Text from my keynote for DHSI@Congress. June 5, 2019.
Good morning! It is so wonderful to be here with here with you during Congress 2019. This community has meant so much to me in my career, first as a grad student and now as a teacher and researcher, so it’s an honour to be with you to open up DHSI at Congress.
I want to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered here today on the unceded, traditional, and ancestral territories of the Musqueam people. Much of my work on digital technologies has focused on the relationship between land, technology, and story and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the intellectual generosity shown to me by the Musqueam community.
I also want to let you know, off the top, that many of the images I am using today are taken from a gallery install that Autumn Schnell and I curated as part of HASTAC 2019, “Decolonizing Technologies, Reprogramming Education.” With their permission, I’ve listed the names of those artists on the slides. If you’d like to know please come and see me after the talk.
My name is David Gaertner and I am a settler scholar and Assistant Professor in the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. I come from German ancestry on both my mother and my father’s sides. My dad grew up in a little farming community in Tisdale, Saskatchewan and my mom was raised on the army base that used to sit in Tsawwassen against the Point Robert’s border crossing. I grew up in Semiahmoo territory, in what is now known as Surrey, and I completed my undergrad, in English Literature, right here at UBC, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
We’ve seen a lot of changes at UBC since I was an undergrad. When I was here, there were few, if any, territorial acknowledgments, there was no Musqueam flag flying over the Rose Garden, there were no hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ street signs. I can tell you, with embarrassment, that when I was busy studying Shakespeare and Wayson Choy in my classes, I had no idea that this was unceded land. I didn’t even know what unceded meant.
I can also tell that when I started grad school in 2005, with the aim of studying Indigenous literature, I had no embodied sense of what it meant for me, as a white guy, to take up that research. I knew that I loved Thomas King and Louise Erdrich, and that the work was important. I hoped I could contribute to the conversation in meaningful ways and I hoped I could do good.
Good intentions notwithstanding, however, I wasn’t able to process, through my research, how residential schools punished children for sharing their stories and languages; I couldn’t articulate how the Indian Act, which made it illegal for Indigenous peoples to practice ceremony and share culture, was caught up in literary production; and I didn’t interrogate the involuntary enfranchisement laws that stripped Indigenous people of their indigeneity if they attended the very same universities in which I was obtaining my degrees. To be clear, it’s not that I didn’t know about these things; its that I didn’t, in fact couldn’t, carry them into my research in the same way my Indigenous friends and teachers did. It was a fundamental misunderstanding of our difference, nurtured by a Canadian political system that lies about equality, that got in my way.
Thanks to those same friend and teachers, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to think more deeply about the violence of settler colonialism and what it means to do research within it and I’d like to think my ability to write against settler colonialism and with Indigenous scholars and community members has improved over the years. Still, those histories will never be my own, and that I can teach and write without those burdens is a privilege that I am still learning to mobilize effectively.
At the core of this privilege is a conflict of ideas, which some insist is a paradox, but which I would like to suggest is an critical starting point for non-Indigenous peoples who want to be of service: on the one hand the hard labour of dismantling settler colonialism should not and cannot be shouldered by Indigenous peoples alone—it requires a distribution of labour that should compel us all to contribute; on the other hand, being supportive also means recognizing that you will not always be welcome in all spaces all the time, that there are, to borrow from Métis artist and scholar David Garneau, “irreconcilable spaces of aboriginality”: spaces in which non-Indigenous presence actually inhibits the work that needs to be done.
Respecting these boundaries means coming to terms with Indigenous sovereignty—a concept I want to come back to in a couple of different ways in this morning’s talk. It also means not letting your feelings get hurt when you are asked to leave or to refrain from entering a space.
I wanted to start this morning with a little bit of positioning for a couple of reasons 1) because positionality is an important part of what we do in Indigenous studies, even—and perhaps particularly—within the often anonymous landscapes of cyberspace and 2) because of this question of “decolonial DH?,” which makes up the first half of the title of my talk.
I wanted to start today with a question, because I am concerned “decolonial DH” is becoming more of a statement in our field. And while we’ve seen a heartening shift in recent years, with contributions from scholars such as Jordan Abel, Deanna Reder, Dorothy Kim, and Kush Patel, for instance, DH is still, as Tara McPherson pointed out in 2012, overwhelmingly white.
