The Challenge of Open Access in Indigenous Studies

The colonial gaze is characterized not only by scopophilia, a drive to look, but also by an urge to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit. The attitude assumes that everything should be accessible to those with the means and will to access them. (David Garneau, “Imaginary Space of Conciliation and Reconciliation”)

See the Novel Alliances New Media reading list here

The Potential of Open Access

Broadly speaking, open access is a set of principles and practices that make research outputs available free from economic, legal, or technical barriers.

In a world in which so much information is hidden behind paywalls, open access is a knowledge revolution based on democratic principles.

So, in a moment when openness is at the foreground of how we are being asked to understand knowledge dissemination, how do we articulate the need for restricted research practices?

Open Access activists and strategists, and there are many of them, myself included, push back against the legal and financial measures that restrict the flow of information: paywalls, access tolls, restrictive copyrights, and Digital Rights Management (DRM), to name a few.

Open Access is an exciting and galvanizing movement often mobilized as an activist methodology (see, for instance, The Internet’s Own Boy). In this discourse, the language of human rights and equality is evoked in order to advocate for its necessity:


Teaching in digital humanities and Indigenous Studies classrooms, I advocate for OA, because it has the potential to serve the communities I am most accountable to. For too long, the academy has worked unilaterally with Indigenous communities, meaning that data has been taken out, largely by non-Indigenous researchers, but little, if anything, has gone back in.

In this sense, researchers have historically positioned themselves as resource extractors: mining communities for assets that support the development of the nation state, which, for hundreds of years, was at work on its own research question, what Duncan Campbell Scott called solving the “Indian problem.”

Against these contexts, although not without caveat, which I will come to in a moment, Open Access has the potential to undo the colonial infrastructure of the university insofar as it creates, or has the potential to create, accessible, and reciprocal, research pathways. Pathways that Indigenous faculty and students can mobilize against settler colonialism and towards resurgence, sovereignty, and self-determination.

Open Access: Questions & Concerns

That being said, I am also concerned about the language of OA and the neo-colonial ideologies it risks reproducing. Scholars such as Kim Christen (@mukurtu), Deirdre Brown, and George Nicholas, for instance, have produced research demonstrating that OA has very real consequences for Indigenous peoples, insofar as it contributes to neo-Enlightenment ideologies of entitlement to knowledge. According to Brown and Nicholas, the costs of OA for Indigenous peoples include:

loss of access to ancestral knowledge, loss of control over proper care of heritage, diminished respect for the sacred, commercialization of cultural distinctiveness, uses of special or sacred symbols that may be dangerous to the uninitiated, replacement of original tribally produced work with reproductions, threats to authenticity and loss of livelihood, among other things.[i]

I am also wary of the OA mandate because my Indigenous friends and colleagues demand it of me. Take, for instance, these words from Cree poet and scholar Billy Ray Belcourt, winner of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize, who wrote the following in response to a critic in a major Canadian literary magazine that chose to refer to his writing as “simple”:

You need to read, to listen, and to write from someplace else, from another social locus, a less sovereign one, a less hungry one. You are not invited into our tent. We are not yet at that point of hospitality. I will not tell you when this time has come.

“We are not yet at that point of hospitality.” This is to say, that “we,” in this instance Belcourt is directly referring to settler scholars like myself, are not welcome in some spaces. The door is closed—and rather than continuing to ask when it will open, perhaps, I think Belcourt is suggesting, we need to interrogate our own desires for open access.

“Remaining an outsider,” Chelsea Vowel writes, “might be the most respectful way you engage with another culture.

Vowel goes on,

If that is not enough for you, then you need to explore why that is. What access do you think you are owed? Why? How have you earned it? Who could appropriately give it to you? And, most important, what would further access do for the people you claim to admire so much?

It is against the critical backdrop offered by Belcourt and Vowel that I would like to suggest closure as an insight into data (perhaps accompanied with the hashtag #unpopularopinion). I know that openness is all the rage right now, but let’s just take a minute and think about what it might mean to take up “closure” as a way to facilitate the movement of information.

Closure in Relation to Openness

To begin, I want to make clear that “closed” is not the same as “stopped”. I am not suggesting that research with Indigenous communities end (although in some instances it probably should). In fact, much the opposite, I am suggesting that “closure” can facilitate the knowledge moving in a more ethical fashion. In a rather deconstructivist gesture, although I’ll spare you the Derrida, I want to suggest that closure should not be seen as an end to the conversation, but as a new beginning. I want to suggest closure as a path to openness.

As a non-Indigenous scholar who works with Indigenous communities, Indigenous faculty, and Indigenous students, listening to my collaborators and colleagues while recognizing their boundaries is an important and necessary part of what I do. There are places that I am not welcome and conversations that I should not be a part of–no matter how strong my relationships with those people and communities might be.

