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Decolonizing Digital: Empowering Indigeneity Through Data Sovereignty

June 17, 2019

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This post is part of our Decolonizing Digital series which sets the context for Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Last post we dove into the past, now we look at what's happening today.

Note to Reader: To some, terms like “Traditional Knowledge” might not evoke the complex and nuanced web of spiritual, cultural, scientific, and abstract understandings found in Indigenous worldviews. There’s no word or phrase in the English language that can give these concepts of relational knowledge the justice they deserve, and each group of Indigenous Peoples have their own ways of knowing that would need to be labelled via their respective languages. Traditional Knowledge is a complex topic and we suggest checking out this resource to learn more about the need for Traditional Knowledge labels to protect Indigenous intellectual property.

In the last post, we touched on the concept of decolonization which is a massive topic as there are no easy approaches, solutions, or answers to the larger questions posited by a decolonial lens. It may be more useful to first think of Indigenous resurgence as the fundamental grounding needed for the larger decolonial project. What this means in practice is that Indigenous Peoples need to both gain their sovereignty under the current political system and regain their sovereignty by using Traditional Knowledge that colonial states have suppressed for so long.

Here’s an example of 5 common themes discussed by influential Indigenous figures such as Jeff Corntassel, Candis Callison, Rick Harp, Brock Pitawanakwat, Kim TallBear, Kenneth T. Williams, Matika Wilbur, Adrienne Keene among many, many others to help frame what’s needed if we are to utilize the wide-ranging concept of resurgence:

These themes are not meant to be in sequence as they are all interrelated, however, it’s well-established that the root to Indigenous struggles is rooted in the land. Without a connection to land, Indigeneity becomes a hollow descriptor of an “extinct” worldview. That is the ultimate end-goal of settler colonialism, the final answer to the “Indian question”, the terra nullius that settler society requires to continue operating as they have since colonization. Therefore land is at the heart of everything and “it’s all about the land” is a common saying within Indigenous circles.


In Indigenous worldviews, the land is life. It's not a resource or territory, it's the core relationship needed as part of the Indigenous way of being. One cannot separate being from place so this relationship is crucial to physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Land demarcation, defining borders and boundaries, is foreign to many Indigenous Peoples, but it’s a necessary evil in the modern world as competing settler states bump into each other and threaten to swallow everyone else. Defining who has a claim to what and where is a vital part of Indigenous Data Sovereignty, and while that data has been passed down through various forms of treaty and oral storytelling, these data systems are not honoured by settler society.

That’s not to say Traditional Knowledge is an invalid way of knowing, we need to translate between Indigenous ways of knowing space and Western ways of surveying to create data that can be shared and understood by both sets of knowledge. One possibility is using inexpensive and small handheld and accurate GPS with open source GIS systems like QGIS to do participatory community mapping and capacity building. Combining this with the use of drones, photography, videography, and ethnography, we can now record data like never before.


Fear of the unknown is a basic human tendency. It can lead to healthy caution and respect for dangerous circumstances, but it can also be limiting as a dominating personal mindset. Being terrified of change and the leap of faith required to grow leads one to fear for the future or of being inadequate.

Among Indigenous Peoples, fears of not being a “true Native”, not being “Native enough” or being “too Native” are common. Colonialism has embodied these fears into the notion of Indigeneity. Settler society fears the “savage Indian” and Indigenous Peoples fear they don’t belong in their own skin. Every Indigenous person exists in a constant state of struggle until we dismantle the colonial system that dominates their lives. As that shows few signs of happening in this generation, learning to live with fear is a necessary component of being Indigenous.

The best way to combat fear is to confront the unknowns and learn about them. Making examples of Indigeneity accessible through apps, websites, books, magazines, podcasts, music, movies, tv shows, comic books, and video games shows Indigenous Peoples that they are not alone, their struggles are real, and they can get through this.


