense of urgency in getting the archival information up and running, so why not take the time to acceptably carry out the process and engage with communities to ensure the information is being presented in a fair and comprehensive way?
Further, the level of access to the digital world for some native communities is somewhat limited. An article by Cheryll Ruth Soriano highlights the fact that many indigenous groups do not have internet access, and thus are left out of the important work of digitizing indigeneity and bringing their concerns to light on a larger platform. Soriano highlights a working group called the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA). Based in the Philippines, CPA balances digital work and critical in-person conversation by ensuring important knowledge is only discussed face-to-face with community members and engaging offline partners through the dispersal of memos and print information.
Soriano also assesses what it means to display indigeneity in a space typically not meant for complex and always evolving concepts. Soriano recounted the work done by the CPA and another indigenous network, Tebtebba, describing the necessary prior assessment that should go into digitizing indigeneity:
“Their account reflected a process different from simply buying into the ‘hype’ of having an online space, but involved a careful rethinking of their indigeneity in the process of articulating their claims in the online medium.”
It wasn’t acceptable to just copy and paste knowledge into a new medium. Working to bring indigeneity to an online platform requires involved contemplation and deep consideration of how best to engage with this new territory.
Soriano also covers a problem specific to digitizing indigenous knowledge: How do we avoid inadvertently sharing knowledge that should be protected when dispersing Indigenous knowledge digitally?
The answer is, in theory, very simple: consultation. Soriano highlights the importance of local consultation by quoting from “Information Technology and Indigenous Communities”:
“… to reconcile those conditions we consult them. Would you allow us to put this online or not? It has to come from the community themselves—what do they want to be published or come out and be considered in the public domain and what should be kept secret or within the community. Usually the communities have protocol already. … But the community said that those are sacred knowledge that should not come out. So we did not publish it. Yes the community has a system for determining what is good and not good for them. This is sacred. There is ritual involved here. Outsiders should not know. We all know it is possible to steal so those knowledge stays in the community.”
Simple consultation at the hyper-local level will ensure that there is no misinformation being expressed on widely accessible online platforms, and that all information published is suitable for a general audience. It is critical to engage native participants at the local level if we are to decolonize the digital and is the only way to ensure these spaces are used acceptably.
With all of these past efforts in mind, the future is promising for the indigenization of the digital world. Projects like the one being carried out at Amherst in collaboration with the Kim-Wait/Einsenberg Native American Literature Collection signify a shift in the relationship between traditional archives and indigenous communities and the real opportunity for change and growth.
Ultimately, any consideration of bringing indigenous knowledge to an online realm should bear in mind the concept of an evolving archive. As Mukurtu director Christen points out, the goal of bringing indigenous knowledge to the public should not be idealistic approaches of preservation. Instead this work should push against traditional conceptions of archives and online spaces in order to make room for indigenous knowledge. As Tlingit historians Dora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer have said, "Preservation [...] is what we do to berries in jam jars and salmon in cans. [...] Books and recordings can preserve languages, but only people and communities can keep them alive.”
Idealistic approaches to preserving some aspect that is emblematic of an entire culture within an archive fall consistently short. It’s imperative that all attempts at digitizing any sort of Indigenous-based literature or knowledge be executed in close consultation with the community. It’s time to smash open the jam jar and let communities bring life back to the digital world.
Lauren Tuiskula is a senior English major at Amherst College concentrating in the field of digital humanities.