Métis artist and scholar, David Garneau, names these spaces of closure “irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality”:

Irreconcilable spaces of Aboriginality are gatherings, ceremony, nêhiyawak (Cree)–only discussions, kitchen-table conversations, email exchanges, et cetera, in which Blackfootness, Métisness, and so on, are performed without settler attendance. It is not a show for others but a site where people simply are, where they express and celebrate their continuity and figure themselves to, for, and with one another without the sense that they are being witnessed by people who are not equal participants.[iii]

These moments of closure are disquieting, of course, but they should also be instructive—exactly because, in Paulette Regan’s sense of the word, they are “unsettling.” They ask us to look inward, to interrogate our own desire as researchers, and to question the systems that hold up very specific, and often very Western, ways of knowing and sharing.

Acknowledging closure as a methodology is not only an ethical gesture, it is also just good scholarly practice (and I should add here that it is probably also a good policy practice). It means being a good relation. It means not getting in the way. It means deconstructing your own authority and expertise, and, in doing so, holding space for community knowledge keepers, for those who, under the logic of the public domain, have had their knowledge appropriated, decontextualized, and monetized.

As such, rather than taking it as censorship, or as a constraint on academic freedom, I want to suggest that closure is an academic gesture: it facilitates the growth and rigour of knowledge and it opens up stronger lines of communication between and across communities.

To put it differently, I learn more and I get better at my job when I acknowledge the existence of borders and my hosts’ right to open or close them without my consultation. The university benefits as a whole, when we think of research like this—as a relationship based on good boundaries and consent, as opposed to a “discovery” wrought from the mind of individual genius.[i]

Digital Sovereignty

I want to end this blog post by positing three concepts through which settler DHers might consider reorienting their own teaching and research to better accommodate Indigenous peoples and issues. Existing research in Indigenous data sovereignty has emphasized data management (McMahon et al 2015), community-level governance (Woodbury et al 2019) and “human interoperability” (Church et al 2017), but it does not address the relational practices of building tools for data mobilization.

My argument builds on the existing approaches, but re-centers the conversation on what Jentery Sayers identifies as our relational “entanglements” with technology and how these entanglements provide the opportunity to connect research across Indigenous studies and DH (2).

In order to build this argument, and to demonstrate where DH might make practical changes in its organization towards a decolonial approach, I turn to the contexts of Indigenous new media, particularly what is known in the field as “visual sovereignty,” which I believe, in its emphasis on visual technologies, is particularly well-fit for DH.

For Kristen Dowell, who writes extensively on the topic in Screen Sovereignty: Aboriginal Media on the Canadian West Coast, visual sovereignty is achieved through three interrelated processes, which, I argue, are also connected to Deloria’s concept of “cultural integrity.” I will paraphrase those points below with an eye towards developing them for DH initiatives. In brief the categories are audience, production, and mobilization:

1) Audience:

Audience refers to the imagined recipients of a DH project as that project is in construction. For too long, Indigenous data has been rendered down into visualizations intended for a white settler gaze. How data is presented, and for whom, therefore has specific representational impacts with larger socio-political implications. By reclaiming Indigenous audiences as the intended recipients of front-facing DH projects, Indigenous DH scholars, or allied scholars working in reciprocity with Indigenous peoples, produce work that centres Indigenous ways of knowing while setting important political and aesthetic boundaries.

This is accomplished by Indigenous peoples establishing Indigenous points of access to meaning in a DH initiative, which can—but need not—accommodate non-Indigenous viewers. For many non-Indigenous DH scholars, with limited knowledge of Canada’s colonial histories, unsettling our understanding of a project’s audience is hard, but necessary work.

It means grappling with the ongoing effects of settler colonialism as while as the legacies of violence and extractivism marshaled against Indigenous peoples in Canada, both IRL and URL. It also means acknowledging the boundaries of what we can know, or what we should have access to. In other words, audience is a means of considering closure.

2) Production:

Intimately connected with audience, the communal act of building a project (rather than the finished product itself) can function as a politically galvanizing force against settler colonialism. Developed in relation with Indigenous peoples and ideas, building a DH project can create safe spaces Indigenous and allied makers to gather, learn, and create together. Speaking specifically of film, Dowell writes that, “translating an Indigenous story to the screen is an active process, and it is out of these off-screen negotiations that Aboriginal social relations can be shaped and constituted” (3).

While a data management project looks much different than film production, I argue that the potential for community building in DH is still active. Feminist DH, for example, is well aware of that technology best challenges power when it is  “building participatory, inclusive processes of knowledge production” D’Ignazio & Klein 18).

In its emphasis on critical making (Sayers 2018), DH is particularly well-positioned to facilitate anti-colonial gatherings, as long as they are centering Indigenous voices and decentering non-Indigenous audiences. Also writing to maker culture, Leanne Simpson argues that spaces of communal production, “interrogate the space of empire and envision and perform ways out of it” offering a “glimpse of decolonized contemporary reality” (“Bubbling” 116).