Language is powerful. Not only does it embody a worldview, but it serves as the fundamental filter through which we perceive relationships and ways of being. Each are conceptual universes that require constant activity to exist. There is a massive need for Indigenous Peoples to understand themselves through their languages. While fluency is an ideal state, even having the courage to inject Indigenous words into day-to-day thinking is a good start.

The United Nations designated 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages (#IYIL2018). This is huge. Not only does it help unlock resources, but it serves as an international platform to raise awareness of not only the value of Indigenous Peoples but the fact they are still here. On the website linked there is a global map that shows places where Indigenous language activities, conferences, seminars, etc. are occurring and links to each of their sites. It’s an interesting visual cue to the state of both Indigenous languages and Peoples.


Decolonization of the self won't come from speeches, books, etc. It requires mentoring, small personal relationships and building community in small group contexts. This grassroots change needs to come from individual relations. Resurgency requires a significant paradigm shift, and this can be dangerous if we do not root it in healthy relationships guided by mentorship. Taiaiake Alfred, an influential figure in Indigenous governance studies, has himself failed by embodying toxic masculinity, itself part of the colonial process with devastating consequences. Men have a massive responsibility to develop healthy Indigenous masculinity and end violence towards women and children in all its forms.

The internet is both a blessing and a curse, as it has never been so easy to form new relationships with people who you may never encounter, while platforms like social media allow one to escape into fantasies of popularity and connectivity. One-to-one we can facilitate mentorships through technology as long as we prioritize the relationship, not the means in which the relationship occurs. Sharing thoughts, and keeping each other in check can be tracked through many platforms and, while face-to-face time is preferable, technological substitutes can bridge some of those gaps, especially for Indigenous Peoples who live in remote areas. Tech also allows for those with mobility issues or disabilities to engage in the wider world so they aren’t double disadvantaged.


The raw ability to provide for one’s self, their family and loved ones is a fundamental element of relationship with the land. Beyond nutrition, diet is a social, political and cultural act. How do you feed your family? Do you work for someone else so you can make money to buy food from the grocery store? Or do you integrate yourself into the community so you can go into a territory and take gifts from the Creator to bring to your table?

Food is a communal, social and cultural exercise connected to land, fear, language, and mentorship. Ancient food systems are a massive part of Indigenous well-being, but much of the knowledge of how these operated have been lost or suppressed. Knowing what each plant does in the greater scheme of things, how each animal is integral into the great web of life, what they are all called and how each are gifts given upon us is essential to Indigenous well-being.

Traditionally, we would learn about our food through first-hand experience with Elders and relations. However, today we are turning more and more to technology for data transfer and recording, we can look for other ways to record, store, analyze and share this data while still keeping it safe from those who would exploit this knowledge for all the wrong reasons.

A healthy resurgence combines all the aforementioned themes of land, decolonization, language relationships, and food, and is key to Indigenous Data Sovereignty at the grassroots level. However, each of these themes presents their own unique form of knowledge and data. For example,

  • to learn a language you need someone who speaks it to teach or record it.
  • to develop a relationship with the land you need to know the cultural significance of certain spaces, how to connect with them, and what legal boundaries you may be encountering.
  • to promote traditional food systems you need extensive hunting, farming and/or food preparation knowledge.
  • to begin the long process of decolonization within yourself you need awareness of systemic issues that are not often apparent.
  • to build meaningful Indigenous relationships you need access to community networks and knowledge keepers.

Finally, all of this information needs to be owned, controlled, accessed, and possessed by Indigenous Peoples.

Harmful stereotypes and misperceptions about Indigeneity

Have you ever noticed that if something is Indigenous then it’s labelled with terms such as “myth”, “tradition”, “customs” or “stories” but if it’s Western, European, or colonial, they change to  “religion”, “‘science”, “technology” and “data”? Do you ever think about what any of these terms actually mean and why they are used in some contexts but not others? How often do you come across Indigenous religion? Indigenous science? Indigenous technology? Indigenous data?