To paraphrase a 2018 essay by Cree poet and scholar, Billy-Ray Belcourt, which you see up here on the screen, I don’t think we’re at that point of hospitality where a non-Indigenous statement about decolonization is something that a good guest would offer, by which I mean I don’t think we have yet been welcomed to use “decolonization” as one of the DH keywords.
This is not to say that decolonial work is not happening in DH. I don’t want to erase Indigneous presence in the field in my critique. Deanna Reder’s The People and The Text project, for instance, is a beautiful example of how DH is been mobilized by Indigenous peoples towards sovereign Indigenous ends. So yes, before one you out there says it, not all DH. But that is not the point I am trying to make. This is not a finger wagging talk; I am not here to cast blame on this audience, and I want to recognize the role my own work, in the very field I am critiquing today, has played in getting us to where we are. To borrow from feminist methodologies, this is not a talk about calling out, but rather about calling in, about creating space for a more robust discussion about what DH can contribute to issues around reconciliation, resurgence, resistance, and, yes, even decolonization.
And, as, such I’d like to take this space, so graciously offered by DHSI, for us to slow down and consider some questions about Decolonial DH.
- Do documents like the TRC’s Calls to Action and the Final Report compel DH towards decolonization? And, if so, in what direction and for what purpose?
- Is decolonial DH, as practiced by non-Indigenous scholars necessary labour that is being taking up with and for and Indigenous peoples? Or, is it, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have suggested, a metaphor that “problematically attempts to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity.”
- What kids of spaces does DH generate (physically, digitally, ideologically). How can we facilitate and support Indigenous DH space?
- How can we reorient our politics of citation so that Indigenous peoples and people of colour figure more prominently in our critical genealogies? How can we use the tools of DH itself to amplify those voices and disrupt the predominantly white hand of techne?
- How can we “read” our tools with and through the literature of Indigenous studies and critical race studies?
These are just a few of the questions that have me thinking right now, and you probably have more. I am not going to pretend that I have clear answers to any of them today, because, as a rule, settler colonialism is far more complex than that will allow for, but I hope you will hold those questions in mind through this talk and through the amazing day of programming the DHSI folks have planned for us today.
Today, I want to provide some deeper context for the ways in which we think about data in DH, which I will do by telling a story about resistance to colonial data extraction. Following that story, I will argue, via Leanne Simpson and Jentery Sayers, that maker spaces are activating sites in the fight against racism and white supremacy.
A Story about People and Resistance
The story is set on Vancouver Island, in Nuu-chan-ulth territory, and the University of British Columbia and it features well-intended settler researchers, and, more importantly, the Nuu-chan-ulth people, whose resistance to colonial data extraction is core to how data sovereignty is configured—which I will get to in a moment.
To begin: In the early 1980s Dr. Christopher Atkins was the Resident Rheumatologist in the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, out of which he served patients in Nanaimo, Comox, Campbell River, and Port Alberni, the traditional territories of the Nuu-chan-ulth
In Port Alberni, working in the Ahousaht community, Atkins was alarmed to by the exceptionally high prevalence of various forms of rheumatic diseases (including rheumatoid arthritis, connective tissue disease, and lupus, amongst others) that he found in Nuu-chah-nulth family groupings. Atkins estimated that two thirds of the Nuu-chah-nulth people (roughly 66%) suffered from rheumatic diseases, compared to 1% in European populations.
With the aim of establishing a genetic determinant of rheumatoid diseases, which might in turn lead to a cure or improved treatment for patients, Atkins approached the BC Ministry of Health to develop a study.
Through the Ministry, Atkins was put in contact with UBC researcher Dr. Richard (Ryk) Ward, an up and coming geneticist known for his work in anthropological genetics and research in South America, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.
With Atkins’ data as grounds for further research, Ward applied for, and received, $330,000 from Health Canada, and with a team of doctors, nurses, and UBC Medical students, he commenced what was, at the time, the largest-ever genetic study of an Indigenous community in Canada. Ward and his team setup clinics in Nuu-chah-nulth communities across the island, collecting more than 800 blood samples and nearly 2,000 interviews, which were recorded and stored in his UBC lab.
