Decolonizing Digital: Data’s Role in Indigenous Data Sovereignty

2019-07-23 Share story


This post is part of a series setting the context for Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Last post we discussed what’s happening in Indigenous spaces today and introduced a different way of thinking about data. Today we’ll dig a little deeper.

One of the key issues in Indigenous resurgence is ensuring that what we do does not further enable colonial interests, albeit by different means. This may entail taking a seemingly radical departure from expectations of both governance and data itself. Before we can get there, we need to discuss in further detail an important question: what exactly are Indigenous data?

A Deep Dive into Data

The last entry in this series spoke of data falling into two categories: quantitative (numbers) and qualitative (descriptions). It’s a useful distinction that allows one to record information into one or the other data type so different kinds of questions can be answered. That’s the simple version but it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. 

Quantitative data tends to grow in usefulness the more of it you have so you can use statistical analysis, machine learning and what is often called “AI”. Qualitative data, on the other hand, can be very useful even if you only have a few data points to draw from. This is because it can be more “dense” or contain more abstract information in a single datum (singular for data). This density can increase the difficulty of conducting an objective analysis.

For example, think of a survey which asks you to select one premade answer per question. You may not entirely agree with the answer, but you need to pick something, so you choose the one that you think is the best (or closest) answer.

That answer, or data, you just contributed is relatively useless on its own. It’s probably not even “right”. But if 10,000 people also filled out the survey, then even though each small amount of data they contributed may not be “right”, the sheer bulk of it can show patterns and effectively form “better” data. 

But, if that survey allowed you to fill in your own answer, you could answer exactly what you think is correct. That answer, or data, you just created will already be “better” than if you just ticked off a premade answer. But if 10,000 people also filled out the survey, it would be very difficult for a human to go through each of those answers, discern patterns, and form “better” data. You could argue that a computer could do it, but computers are ultimately programmed by people (for now), so in the final analysis, it’s still a human trying to decipher all that data. 

In the example above, your answers are the original source of information and the survey is creating a record of that information. But a record of data can take any form; from scratching a shape into a vinyl disk to “record” music or to scratching ink into a body to “tattoo” a shape. Each tiny scratch is a datum that combines, in sequence, to create a song or a picture that has meaning to the listener or the viewer. 

The information recorded on a vinyl disk could be stored on a shelf. Then anyone could pick up the disk and put it on a specialized record player that could analyze the data and play it for anyone to hear. 

The information recorded as a tattoo has completely different OCAP® requirements. It can still be shared and analyzed by others, but you can’t store a tattoo on a shelf. You can store the design, but then it’s meaning is no longer attached to the individual who bears it.

These two examples illustrate the most fundamental purposes of data. Data allows us to record, store, analyze, and share information. The different forms of data change the relationship between how they're recorded, stored, analyzed, and shared.

Just think. You can tattoo musical information onto an arm, but a record player won’t be able to translate the music into sound. A person might be able to “hear” that music if it took a standardized form that they could read, but they couldn’t share it as a record player could. They could still sing it, but that would alter the original information and create new data that factors in everything from the performer's life experience, quality of performance, and their own interpretation of the music.

The Value of Data

Data are, in their purest form, useless. They're just a record of information. It might not even be useful, accurate, understandable, or even shareable information. But, while it could also be completely useless to one person it could also be incredibly useful to another.

Data only has value depending on who is using it and how it’s being used. To measure this value, we can use the following seven basic dimensions as proposed by Anders Lisdorf:

  • Consumption: How can the data be accessed?
  • Structure: What is the format of the data?
  • Granularity: What is the level of detail available?
  • Freshness: How old is the data?
  • Content: How do we interpret the data?
  • Validity: How trustworthy is the data?
  • Intelligibility: What does the data represent?

Thinking about these questions can help us with the following four fundamental purposes of data:

  • Record: What is the method/medium in which the information is first created?
  • Store: Now that the data is created, how/where is it stored?
  • Analyze: How can the information that the data contains be extracted and made useful?
  • Share: How can the information be distributed in a meaningful manner?

In the example above, musical notes tattooed (recorded and stored) onto an arm is relatively easy to access, but, if it were tattooed somewhere hidden by clothing, then it’s poorly stored if it’s meant to be accessed publicly. Its format is fine if it’s meant to be understood by a particular person, but not if it’s meant to be played by a machine. 