Working together towards the development of a decolonial DH project has the potential to forge new alliances across communities while generating a shared language of resurgence.

3) Mobilization:

Once they are crafted and carefully consulted, the rigorous dissemination of Indigenous DH projects has the potential to chip away at settler colonial ideology. As noted in point number one, Indigenous identity has, for too long, been represented through the lens of non-Indigenous researchers and cultural producers. This has skewed not only the ways in which settlers see and understand indigeneity, but also how Indigenous peoples see themselves (King 64).

With the dominant representations of Indigenous peoples still being framed through a settler lens, more Indigenous content, more widely distributed, is necessary to reclaim representation: “By seizing and reconfiguring the means of production, Dowell writes, Indigenous cultural producers “overturn unequal power dynamics to claim their right to self-representation” (5).

Where non-Indigenous DH scholars can work to combat colonial representation is through signal boosting Indigenous voices and perspectives. This can occur, for example, via data visualizations that reject deficit modelling, digital storytelling projects that centre Indigenous voices, or social media campaigns that callout racist and stereotypical depictions of Indigenous peoples (such as the #settlercollective initiative).

In a colonial system in which Indigenous presence is all too often absent from the broader spectrum of politics, using our platforms to amplify (but not speak for) Indigenous voices can, “serve to buttress other forms of [Indigenous] political action” (Dowell 4).

Critical Digital Humanities

It is in working from a definition of DH that is inherently political that I suggest DH can most productively turn towards decolonial strategies with Indigenous scholars, programmers, artists, and community members: thinking specifically about who is being brought together in a DH environment, for whom the work is being created (and for what purpose), and how the making will be mobilized.

The most vital contribution DH can make in these regards will thus not be found in the way the field privileges technology, but in its potential as a space that facilitates community and directs resources to Indigenous makers, both inside and outside of the academy.

By actively thinking about boundary work in these spaces, that is the particular expertise that contributing parties bring to the work, and the limits of what each party can and should contribute, DH can facilitate reciprocal DH makerspaces based in informed, ongoing consent that privileges relationship, not tools.

Further to this, I want to posit that the university benefits as a whole when it thinks of research as a relationship based on informed, ongoing consent, and reciprocity as opposed to a “discovery,” which, has clear connections to settler colonial ideologies.

Thinking DH as a relationship means going beyond the digital to think of how the field can contribute, IRL, in our respective institutions. Closure, in this sense, is a way to think meaningfully about the ways in which we not only include Indigenous content in our research and teaching, but also how we can unsettle the larger colonial structures into which that content is placed.  

Closure means calling out racism and white supremacy as we see it taking shape on campus. It means recognizing the massive amounts of unrecognized service and emotional labour that Indigenous peoples are asked to undertake in the name of “decolonizing” the university system, and it means giving Indigenous faculty, staff, and students a meaningful option to say “stop” and to exert boundaries within the institution.

Closure, in this sense, is—or rather can lead to—openness; it is not antithetical to it. It builds capacity, allowing overburdened thinkers and makers the space to flourish. The result is a continuum, along which there are a number of points in which closed, open, and stopped intersect, overlap and inform one another.

Closure as a Relational Methodology

For both Indigenous and settler DH scholars closure as a relational methodology means

1) responding to the call for enhanced knowledge dissemination (Deloria’s “the right to know”) particularly as it emanates out of UNDRIP while

2) rethinking who is in control of digital projects (and thus what gets done and who learns about it, and

3) respecting Indigenous sovereignty via the limitations expressed in OCAP® and other Indigenous approaches to data and the digital.

To reiterate, closure does not mean stopping digital research that investigates Indigenous or decolonial topics. In fact, the call for closure is a call to action, but it is simultaneously a call that unpacks and unsettles what DH is and who it serves.

This year will mark the eleventh anniversary of Open Access week, and it is indisputable that much good work has been done.  But as we enter the next ten years, I want to suggest that it is time for a change in the way we think and articulate “open”: a methodology aimed at inclusivity, democracy, and human rights: To come back to Belcourt, “We are not yet at that point of hospitality.”

It’s time to think about where Open can’t and shouldn’t go. It’s time to think about closure.



[i] Brown and Nicholas, “Protecting indigenous cultural property in the age of digital democracy: Institutional and communal responses to Canadian First Nations and Māori heritage concerns”

[ii] Terry Eagleton, “Don’t Deride Derrida.”

[iii] David Garneau, “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation, and Healing,” 27.

[iv] Paulette Regan, Unsettling the Settler Within, 60.

[v] Garneau 23.

[vi] The two paragraphs above are based out of an essay I published in The Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

[vii] Thanks to Sunah Cho for sharing her thoughts on open access continuums with me.

One comment

  1. […] “Towards a Methodology of Closure” by David Gaertner […]

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