The Nuu-chah-nulth people who volunteered their blood, did so with hope that Ward and his team could provide relief. “I gave my blood, and gave permission to take my children’s blood because they said this study would help us out” (Katherine Frank in conversation with David Wiwchar in 2000).
The stark need for this research, the desire to stop suffering in their community, facilitated Ward and his team obtaining consent from volunteers, in accordance with Health Canada research regulations.
Ward’s particular consent form dealt specifically with rheumatoid diseases, stating that the blood would be studied in order to determine, “if heredity factors are important in this problem.”
However, after four years of research and field work, his study abruptly ended. Ward left his position at UBC to take up a job at the University of Utah, and left his findings on rheumatoid arthritis with the Nuu-chah-nulth unpublished and without a presentation of results to the community. In his final report to the National Health Research Development Program he wrote “We were unable to make a satisfactory diagnosis.”
While his relationship with the Nuu-chah-nulth people was over, however, Ward’s work with their blood samples had just begun. In fact, Ward would go on to publish more than 200 papers on topics such as HIV/AIDS and population genetics using those same samples as a dataset, without the consent of the volunteers and without open lines of communication for how the data would be used or towards what ends.
Most famously, with a $172,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Ward developed a anthropological theory about Nuu-Chah-Nulth origins and the Beringia land-bridge theory, which was widely disseminated, effectively transforming the appropriation of blood into the appropriation of story, undermining how and where the Nuu-chah-nulth told the narrative of their nation and people.
In 1992, the BBC aired a documentary entitled, “In Search of the First Americans,” which shows video of Ward drawing blood from Nuu-chah-nulth people in the 1980s, for rheumatoid analysis, while a narrator falsely informs the audience that Ward was “trying to determine how long they’ve been here by examining DNA extracted from their blood”.
Without consent from the donors, or even knowledge of how their data was being studied, Nuu-Chah-nulth blood, travelled around the world. The Ha-Silth-Sa reported that
some or all of the blood has traveled from the west coast of Vancouver Island to the labs at U.B.C., the University of Alberta in Edmonton, The University of Western Washington in Seattle, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and the University of Oxford in England, to name only a few. Data from those blood samples are frequently borrowed by researchers from GenBank in Maryland, and incorporated in studies around the world.
In 1994, Ward became full professor and head of the Institute of Biological Anthropology at the University of Oxford, England where he continued a prestigious career founded in field research and international travel.
When the story was reported by Ha-Silth-Sa in 2000, leading to further media attention and a public response from UBC, Ward finally admitted that he had used the blood for further studies without permission and stated that he would offer an apology to the Nuu-chah-nulth. At the same time the Nuu-chah-nulth also petitioned Oxford, who held the blood until 2008, for an apology. Neither Ward nor the university ever delivered.
Ward died unexpectedly in 2003. The blood was returned to the Nuu-chah-nulth, and destroyed by them, in 2008.
So why am I telling you this story this morning? Why does a 30-year-old case study in research ethics still matter and what does it have to do with the digital?
First, and most directly to my opening point, I think the Nuu-chah-nulth story help to illustrate the density and complexity of what it means to presume “decolonial DH” at this particular moment.
I wanted to start with the Nuu-chah-nulth story today, because it is specific to the extractive research legacy of this institution and this province–but it is just one of many examples we could draw from in which settler researchers use Indigenous data sets to the benefit of their own careers, their “field” of research, or the “public good.” The Nuu-chah-nulth story illustrates the damage and dehumanization caused by the extraction and de-contextualization of Indigenous data by well-intentioned researchers. Unless considered carefully, digital spaces, and open access protocols reproduce and amplify these risks.
The on-going history of non-consensual data extraction is not simply symptomatic of settler colonialism, it is a constitutive piece of terra nullius: the erasure of Indigenous peoples as peoples, with inherent rights and their own histories of research and science. To quote Sarah Hunt,
Processes of colonialism in North America involved representational strategies that transformed Indigenous peoples and their lands conceptually and materially, in order to facilitate their displacement and to render them less human.
Unless DH is able and willing to contend with the long durée of data extraction, captured, but not contained, in the Ward example, we risk replicating—if not accentuating—the representational strategies that Sarah Hunt notes here: a settler colonial history of data collection, stewardship, and mobilization that effaces Indigenous agency and, in doing so, reifies settler authority, even when, maybe particularly when, it is done with the best intentions.