If that same music is recorded onto a vinyl record, it’s usage value changes completely. If you have a record player and electricity (or mechanical power) then it’s easy to store, understand, and share. If you don’t have these things then it’s useless until you do. 

But what about Indigenous data? Isn’t that what this blog post is about?

What is Indigenous Data?

Indigenous data is technically no different than any other form of data. It’s still recorded, stored, analyzed, and shared and its value can still be measured by the same dimensions. Where Indigenous Data is unique is, because of the destructive forces of settler colonialism, Indigenous data is often fractured, incomplete, or indecipherable. That doesn’t mean that it’s gone or has little value. If anything, it’s important to note just how much information remains.

The resilience of Indigenous data means that the ways they are recorded, stored, analyzed, and shared may be superior to typical Western ways. While the forms they take may appear fundamentally different at first glance, the same functions may be at work. This means that information can be shared between Indigenous and Western worlds, we just have to tweak the form that the data takes or train people to understand and appreciate it.

A large component of Indigenous data sovereignty is not only learning to better use what we already identify as data but reconceptualizing data outside of western data parameters.

Regalia, songs, art, language, ceremonies, mentorships, perceptions of land, oral traditions, cultural teachings, and world creation stories are all examples of Indigenous Data usage. They involve processes where information is recorded, stored, analyzed, and shared in a flurry of activity that, to outsiders, may appear confusing or irrelevant. Individuals outside of Indigenous cultures sometimes assume that these are traditions without any real meaning or deeper purpose.

What they fail to realize is that these are ancient data practices that form the basis of advanced civilizations. They involve technologies, specialists, scientists, artisans, librarians, administrators, civil servants, and politicians. The only difference is they don’t use Western titles or “look” like what is expected from a Western point-of-view. It’s a lot like listening to a language you don’t comprehend. It makes sense to someone, but unless you have a translator, it's difficult to discern any valuable information.

Seeing Isn't Believing

The history of settler colonialism has devolved from a partnership between civilizations via the Two Row Wampum to a relationship of dependence on a so-called civilized society. Yet Indigenous Peoples have never created technologies that can destroy all living creatures on the earth in minutes. Their energy sources were already green,  their traditional diet has always been organic. Indigenous Peoples are civilized and always have been. 

Just for fun, let’s imagine a pre-colonial Indigenous society that embodies their own values, teachings, and ways of knowing the world. How many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals would they have already met?


Let’s break these goals down from an Indigenous perspective. While not every Indigenous culture shares these values equally, it’s likely you’d find these values at the heart of many Indigenous Peoples.

  1. No Poverty - Social safety mechanisms, sharing economies
  2. No Hunger - Sustainable communal food systems
  3. Good Health - Plenty of physical activity and an organic, locally-sourced diet
  4. Quality Education - Land-based education, small class sizes, lifelong mentorships
  5. Gender Equality - Women in leadership and upper management roles
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation - Spring, glacial and clean river water sources
  7. Renewable Energy - Abundant solar, hydro, wind, and muscle power
  8. Good Jobs and Economic Growth - Employment opportunities and valued labour 
  9. Innovation and Infrastructure - Resilient, sustainable, and innovative infrastructure
  10. Reducing Inequalities - Everyone has value, massive trade between communities
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities - Inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable communities
  12. Responsible Consumption - Sustainable consumption and production
  13. Climate Action - No drastic and sudden impacts on climate
  14. Life Below Water - Sustainable usage of the oceans, seas, and marine resources
  15. Life On Land - Protect and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems
  16. Peace and Justice - Access to justice for all, inclusive institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals - Strong regional partnerships for sustainable development

Remember what we talked about earlier, that the lessons of the past are directly relevant today? 

While there is undoubtedly some historical romanticism involved in thinking that Indigenous Peoples actually lived 100% by their proclaimed values, doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that these goals are already deeply embedded into the values of Indigenous Peoples? Isn’t the very fact that these are defined as “development goals” instead of “fundamental existing values” a rather disturbing reflection of the current hegemonic thinking of the world? Why hasn’t our “advanced” or “modern” Western society inherently based itself on these values in the first place?

If anything, it was a dominating Western ideology that left these teachings unappreciated, ignored, and devalued (at least until relatively recently). A quick look through critical history will tell you that. Now, these values are being promoted by the very same societies that destroyed them in the first place. 

