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Decolonizing Digital: Contextualizing Indigenous Data Sovereignty

June 7, 2019

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This post is part of our Decolonizing Digital series where we explore the historical factors behind Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Today, we will examine early Settler-Indigenous relationships to provide a context for many of the systemic issues Indigenous Peoples still face today.

You may have heard of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit becoming more self-governing, having increased jurisdiction over their lands, and even developing a new “nation-to-nation relationship” with Canada. But has anything come out of this “renewed relationship”? Or is Canada continuing to just “manage the problem”?

From an Indigenous perspective power lies in the collective, not the individual, and rushing to untangle complicated relationships leads to disappointing results. We all have a personal responsibility to tackle deeper systemic issues together otherwise we will continue cycles that help no one.

What is Indigenous Sovereignty?

We define sovereignty as an entity’s “recognized right and legitimacy to exercise authority over its affairs, a right to self-government, non-intervention, and freedom from interference in internal affairs” (FNICG, 2019, 58).

Not that long ago, the many and diverse First Nations and Inuit of Turtle Island were sovereign and lived in thriving civilizations. While Europeans decimated their populations in the process of settler colonialism, Indigenous cultures and governing structures remained resilient to this day, but struggle for support and legal recognition of their ongoing sovereignty.

Settler society has treated Indigenous Peoples like children for a long time. This is because patronizing relationships between the state and Indigenous Peoples are a key component to colonialism. To help give context to this concept, here are a few questions many people can relate to:

  • If your parents control your finances and only dole out payments via weekly allowances, do you have real authority over your own affairs?
  • If your parents are second-guessing everything you do, who’s governing your behaviour?
  • If your parents meddle in your personal business and sow discord in your relationships, are they sticking their noses where they don’t belong?

Now we’ll replace “your parents” with “the Government of Canada” and “you” with “Indigenous Peoples”.

  • If the Government of Canada controls Indigenous Peoples’ finances and only doles out payments via allowances, do Indigenous Peoples have real authority over their own affairs?
  • If the Government of Canada is second guessing everything Indigenous Peoples do, who’s governing their behaviour?
  • If the Government of Canada meddles in Indigenous Peoples’ personal business and sows discord in Indigenous Peoples’ relationships, is the Federal Government sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong?

We find these embedded structures and personal mindsets within many areas of both Canadian and Indigenous societies. This mindset is why decolonization is crucial to building healthy relationships between settlers and Indigenous Peoples, but we cannot know where to go if we don’t know where we’ve been.

The “New” Old World

We need to start with the Indian Act if we are to understand fundamental relationships between First Nations and the Government of Canada. Then we need to delve into a complicated history of treaty negotiations between First Nations and representatives of the British Crown.

Settlers first established colonies on Turtle Island in the early 17th century which spread and became the towns, cities and metropolises we know today. There isn’t a single city in Canada not on Indigenous land and they all share a history of displacement, disease, and death. Many settlements violated the treaties between First Nations and the Crown or existed on lands with no treaties to verify the settlement. The colonial powers used legal fictions such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius to justify ignoring Indigenous sovereignty and Canada formed as a recognized nation in 1867.

In the land now known by settlers as the Dominion of Canada, settlers used legal mechanisms such as the Gradual Civilization Act (1857), the Gradual Enfranchisement Act (1869), and the Indian Act (1876) to systematically dismantle Indigenous sovereignty. This new Canadian state was extending itself further into Indigenous territory with each passing year. Assimilation and genocide weren’t a by-product of colonialism, they were cornerstones to the creation of modern-day Canada.


(Photo Source)

Through the Indian Act, the Canadian government determines who has status, to what band they belong, and to which lands they have collective rights. Only the Canadian government can “determine whether any purpose for which lands in a reserve are used or are to be used is for the use and benefit of the band” (Indian Act, 18 (1)). This process divides ancient civilizations, ignores their sovereignty, and defines their peoples. The Indian Act gives the facade of democracy but keeps control in the hands of the Canadian government.