With the very issue of what it means to be human in mind, then, my critique of “decolonial DH” and data extraction, is articulated through what Métis author and editor Cherie Dimaline calls “shallow reconciliation.”
For Dimaline, “shallow reconciliation” means business as usual for the settler state. Or, to put it more strongly, it means settlers apologizing and “helping” while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that “the Western way of thinking about our world is a broken theory, that Indigenous Traditional Knowledge is vital to any forward movement.”
Shallow decolonization is a “Decolonial DH” anthology that does not include Indigenous contributors. It is a database that archives Indigenous materials without considering how the community they belong to will access them. It is a methodologies chapter that doesn’t investigate the ways in which information communication technologies have been mobilized to erase and displace Indigenous peoples.
So how do we avoid shallow decolonization in DH?
A good place to begin is with data sovereignty. According to Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, “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.”
Open North, in collaboration with the BC First Nations Data Governance Initiative writes that,
the issue of Indigenous Data Sovereignty is central to a robust definition of data sovereignty in contexts with a colonial past and present. This is in part due to the fact that colonial countries have, by their very essence, multiple governments functioning within them; some recognized, others not [this point speaks to the nation-to-nation relationship embedded within data sovereignty conversations]. There is a need to have well-defined relationships with the Indigenous nations whose territories fall within their asserted boundaries.
Which is to say that Indigenous data is not “landless” and it is not pan-Indigenous—it is connected to ongoing peoples and places and the rights and laws that have existed within individual nations and outside of federal jurisdiction since time immemorial.
In Canadian terms, data sovereignty translates directly into the OCAP principles developed by the First Nations Indigenous Governance Centre (FNIGC): Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession. According to the FNIGC, OCAP is a
A set of standards that establish how First Nations data should be collected, protected, used, or shared. They are the de facto standard for how to conduct research with First Nations.
OCAP defines how researchers can use data in ways that benefit Indigenous communities while minimizing harm. It represents a set of Indigenous protocols, developed in direct response to cases such as the Nuu-chah-nulth story, that regulate how data moves and to what ends.
I’m not going to get into OCAP in any more detail here; it’s something you can read about yourself—hopefully its something you’ve already encountered and incorporated into your classes. Indigenous data management is not a fringe issue and, as DH scholars, it should be core to how we teach and conduct research on data collection, stewardship, and mobilization. The basic point I want to get across in these opening remarks is that data is a relationship mediated within the contexts of power, race, gender, and settler colonialism. As DH researchers we have a duty and responsibility to attend to this relationship in our research and teaching.
I am not adding anything new with this information; I am simply want to reinforce would should be standard practice in the field.
Moving out of a foundation of Indigenous-led data initiatives, however, I want to suggest a further space of relationality, which might be mobilized in resistance to shallow decolonization, via the maker movement.
Maker Methods Across Indigenous Studies and the Digital Humanities
And it is at this point where I would to draw Leanne Betasamosake Simpson into the conversation, holding her impressive body of work up against the white maleness of the maker movement in order to illustrate a potential for new space with DH.
Simpson’s work is well regarded for its collectivizing potential. Reading Simpson’s her creative texts aesthetically, Michelle Lacombe argues that Simpson illustrates how “collaboration between urban/land/community-based storytellers working in different media opens up a space for youth to find their own voices and resurges Anishinaabe cultural values.”
My argument, however, approaches Simpson’s work, not from an aesthetic perspective, but from a materialist, maker ethic that establishes the act of creation as a relationship: between makers, technology, and the environment.
And this is where I come against the quotation that some of you may have already noted in the abstract for this keynote:
By becoming makers we disconnect ourselves from being consumers engaged in the corporate-capitalist empire. We become producers of not just things but of our own meanings. We become makers of our own visions. (“Bubbling Like a Beating Heart”)
It’s not, of course, because she is appealing directly to Indigenous audiences here, but Simpson’s quote could have been lifted directly from a maker manifesto—with its emphasis on creation over consumption and her insistence that making can produce new kinds of being in the world. In this short passage, Simpson charges her readers to consider how meaning is produced through the act of creation and how change is produced through the materialization of ideas.