The Resiliency of a Wampum Belt System

It’s not just societal values that have gone unappreciated, but also the ways that these values are recorded, stored, analyzed, and shared. To give an example, to untrained eyes Haudenosaunee wampum belts look like art, but they are a lot more complicated than that. The following photo was taken in 1871 when a few Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Grand River (Haudenosaunee) shared their meaning with the anthropologist Horatio Hale:


The five belts on the left are related to the founding of the league: the long white belt signifies peace, and the smaller ones with diagonal lines signify the four walls of the longhouse with the diagonal lines as the braces of the walls. The four belts near the center acknowledge the first treaty between the Iroquois and the English. The ninth belt from the left (a Friendship belt) represents the "covenant chain" - an Indigenous person and a white man united by a row of black (or purple) wampum beads. The device in the middle of the seventh belt from the left was said to represent a dish of beaver and the belt itself is the record of a treaty between the tribes to share certain hunting and fishing territories. The twelfth belt from the left was given by the Canadian government as confirmation of a treaty. The belt at the bottom of the photograph is half of a belt (the other half was left in New York State) symbolizing the formation of the Iroquois League.

The following photo was taken on the same day:

This was five years before the Indian Act was passed and pictured here are only six of the approximately 50 Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

The Chiefs are as follows (from left to right): 

  1. Joseph Snow (Hahriron) "He who scatters", Onondaga chief, fire-keeper
  2. George H. M. Johnson (Onwanonsyshon) "Double life", Mohawk chief, Government interpreter and son of John Smoke Johnson;
  3. John Buck (Skanawatih) "Beyond the swamp", Onondaga chief, hereditary keeper of the wampum;
  4. John Smoke Johnson (Sakayenkwaraton) "Disappearing mist", Mohawk chief, speaker of the council;
  5. Isaac Hill (Kawenenseronton) "The voice suspended", Onondaga chief, fire-keeper; 
  6. John Seneca Johnson (Kanonkeredawih) "Entangled hair", Seneca chief, of the Snipe Clan of Seneca.

Horatio was so fascinated by the Haudenosaunee that he wrote a book about them which begins with the following passage:

“The love of peace, the sentiment of human brotherhood, the strong social and domestic affections, the respect for law, and the reverence for ancestral greatness, which are apparent in this Indian record and in the historical events which illustrate it, will strike most readers as new and unexpected developments” (Horatio Hale, Iroquois Book of Rites, 1883).

This passage was written 136 years ago and the same teachings shared with him then are still in practice today. While some of the nuances of the wampum belts may have been lost, their overall meanings and legal value, from the Haudenosaunee perspective, have remained resilient. 

In 1923, Cayuga chief Deskaheh was touring Europe trying to gain global support for Haudenosaunee sovereignty. As you can see in the following picture, he used wampum belts to help plead his case: 

You can see the Two Row Wampum held by a man on the right, and on the left, a man holds the Friendship Belt which denotes the Covenant Chain, the long series of treaties binding the Haudenosaunee and the Crown. Deskaheh holds something between himself and another man, likely as a sign of friendship. The sharp viewer will notice he’s wearing what looks to be a plains headdress. This is because he believed his ceremonial Cayuga headdress would appear odd and perhaps even threatening to Europeans. They had likely only seen pictures of Indigenous Peoples from the plains so that was the appearance he had to make to appear credible.

This international lobbying for Haudenosaunee sovereignty was embarrassing Canada on the global stage, so the Government of Canada retaliated. In 1924, the RCMP, under instructions of the Canadian government, stole and destroyed the Haudenosaunee Chief Council Wampum belts, overthrew the Haudenosaunee leadership, and imposed an “elected” government on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve that is still contested to this day.

Wampum belts are part of a complex data system that records, stores, analyzes and shares information for as long as is necessary. The belts themselves are just a part of the data system, that’s why the Canadian government failed to destroy Haudenosaunee databases and explains why they are still such a potent symbol of Indigenous sovereignty and an excellent example of Indigenous Data Sovereignty in practice. 

While labour intensive, the belts can be remade and many remain as part of a living treaty system still recognized hundreds of years after the treaties were first made. This is because the belts are part of an ongoing relationship between the treaty holders, the leaders involved, the people they serve, and the Creator. They don’t depend on one way to store a record, they store it with multiple knowledge holders as well as the community at large. These records are refreshed by authorized leaders in diplomatic missions and internal community decision making. They are visible reminders of something that cannot be denied as long as the people remain.

