Building Stronger Communities through Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Three Starting Points

2023-05-23 Share story


The Global Indigenous Data Alliance describes Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Data as both data for governance and governance of data. The umbrella term for these rights is often called “Indigenous Data Sovereignty."  While these rights are nothing new, they are inherent, the term itself has been growing in popularity since 2016.

In our eBook #DataBack, one way we describe data in Indigenous contexts is by reminding readers that every bit of “information about our lands, cultures, histories, technologies, and peoples in general…” can be shaped into “data." This also includes languages, stories, geographies, cosmologies, demographic information, etc.

Governments, corporations, academics, grant-makers, and funders often collect information about Indigenous people, and peoples, in the form of applications, surveys, interviews, reports, and observations. This is all Indigenous data too. 

Remember, Indigenous Data Sovereignty doesn’t just involve data for governance, but also governance of data. This means someone needs to be responsible for collecting, managing, and protecting these data, is that someone you?

Dealing with any data can be difficult, Indigenous data doubly so. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, how can you know what to do about it? So here’s a few opportunities for you to consider:

Starting Point 1: Understanding Indigenous Data Sovereignty and your role in respecting it. 

Some organizations are just beginning to understand Indigenous Data Sovereignty and the very real implications this has for their work while others are at the forefront of asserting these rights.

Indigenous data are collective in nature meaning they are distinct from data associated with an individual who happens to be Indigenous. In other words, personal data rights still exist for Indigenous people just like anyone else, however their indigeneity precludes an association with others meaning their data may as well. 

This presents a challenge in determining the line between personal and collective data. It's essential to recognize that an individual's right to their data and Indigenous Peoples' right to their collective data are two separate but interconnected sets of rights. The application of these rights must be determined by the relevant Indigenous legal system - thus the sovereignty aspect of Indigenous data rights. However, after enduring hundreds of years of colonial violence, this is easier said than done.

An example from the world of philanthropy is the need to clearly define how charities will share information with donors, and be clear if the data will be shared with other organizations. Have these exchanges of data been authorized by the Indigenous community or nation you’re working with? What protocols, customs, or laws might you need to understand and undertake to use the information provided to you?

Organizations need to understand that collecting Indigenous knowledge in the form of a survey, study, or part of grant-making does not necessarily mean that  Indigenous voices are heard. The opposite may occur if the information they have provided is flattened, aggregated, and understood through colonial perspectives. 

Starting Point 2: Collecting Indigenous data only with Free, Prior, and Informed Consent 

  • Many organizations collect data without asking for permission or explaining why they need it and what it might be used for - this includes nations and communities asking for data from their own citizens and members. 
  • Organizations must make sure they ask all people for their individual consent, explain how their data will be used for their benefit and when/how they might expect to learn more about the project or undertaking. 
  • If the data are collective in nature, language for example, then consent must be given by the appropriate rights holders in a manner they deem appropriate.
  • One way to start this process at your organization is by learning about and following the protocols, policies, customs, and laws related to sovereignty in the specific context of the data you’re collecting. If you are unsure of where to begin, the CARE Principles offer a good starting point. 

Developed by the Global Indigenous Data Alliance, the CARE Principles stand for Collective Benefit, Authority to Control, Responsibility, and Ethics. They provide guidance on how to collect and use Indigenous data in a respectful and ethical manner. The CARE Principles emphasize that the use of Indigenous data should benefit the people the data are related to. 

It also highlights the importance of Indigenous Peoples determining  how their data are used and ensuring that data collection and use is done responsibly according to the protocols and ethics of the people the data are related to.

Starting Point 3: Assert and support Indigenous Data Sovereignty by kicking off a conversation

Indigenous data are often treated as a commodity or yet another resource that can be extracted from. This results in the further exploitation of Indigenous communities.

Asserting sovereignty requires exhaustive resources and coordination within and among communities and nations. Software that supports Indigenous Data Sovereignty continues this long tradition of resistance, resurgence, and rejuvenation.

As part of our eBook on Indigenous Data Sovereignty we’ve developed a series of prompt questions you and your organization can use around the dinner table, at community events, in election debates, during council meetings and social gatherings and other times when data and stories are shared. It’s called “ 7 lines of inquiry when (re)asserting jurisdiction over Indigenous data” and it’s on page 26. 

Download the eBook and find the full  “7 lines of inquiry when (re)asserting jurisdiction over Indigenous data.”

Download #DataBack for Free Here


Underscoring the Importance of Indigenous Data Sovereignty

The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples article 11 holds the right to embrace and rejuvenate cultural traditions and customs, encompassing the preservation, protection, and development of past, present, and future cultural aspects, such as historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies, and visual and performing arts.

Further, the same article obligates states to offer effective redress, potentially including restitution, in collaboration with Indigenous peoples for cultural, intellectual, religious, and spiritual property taken without proper consent or in breach of their laws, customs, and traditions.

The concept of Indigenous Data Sovereignty can not become a catchphrase. Nor is it inherently positive; sovereignty carries both power and responsibility. This means that no matter where you start it’s imperative we approach Indigenous Data Sovereignty with great care and intention. 

We must remain vigilant in our use of language, ensuring we do not inadvertently co-opt the movement or dilute its significance.

Ready for a more in depth look at Indigenous Data Sovereignty but not sure where to start? Get the resource being used by leading academics, governing bodies and changemakers by downloading our free ebook.