With parallels to the Arts & Crafts movement of the 19th century, which, of course, marks an important moment in the repression of Indigenous cultural production, I argue that Simpson is calling for a resurgence of Indigenous making—as a critical methodology and community building tool: a means to undo the internalized violence of settler colonialism and generate sovereign space for Indigenous makers and Indigenous ideas.
Simpson’s appeal to maker ethics is not simply rhetorical. She herself is deeply embedded in maker culture. As a poet, theorist, musician, and film collaborator, her work productively blurs the tired boundaries between craftsmanship and intellectual work, insofar as it demonstrates the ways in which ideas are taken up as relationship towards the production of cultural objects.
This Accident of Being Lost, for instance, Simpson’s second creative text, has been made into, a series of music videos and films with a variety of Indigenous artists, including Biidiiban, which Simpson produced with Métis filmmaker and artist Amanda Strong.
At the core of Simpson’s maker ethic, which we see articulated across her creative and critical practices is a deep sense of building and strengthening Indigenous communities via artistic, intellectual, and financial reciprocity, what she refers to elsewhere as “decolonial love”.
This is her in an interview with Jessica Johns of Room Magazine:
I had a grant so a lot of people suggested I make one really good video, and spend the money on one video rather than split it up, but I wanted to see how these stories travelled through our communities. Having different artists from different disciplines, different nations, and different geographies interpret and layer different meanings, sometimes meanings that I didn’t intend and sometimes meanings that were very intentional, onto the work gave me the opportunity to see how these stories live and breathe in the world.
It’s here, in the way that Simpson speaks to the collectivizing potential of making, and the potential to breathe life into ideas, that I argue she is establishing sovereign spaces for decolonial production.
Allow me to unpack that a little within the contexts of Indigenous studies. In the act of drawing Indigenous community together via maker culture, Simpson is enacting what Kristen Dowell, building from Jolene Rickard, identifies as “visual sovereignty”, the articulation of Indigenous peoples “distinctive cultural traditions, political status, and collective identities through aesthetic and cinematic means.”
For Dowell, visual sovereignty is achieved through three interrelated processes:
- Understanding of audience: settler colonialism functions, in part, in how it renders Indigeneity down for consumption by the settler gaze. By reclaiming Indigenous audiences as the intended recipients, Indigenous filmmakers (and makers), produce creative work that centers Indigenous ways of knowing and sets important political and aesthetic boundaries by establishing Indigenous points of access to meaning.
- Production: Intimately connected with audience, Indigenous acts of production (that is the process of making) can function as a politically galvanizing force, insofar as they create safe spaces for community to gather, learn, and heal together. Working together towards the development of a creative work generates bonds and alliances across communities while generating a shared language of resurgence that exceeds the work itself and spills over into new projects and maker movements.
- Mobilization: as Indigenous film and media is more widely distributed via digital platforms, international exhibitions, and wide-release film distribution, it is reclaiming—for Indigenous peoples—what community-specific indigeneity is. These identities have often been overdetermined by the narratives of white, male researchers such as Ward, but film and maker culture, produced by artists such as Simpson are generating new spaces, from which Indigenous peoples can safely interrogate identity.
It is in working from a definition of maker culture that is inherently political, as Dowell helps us to theorize here, and as Simpson outlines in her practice, that I suggest we might most productively turn towards “decolonial DH”: not in the way it privileges things or technology, but in its potential as a social relationship, a space that galvanizes Indigenous community, around, though, and with technology broadly conceived.
That being said, of course, the maker movement itself is also deeply rooted in the colonial heteropatriarchy, so any translation across the two fields—DH and Indigenous studies—must be negotiated carefully and thoughtfully.
I want to attempt to open up some potential spaces for conversation here.
The maker movement is an extenuation of DIY culture rooted in the creation of new technologies and the manipulation of, or “tinkering” with, of existing ones, including both software and hardware. It revels in practical skills, “hands-on” problem-solving, and open-source culture, all of which are shared via design “cookbooks,” exploded diagrams, and explainer videos that can be found on websites and publications like makezine, instructables, thingiverse, and DIY.org.