The architects of these systems did not intend them to be permanent. They assumed that in time there wouldn’t be any Indigenous Peoples, only Canadians. There’s a reason they chose the term “reserve”. To reserve something means to temporarily set it aside.  They expected Indigenous Peoples to become “extinct”, as shown by the following quotes made by John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, in 1887 and Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs in 1920:

"The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.”  — John A. Macdonald
I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone...Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.”  — Duncan Campbell Scott

Instead of conquering First Nations, Inuit, and now Métis, Canada continued disrupting ancient Indigenous trade networks and food systems. This forced Indigenous Peoples to become dependent on settlers. Canada would also promote complete legal, religious, cultural and physical assimilation in order to “solve the Indian problem”. While the Residential School system played a key component of what we now recognize as genocide, there are other ongoing colonial structures entrenched in today’s Canada.

The clear violation of treaties between the British Crown and Indigenous Peoples made existing Indigenous governance structures illegal. Indigenous resistance was now punishable as high treason. While many Indigenous leaders resisted for decades, some more famous than others, most had little choice but to surrender if they hadn’t already been assimilated. One by one, assimilationist policies eliminated traditional governments or forced them underground by the ever-increasing spread of the settler state.

A Return to (In)dependence

The history explained above examines how Indigenous histories, worldviews, and traditional knowledge were excluded from the national narrative. Indigenous Peoples have a wide range of governing structures and modes of ensuring social cohesion among their people and outsiders. These are ancient, tried and tested practices and knowledge systems that can be unrecognizable to a European worldview. How else could thousands of diverse Indigenous Peoples maintain complex and sustainable civilizations since time immemorial?

Many people often think treaty rights are only an Indigenous concern. They say these rights in education, taxation, hunting, fishing, land, etc. show that Indigenous People have an advantage over other Canadians.

What these beliefs don’t include is that non-Indigenous People’s ground their rights on Turtle Island in treaties. Indigenous Nations are sovereign Nations that never gave up their rights or claims to Turtle Island. The British Royal Proclamation of 1763 said as much. While it stated that the British staked claim to North America, this was in relation to other European colonial powers. The proclamation recognized underlying Indigenous title and stated that all land not already ceded or purchased would be Indigenous until treaties and subsequent sales made it otherwise. Despite being enshrined by Section 25 of the Constitution Act, we still debate the Royal Proclamation and its application today as it is often contested in court. Canada doesn’t have treaties with all Indigenous Nations, much of the country is occupying unceded land.

The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

When settlers first came to Turtle Island, they could only bring as many people and supplies as their boats could carry. Not all survived the journey and those who did found themselves in an unfamiliar and unforgiving environment. The Indigenous Peoples they first encountered could have forced the settlers back into the sea or waited for them to starve and give up. Yet this didn’t happen. Why is that?

Eurocentrism points to general European technological supremacy and Western knowledge as key reasons they were successful in colonizing “the new world”. A less ignorant perspective acknowledges that Indigenous technology and ways of knowing were far superior in this context because it suited the local environment. Europeans could bring all the muskets, steel and bibles they wanted, but it wouldn’t mean anything if they couldn’t stay warm and keep their bellies full. Germ warfare was the biggest advantage settlers had, but that was unintentional, at least at first. In the early days, settlers and First Nations could both gain from establishing trade relations, so they made treaties.

The Two-Row Wampum


(Photo Source)

One of the first well-known treaties between Europeans and the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island was between Dutch traders and Haudenosaunee in 1613. This relationship is described by Kaswenta (Gä•sweñta’) also known as the Two Row Wampum.