In most common discourse and popular media, Indigenous peoples are often viewed as backwards, primitive, uncivilized, and without advanced technologies until the colonial powers arrived and saved them from their own ignorance. Yet if this was the case, then how else could Indigenous Peoples use permaculture such as the three sisters or develop ancient aquaculture infrastructure that survives to this day, 3,500 years later? How about terraforming the Amazon or the entire continent of Australia? Nature isn’t pristine because it’s devoid of people, it’s pristine because it’s managed by them.

Indigenous Peoples have developed countless sciences, technologies and innovations since time immemorial but common indicators of human “progress” and “development” don’t include Indigenous perspectives. Attempts to “close the gap” that doesn’t account for the effects of colonialism will continue forced assimilation and inequality through a continued disregard for Indigenous sovereignty.

If we change the way we think about human “progress”, it’s possible that Indigenous Peoples were, and perhaps still are, often more “advanced” than the dominant colonial powers of today. If we look at the values central to many Indigenous Peoples such as peace, sustainability, ecological diversity, equality, human rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, democracy, etc., then we realize that concepts that are new to Western thinking are ancient teachings entrenched in the  Indigenous mindset. In a twist of tragic irony, the “United Nations” of the world are starting to recognize that the very Peoples they have ignored are the ones who will likely save us all.

Unfortunately, much of the priceless and irreplaceable knowledge Indigenous Peoples used for millennia is lost as a result of the colonial project. As settler states grow, Indigenous Peoples are no longer guides, teachers and allies; now they are inconvenient neighbours whose “inherent backwardness” is an obstacle to “civilized progress”. From the perspective of the settler state, they are doing Indigenous Peoples a favour by “encouraging” them to assimilate and/or “get off” government aid. When that doesn’t work, settler states force the issue by outlawing Indigeneity and forcing Traditional Knowledge underground. To this day, Traditional Knowledge still struggles for recognition. For wider society to appreciate and embrace them, we need to rethink our common perceptions of data and end the ongoing colonial mindset that dominates most of the world.

What exactly are data anyway?

We’ve touched on Indigenous science and technology, but what about data? Data sound like something for scientists, businesses or governments, but data are something everyone uses all the time. Simply put, data are "information that may be recorded in various forms" (Lovett et. al, 2019, 27) and they are either quantitative (numerical form) or qualitative (descriptive form).

Even something as mundane as a stop sign is data. It embodies the information that if you don’t stop moving any further ahead you could die. That may sound silly but think about the number of people that die in avoidable car accidents every day and how it could be avoided. It is important to examine how data is recorded, stored, analyzed, and shared.

For a simpler and less scary example, let’s imagine you put out an RSVP to an event. You’d want both qualitative and quantitative data to return as responses. Quantitatively, you’d like to know the number of people showing up, how many of them like a certain food, and whether or not they can bring something. These data allow you to count and do statistical analysis if you have a big enough number of responses. Qualitatively, you’d like to know the names of those attending, how to get a hold of them if there are any changes, and if they have any questions or concerns. These data allow for a different analysis that doesn’t depend on numerical abstractions.

We use quantitative and qualitative data to answer different questions. Both forms of data have their place, and people may claim to prefer one or the other, but data are rarely so departmentalized. Everyone uses both kinds of data, often without realizing it, to make the endless decisions of their daily lives.

Decisions, and the data you need to make them, get more complicated as they involve more people. Imagine the difference between ordering a pizza for yourself and a few friends versus organizing catering for an entire wedding. With just a few people involved you can talk it over and reach consensus. With hundreds of people involved you need much more complex data to better inform your decision making.

Contact lists, calendars, invitations, RSVPs, catering, event booking, photographers, contracts, etc. are all data collection, analysis, and distribution exercises. It may seem easy to organize something like a wedding, but just ask anyone who has done it before and you’ll hear all about complications you never would have imagined. That’s because people are complex creatures and making decisions about them without their input is always a recipe for disaster.