In terms of DH, maker culture has found the most traction in 3D printing, milling machines, and laser cutting (particularly as those technologies can be used in museums), but there are also “low”-tech applications, for instance with soundscapes, paper-prototyping (something I use regularly in my classrooms) board game design. Marcel O’Gorman has even gone so far as to argue for neo-luddite maker labs, in which users develop pinhole cameras and objects that speak to “life beyond the screen” (122).
I suspect that many of you in this room are familiar with maker culture through the work of our colleague Jentery Sayers, whose Maker Lab operated at the University of Victoria.
Sayers work has been instrumental in how I imagine my own applications of maker culture in the classroom and also how I’ve begun to theorize the neo-colonial, and anti-technocapitalist implications of the movement.
Drawing on Sayers, and his work in Making Things and Drawing Boundaries, there are two interconnected points I want to advance about maker culture as it translates across DH and Indigenous Studies and which I think we can use as points for further conversation in what decolonial DH might looks like:
- Undoing Mastery
- Embracing “low”-tech
First, if we are to shift emphasis away from the thing, and focus instead on social relationships (as per the tenets of visual sovereignty), rejecting mastery, or at least gently pushing it to the side, has to be core to our approach.
Sayers writes that,
knowledge of circuitry is often conflated with (superheroic) command over people, situations, and things. In present-day “maker” cultures, consider the ubiquity of remarks such as “getting under the hood” or “knowing the nuts and bolts,” which tend to fuse logic with mastery, control with masculinity, engineering with rationality, and programming with revealing. (3)
When we privilege mastery in the classroom, of code, of design, of tools, we risk stifling the ideas that stand a chance of facilitating change, in the field of DH and, more broadly, in the sociopolitical sphere. At stake in the mastery formulation, Sayers reminds us, is who gets to be a maker and who the object is made for. This risk is particularly heightened when we fail to interrogate how mastery, and indeed, technology, is caught up in very particular systems of power and settler colonialism, which have been traditionally mobilized to reinforce savage/civilized binaries.
Letting go of mastery, in DH, and maker culture, means embracing the beautifully human distinctions that delineate us from STEM research and pedagogy. In the classroom, this means giving students the opportunity to find meaning in failure, to do away with assumption that technology can provide more lucid, transparent access to truth, and instead directing attention our to how, as Sayers puts it, we are “entangled with technology.”
In Indigenous studies letting go of mastery, and the masculinist and capitalist tropes associated with it, does not mean forgoing rigor and complex, technological thinking. You might, for instance, look at Haudenosaunee wampum belts as an early example of hypertext (following the work of Cherokee scholar Angela Haas), or engage with Indigenous VR and AI, via the work of the Initiative for Indigenous Futures. It does mean, however, abandoning the settler colonial myth of progress and the fallacious idea, unfortunately still all too common today, that Indigeneity and technology are mutually exclusive terms.
Letting go of mastery opens up the space to interject Indigenous ideas and politics into digital platforms without constantly worrying that the latter will subsume the former. And by interrogating the mastery myth in our classrooms, we provide opportunities to consider the relationship between power and DH.
Letting go of mastery means the technical object no longer has to be our final destination, in our classrooms, in our research: rather how we formulate ideas and build community and conversation around that object, in our attempts and our failures, can take precedence.
And this point lends itself to the second point I want to make about “low”-tech.
In the introduction to Making things and building boundaries, Sayers begins with a quotation from artist Laurie Anderson, who works extensively with technologies as art forms:
I don’t know all the circuitry, but I can do first aid
Sayers interprets this quotation as a means to interrogate technology while generating an open invitation to explore it, “that is, we can reject the autonomy or privacy of technologies without supposing we know them completely” (2).
And while maker culture presents a number of issues that need to be interrogated, most explicitly its whiteness and maleness, it is this invitation that I find most provocative and useful in my own teaching and research.
There are lots of DHers in the room, so I know many of you have had conversations with students and colleagues about how they are “terrible with technology.” I’m sure many of you have been called into an office because someone can’t figure out how to format a Word doc, or brought into a panel at a conference because the Chair can’t get the projector to work.
There is an assumption that what we do, as technology scholars, is somehow discrete from humanities research, that we have an access pass that they somehow forgot to collect, or that it doesn’t belong in the Humanities’ fannypack.