Indigenous and Western Understandings of Data

Relationships are central to Indigenous Peoples. It can be argued that Western ways of working with data downgrade these relationships to one based on machine interactions, mindless data entry tasks, and impersonal, cold calculations. Data are often alive in Indigenous cultures and is arguably more resilient than anything dependent on machines and electricity.

To give another example, Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff is an Elder of the Unangan people of what is now called St. Paul Island, Alaska. His book,  Perspectives on Indigenous Issues: Essays on Science, Spirituality and the Power of Words is an excellent read on the differences between Western and Indigenous worldviews. Here is an excerpt:

The Elders know that even more important than a scientific understanding of how the world works is a spiritual understanding of human limits and our proper place within the web of creation. They say we need to contemplate the mysteries of death to fully live in the NOW with humility and respect for all living things. They say that in the past we honoured feminine energies and capacities in the world (exhibited by both men and women, and by Mother Earth herself), while now we almost exclusively honour the Masculine. We used to respect the Elders and now we excessively venerate youth. We traditionally prioritized process, but today we fixate on goals and outcomes. From an Indigenous standpoint, the proper process always produces results that exceed individual expectations. In the past, we focused on wisdom and knowledge and never separated the two; now, we focus on knowledge alone. The Elders know that knowledge without the wisdom to apply it correctly is useless if not dangerous. We used to experience the depth and richness of silence in our lives; now there is noise everywhere. We used to engage in genuine interaction with a wide range of people within our communities; now we live alone or in single-family units with limited interaction beyond the nuclear family. This isolation destroys relationships, contributes to mental and emotional problems, and separates us from the wider world of which we are a part. And the most important reversal is that now the mind tells the heart what to do, instead of the mind following the heart.

There’s so much to unpack here that there’s no way this article could do it justice. Instead, we’d recommend you check out some of Ilarions’ videos or watch interviews with other Elders. Better yet, try to speak with an Elder about Traditional Knowledge, listen without judgement, and be willing to explore the impossible.

The most important thing one can do if they are working with Indigenous data is to keep an open mind. Colonialism is a deeply hegemonic force that changes the way that reality is viewed. The only way to get past this perception is to accept an unreality; something that at first glance seems absurd, abstract, or impossible. Give it enough space to grow and you may find there are voices of truth out there that have value beyond comprehension; we've just forgotten how to listen to them.

It’s also imperative to think critically. Cultural appropriation is rampant and romantic ideas of the “noble savage” are still heavily prevalent to this day as it is an essential part of colonialism. Anything that falls under the context of savage, uncivilized, simple, innocent, modest, stupid, naive, credulous, pure, innocent, artless, ingenuous, ignorant, or unaware is most likely a false narrative of Indigeneity. 

Unfortunately, this view of Indigeneity is coded directly into the English language by using the very word Indigenous. As an exercise that shows just how deep the colonialism rabbit hole goes, go to the website of the Merriam-Webster dictionary and select the word ‘Indigenous’. Then, start clicking on the words that it links to. When you get to ‘native’ it starts getting pretty ridiculous. Go further and you’ll find the degrading words used above linked directly to the very concept of Indigenous in the English language. 

This relational exercise is a problem that undermines the very concept of Indigeneity and certainly perspectives of Indigenous data. If we think exclusively in English, then that’s how we see the world. This is just one of the many reasons why language revitalization is so important. Not only is language itself a massive store of data, but it’s also a data system that completely changes the grounds for what is real or unreal in the world.

All of that said, Indigenous Peoples are not perfect beings with secret hyper-advanced cultures and ways of knowing the world that only need to be uncovered and promoted for us all to live in eternal peace and prosperity. Far from it. Like the rest of humanity, Indigenous Peoples make mistakes, do terrible things, and generally act like the fallible creatures that we all are. Humans are all diverse and complicated beings that don’t usually get things “right,” but because of that, it’s worth paying attention when they do.

If Indigenous Peoples are to (re)gain sovereignty, not only does the world have to acknowledge Indigenous ways of knowing as valid but we need to place them on the same level as “science” and “objectivity”. That is, of course, easier said than done and we will explore this idea further in the next post.

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