Best Practices for Approaching Indigenous Studies through the Digital Humanities


The following summary of best practices was compiled out of the Symposium for Indigenous New Media as a primer for digital humanists that want to engage with Indigenous peoples and data. It is by no means comprehensive. We hope that it can be used as springboard for deeper engagement with the literature and the community of practice. See the Novel Alliances New Media reading list here

1) Be a good relation: build meaningful relationships with community and individuals and resist parachute DH-ing. This means reaching out before, during, and after a project, lending support and resources for issues not necessarily connected to the research, and ensuring that participants have ample time to comment on drafts and final reports. Allocate money in your budget to training community. Pay people for their time or, even better, find ways to pay people to participate in training. On the other end, being a good relation also requires administrative support: the time and emotional labour put into Indigenous DH, particularly by Indigenous peoples, must be better recognized by department heads and tenure committees.

2) People over tools: this means, simply, that the community should always matter more than tool or research you are developing. Oftentimes, this can mean letting a project go before it is complete–if you don’t have community support. It might also mean rethinking your research schedule (and maybe your tenure clock)—no matter how mind-blowing and useful the tool you designed might be. People over tools also means acknowledging that that technology doesn’t save culture or language. People do that. Indigenous people have been doing that, in the face of colonialism, for 150+. What if you started with the idea that DH is nothing without stories? That story telling and gathering is a core technology that provides for the digital humanities (not the other way around). Move away narratives of preservation and lean into the ways in which DH can bare witness to resurgence and desire-centered research (Tuck).

3) Consent: Do better. Settler colonialism (colonialism premised on the displacement and erasure of Indigenous people) is defined as a non-consensual relationship, so we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard as researchers working with community. All too often, and this is perhaps amplified in the post-TRC moment, Indigenous buy-in is an afterthought in academic research—a box to be checked after the project has been completed or is near completion. Being accountable to the community or person you are working with and that means checking in throughout the project. A “yes” at the beginning is not a “yes” at the middle or end. DH needs to be a bastion for consent if it is to be worthwhile for any of the communities we claim to serve. This means starting at the core of our relationships: the non-consent of actions performed on stolen land. Where does your research question come from? What does your research give back?

4) Take data sovereignty seriously: Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor write that Data sovereignty is “linked with indigenous peoples’ right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as their right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over these.” In Canadian contexts, this means holding up the principles of OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access, Permission), as developed by the First Nations Information Governance Centre, and rejecting, as Christen puts it, the liberal dictum of “information wants to be free.” If you are fortunate enough to work with community, realize that their rules of data stewardship may different than your field’s or your institution’s. While it may be “legal” for you to use data in a particular way, recognize that the university has been complicit in the theft of Indigenous knowledge since the onset of colonization. As with consent, hold yourself to a higher standard and familiarize yourself with the guidelines that are available.

5) Include Indigenous thinkers, programmers on your syllabi: not only is there a wealth of critical and creative Indigenous content out there that you and your students will benefit from studying—but including Indigenous technologies on a new media or DH syllabus is a political act. The settler colonial project works by simplifying Indigeniety and relegating it to the past. Indigenous digital humanities holds up Indigenous presence and Indigenous futures and we need to train the next generation of scholars to read with Indigenous technology. Some books to get you started:

6) Make safe spaces for Indigenous students: Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz have written about how, in the post-TRC moment, universities are scrambling to Indigenize, that is hiring Indigenous faculty and recruiting Indigenous students. However, he argues, they are doing much less towards decolonizing, which is to say that the colonial infrastructure of universities is going largely unchanged.[1] Supporting Indigenous students means advocating for tenure-stream Indigenous positions and cluster hires, but it also means making safe spaces (URL and IRL) available for Indigenous students to share ideas and support one another. Further, if you are asking students to engage in open access platforms, remember that Indigenous peoples and particularly in Indigenous women and Indigenous queer/no-binary folk are much more likely to be subject to online racism violence and hate. Be thoughtful in your consideration of digital spaces to mobilize Indigenous voices. Look to platforms where students can work together with systems of support in place.

Engaging (or making) Indigenous new media means also means thinking about:

  1. Makers: Who are they? Who are they accountable to? Who do they make work for and why? What counts as making in DH (e.g. is beading a DH maker project?) Why?
  2. Audiences: How are they connected to the work? Are all of them necessary (e.g. do you need to worry about legibility for non-Indigenous audiences)? What audiences should be held up? Who isn’t invited? (And, if its you, are you prepared to leave and not be defensive about it?)
  3. Land: How is land represented? What from the land is being (re)mediated, and how? How do different technologies engage with land (e.g. AR versus VR). If, as Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang suggest, “decolonization is not a metaphor,” can digital representation of land extend beyond allegory? How?
  4. Data Sovereignty: Who controls the data? Who has access? How are these protocols established and maintained? If data is stored at a University repository (or Compute Canada) how do we ensure that community has access? How are we ensuring that the OCAP principles are integrated in DH projects?
  5. Self-determination: Who gets to tell the story? Who controls how that story is represented? Who determines the final cut? Can changes be made after launch? Who is credited? Who benefits?
  6. Consent: Who can give (or withdraw) consent to data usage? How do we protect consent? How do we establish channels that ensure that consent can be withdrawn?
  7. Surveillance: Who is watching? To what end? Is it safe to represent the data set you are working with in a public sphere? Is the exchange (e.g. getting the data out there) worth the oversight (e.g. having state or RCMP eyes on it)?
  8. Protocol: How do we respectfully engage through protocol? How do we respectfully create? When does appreciation become appropriation? What do you do if you make a mistake? How do you show appreciation (payment, gifting, etc.)
  9. Accessibility: Who can/can’t access it? Who should/shouldn’t? What are the barriers (e.g. broadband access/digital divide, language, drain on data)?
  10. Empowerment: Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to teach it? Who gets to learn about it?
  11. History: Who gets to define “technology”? Who is ignored? What kinds of technology can we articulate outside of the mainstream narrative? What does technology mean to the community you are working with?
  12. Futures: Whose future does technology service? How is technology implicated in settler colonialism? How do we imagine technology otherwise? How does technology service what JAson Edward Lewis calls “the Indigenous Future Imaginary.”

[1] Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz, “Indigenization as inclusion, reconciliation, and decolonization: navigating the different visions for indigenizing the Canadian Academy.” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 14.3 (2018): 218-227.

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