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Focusing on Indigenous Data Sovereignty as Part of ‘Shifting Horizons’


Toni Valenti - May 16, 2019 - 1 comment

By Toni Valenti

On Thursday, March 28th, Open AIR attended the Indigenous Data Sovereignty panel at the Shifting Horizons research data conference at the University of Ottawa. The purpose of the conference, hosted by the uOttawa Library, was to provide a series of workshops for the academic community in order to enrich the data management experience. The Indigenous Data Sovereignty panel was a well-attended event aimed at discussing the concept of Indigenous data sovereignty from multiple points of view, including across disciplines and types of datasets.

The attendees had the great pleasure of hearing from four researchers in the field: Dr. Brenda Macdougall (Chair of Métis Research, University of Ottawa), Dr. Jonathan Dewar (Executive Director at the First Nations Information Governance Centre, Adjunct Professor, Carleton University), Dr. Teresa Scassa (Canada Research Chair in Information, Law and Policy, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa) and Dr. Natalie Carter (Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, University of Ottawa).

What is Indigenous Data Sovereignty?

Before we discuss the themes of the panel, we must situate the need for Indigenous data sovereignty. Modern history has seen Indigenous Peoples and communities around the globe grappling with a lack of reliable and useful data, as well as the misuse of their own traditional knowledge and cultural heritage by the West and settler societies. The concept of data sovereignty, which is closely linked to Article 3 of the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, affirms Indigenous Peoples’ rights to maintain, control, protect, and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and cultural expressions. This includes the right to protect and develop their own intellectual property structures over these expressions.

The panel discussed many important approaches to protecting these rights; some were practical in nature, while others related to the conceptualization and application of data sovereignty in Indigenous communities and within Indigenous research. The latter is something which all researchers engaging in Indigenous research must thoroughly consider; in fact, it is something that researchers must constantly reflect upon when working with Indigenous communities and their data.

This need was highlighted by panellist Dr. Jonathan Dewar, who shared his insights from working with the First Nations Information Governance Centre. Dr. Dewar stressed the importance of understanding that Indigenous data sovereignty is aligned with the distinct worldview of the particular Indigenous community conducting or supporting the research. Thus, there is no single ‘right’ way to conceptualize and practice Indigenous data sovereignty.

Data Sharing and Indigenous Data Sovereignty

Another important theme discussed by the panel was the practical application of data sharing and data management methodologies in Indigenous research.  Dr. Teresa Scassa discussed some of the ways in which Western data management methodologies may be inconsistent with certain Indigenous practices. Dr. Scassa’s work includes the use of Inuit traditional knowledge (or Inuit Knowledge) in cybercartography and polar repositories. One of the fundamental goals of the research is to empower Inuit communities and address Inuit data priorities.

This includes learning how Canadian intellectual property law and data sharing models may or may not achieve this goal. Dr. Scassa noted that although ‘open access’ models are encouraged in many Western academic pursuits, open data may not align with the research methodologies that stem from Indigenous communities. Thus, scholars must meaningfully engage with Indigenous communities and learn from them how to share data in accordance with the laws and governance of the community. This may include a discussion of whether the data should be shared at all.

The Meaning of ‘Data’

Lastly, the panel discussed the meaning of ‘data’ in Indigenous communities. As Dr. Natalie Carter asked in the panel, “Are the lived experiences and worldviews of people data?” This is an important question for the academic community to consider. This was further discussed by Dr. Brenda Macdougall, who reconceptualized the importance of colonial records to Indigenous data sovereignty by demonstrating their value to Indigenous researchers.

Dr. Macdougall has spent years processing Métis records and translating them to an online database for the community. She works heavily with archival colonial records, including baptismal records, marriage, and death certificates. Dr. Macdougall pointed out that people often overlook colonial records, yet ancestors can be found alive within the text. As explained by Dr. Macdougall, data files are more than just information; they are living ancestors, and thus connecting to that data is a form of Indigenous data sovereignty.

Next Steps

This panel offered a wonderful discussion on Indigenous data sovereignty, and how researchers in all disciplines can better work with and for Indigenous communities. A few interesting discussions that should be continued at Open AIR pertain to how open data is conceptualized by Indigenous communities, and whether this model of knowledge sharing directly empowers the communities with whom Open AIR works. In order to do so, we must begin by looking at data in a different way. This includes understanding data as a set of relationships between and within communities, and across generations. Only then will we better understand how and when academia empowers Indigenous data sovereignty.