These assumptions about what we do as digital humanists are built out of the idea that technologies, particularly digital technologies, are a black box: that in order to engage them you have to “know all the circuitry.”
Of course, we know this isn’t the case. Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross, for instance, have skillfully illustrated the importance of productively modelling failure in the classroom in their wonderful book Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom.
But I think what we need to do better is to illustrate the many points of entry there are to DH, i.e. the DH is not only about “circuitry”; that it is not necessarily about learning Python, or TEI, or negotiating Dublin Core Metadata standards. Rather, DH and critical making can, and should, involve all different measures of making, from paper prototyping, to board game design, to beading, drawing, and sewing. (I am particularly excited that the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab at Simon Fraser University included sewing machines in their new lab).
In her wonderful essay “Making Queer Feminisms Matter: A Transdisciplinary Makerspace for the Rest of Us,” Melissa Rogers, argues that rather than producing things, queer and feminist DH spaces produce space “that put pressure on what matters” (234) in the digital humanities. I agree that making space—sovereign space—is core to what the field demands and requires at this time, but I would also suggest that we don’t have to be satisfied with either/or—things or space.
As with the rejection of mastery, highlighting “low”-tech is an invitation to our students and colleagues, which can facilitate community and help us to build capacity across the disciplines in areas that may have been resistant to DH. But, in presenting a wide spectrum for points of entry, we also provide opportunities for Indigenous sovereignty via knowledge mobilization.
What Simpson’s work helps to illustrate, particularly read through the tenets of visual sovereignty, is that we can create space, and expand it, digitally and physically, by collectivizing around the creation of a thing: a video, podcast, Omeka site, or prototype.
To quote Sayers once more, “not knowing all the circuitry may actually spark pervasive interventions from the periphery”. Indeed, within Indigenous studies, adopting a form of DH in which you don’t need to know all the circuitry provides a much-needed welcome for students, colleagues, and community members who have the knowledge and expertise to critique and untangle digital platforms from settler colonial ideology, but feel, with good reason, that these spaces are unwelcoming or unsafe for Indigenous folks and people of colour. It also provides opportunities for Indigenous makers to amplify their own voices and find traction and audience in the digital ecosystem. It provides the necessary gaps in the scaffolding, to borrow from Jesse Stommel’s recent keynote, for Indigenous students and community members, to build their own sovereign spaces—that may or may not have anything to do with DH or the academy.
“Low”-tech doesn’t mean making your classes any less challenging or engaged with technology, but it does mean rethinking our entry points and engaging critically with Indigenous critiques and formulations of technology and technology studies.
To quote Simpson once again, this time writing with my colleague Glen Coulthard:
When we disappear Indigenous presence from our intellectual endeavors, our movement building, and our scholarship, we not only align ourselves with the wrong side of history, we necessarily negate any form of solidarity and become actors in the maintenance of settler colonialism.
Harkening back to Anderson, as a settler scholar deploying DH in my classrooms and research practices, I see my role as, not providing mastery, but of facilitating first aid. That is reciprocally generating spaces in which Indigenous studies scholars, students, and community members can critically interject into technology, with the aim of unpacking and redressing the colonial ideologies and white supremacies nested within them.
Knowledge of all the circuity shouldn’t be the bar for getting to do that work. Knowing that there are safe spaces to explore and challenge an ongoing colonial history of technology should.
If there is a chance for decolonial DH, and hope that I have communicate that I think there is, it very well might be found in the way we can facilitate making, and, through it, the generation of sovereign Indigenous spaces. When we bear witness to the history of data extraction that founds academic research, it is difficult to argue that decolonial DH will be found, at least initially, in our ability to mine, interpret, and archive data sets. Rather, we might turn to our ability to illustrate technology as a social relationship and DH as a safe space for critique, resistance, and resurgence.
For now, this begins by maintaining the question of decolonial DH as precisely that, a question, and thus a space that welcomes further conversation, which I also invite now.
Selected Bibliography and Further Reading:
Coulthard, Glen and Leanne Simpson. “Grounded Normativity/Place-Based Solidarity”
Duarte, Marisa. Network Sovereignty
Haas, Angela. “Wampum as Hypertext”
Lewis, Jason Edward, Noelani Arista, Archer Pechawis, and Suzanne Kite. “Making Kin with Machines.”
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