Kaswenta is symbolized by a wampum belt crafted from the white shells of the channelled whelk snail and the purple shells of the qualog clam. Across the belt flow 9 rows of white shells that represent the River of Life. There are 4 rows of purple shells forming two separate horizontal lines in the center of the belt. One purple row denotes the Haudenosaunee canoe, the other is the European tall ship. The three white shells separating them shows a respectful relationship based on peace, trust, and friendship - all values inherent in Kayanerenkó:wa also known as The Great Law of Peace.The strings flowing on each side of the belt show that more beads can be added and, therefore, the relationship is eternal.

The two rows never intersect; they are parallel. This denotes a separate-but-equal relationship that respects each other’s sovereignty. The Haudenosaunee never steer the Dutch ship, and the Dutch never steer the Haudenosaunee canoe as they both travel down the River of Life. Both parties respect each other’s autonomy and interdependence.

Like many other ancient civilizations of Turtle Island, Haudenosaunee don't “own” the land because they live in direct relation to it. There are no words or phrases in English that can explain this relationship because European worldview dictates a nature-society divide. Even the word “land” cannot encapsulate the complicated Haudenosaunee relationship to Mother Earth.

Also, the Haudenosaunee know the devastating effects of war, and base their confederacy on three general principles: peace; equity, and fairness to People and life; and the power of good minds gathering to relate and decide together. They do not see it as their right to deny the Dutch and subsequent settlers a place on Turtle Island. Instead, they wish to remain in a relationship of peace and prosperity for all time.

Haudenosaunee consider the Kaswenta as a valid and ongoing treaty. Some settlers refuse to acknowledge this because of a single forged document. These settlers claim that the Two Row Wampum is a modern construction used to satisfy contemporary political needs but those ignorant, and racist, claims misrepresent the actual data source.

Wampum belts are not a replacement for paper, they embody a different way of thinking about data. These belts act as symbolic reminders and public demonstrations of active and ongoing relationships. Haudenosaunee use them as a guide to help narrate complex understandings of sacred promises made between both parties involved and the Creator.

There doesn't need to be a single Two Row Wampum that serves as the “original record”, nor can the belt itself be a fraud. In an oral culture, Kaswenta is "performed" through ceremony and the collective memory of the participants serves as a distributed ledger. Losing a belt is detrimental for many reasons, but it can be recreated in order to facilitate the remembrance of a collective agreement.

The basic principles embodied by the Two Row Wampum are central to Haudenosaunee sovereignty. Acknowledging that Canada must honour the Two Row Wampum flips the script and puts onus on the settler state to uphold its end of the sacred promise.

The Two Row Wampum is a part of a long series of treaties and alliances known as the Covenant Chain, and it can help remind us of the complexities of treaty relationships between the Indigenous nations of Turtle Island and the new settler states that illegally occupy Indigenous lands. This is likely not something you’ve read in the history books. It’s a violent history and that’s only the last 400 years. Imagine the lessons we could learn if we looked back further.

Decolonizing the Colonial Data Narrative

This next step in exploring Indigenous Data Sovereignty can, much like Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada, get a little complicated. A data visualization exercise may help.

Let’s look at the entirety of Turtle Island. The first map shows the roughly defined territories of Indigenous Peoples on Turtle Island pre-1492 from


Now from the same site, we see the treaties:


Significant gaps, right? Now, the next map shows Indigenous Lands acknowledged by settler governments (excluding unceded territories) from


There is a significant difference between the traditional and unceded territories of Indigenous Peoples and what Indigenous Peoples have access to on reserve land.

This map exercise is a simple demonstration of Indigenous data. If history was neutral, then every Canadian would already be familiar with these maps as these boundaries define “North America”. Indigenous perspectives rarely show on public maps and it’s not from lack of data. Settler society has made much of Indigenous data invisible. Data erasure has a significant impact on how we view history and what we consider as data has a big role to play in how we view Indigenous history.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In the next article of our Decolonizing Digital series, we examine how we can use data and technology as a tool to ensure equal access to data for all Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island, but also how we can use this information to pursue equitable outcomes for Indigenous Peoples around the globe.

Decolonizing Digital Series:


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June 7, 2019

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