Now let’s scale decision making processes to the level of government. Lands, housing, public works, public safety, laws, social services, and citizenship are all complicated mechanisms of governing human behaviour so we can all get along in relative peace and harmony. At least that’s the theory.

Imagine your government has grown from just a few individuals with limited authority to hundreds of professional civil administrators with unlimited authority in less than a few decades. Like the example above, what was at first a simple direct process becomes abstract and data-driven via complicated information networks with a bureaucracy.

With increased sovereignty comes increased governance. That means more complicated decisions. We account for more variables. We represent more voices and stakeholders. We manage more resources and do more work. Ultimately this means more risk but more reward. This is called network effects and can be illustrated by Metcalfe’s law (pictured below).

Metcalfe's Law Network Effect

While complex networks can be a headache to oversee and manage, with the right tools and knowledge it can be done to great effect. Just ask Amazon, Microsoft, Google, or Facebook. There’s a reason they collect as much data about us as possible and encourage maximum participation in their ecosystems. We are the product and they are getting rich off our data. This demand for big data shows no sign of slowing and it’s becoming an entire industry selling itself to “make better decisions” and “drive productivity“.

While this absurd invasion of privacy and social monitoring is unparalleled in history and unimaginable to previous generations, the notion of network effects is nothing new to Indigenous Peoples who understand the world as an intricate web of relations. Not all of us have massive server farms, but we manage lands holding 80% of the world’s biodiversity. If we can manage that level of bio-complexity, how hard can digital data be?

What does this have to do with data sovereignty?

Governments of all sizes ranging from the smallest grouping of village leaders to the largest of the world’s nation-states require data sovereignty to be independent. In a democracy, we don’t outsource the running of our elections to other countries, but we often rely on private businesses to provide the hardware and technology involved. Yet if another country collected our ballots and determined the results we wouldn’t trust the outcome. This is because of sovereignty. A company needs to respect its host Nations’ laws, at least in theory, but a foreign country has no obligation.

What if another country got access to our raw elections data after the fact? They aren’t privy to our laws, so what’s to stop them from figuring out who voted for who and making inferences on the data? Worse, with the digital nature of modern democracies, how do we know our elections aren’t being “hacked”? How do we know that the voters themselves aren’t influenced by other states? Do we still live in a democracy if foreign powers have undue influence in our votes?

These questions are now in the public limelight with the endless news coverage surrounding “Russiagate”. But what is at the core of that issue? Is it that Putin is pulling the strings of Trump and thus America? Or is it about “the insidious wiles of foreign influence?” While the hypocrisy of America being angry about elections interference is beyond words, we need to recognize that Canada isn’t immune from this either and can be just as hypocritical.

There are no simple answers here. We complicate questions around data because we are complicated creatures. From the ethics of data collection to the complications of data storage, sovereignty issues surrounding data are huge. Given that the world’s hunger for data seems to be ever-increasing, this is perhaps one of the most pressing issues of our time.

For the rest of this series of blog posts, we’ll think about 4 simple questions based on OCAP® principles that any sovereign entity regardless of its size should consider at all times:

  • Who owns the data?
  • Who controls the data?
  • Who accesses the data?
  • Who possesses the data?

These questions can help guide thinking about data and are not exclusive to Indigenous issues. However, given the tragic histories and unbalanced power relationships between Indigenous Nations and settler states, we need to ask these questions when working with Indigenous data.

This blog post speaks of (re)gaining data sovereignty to recognise that what we are attempting is both something old and something new, we refuse to accept the status quo. If Indigenous Peoples are to move forward with Indigenous resurgence, self-governance and self-determination they need to both gain new and innovative forms of data sovereignty while retaining and regaining their Traditional Knowledge. However, if we aren’t careful we risk recreating colonialism with a different name.

So what’s the solution?

This brings us to an ancient concept that is gaining recognition among Indigenous academics, thinkers and now tech companies: Indigenous Data Sovereignty. If you operate on the premise that Indigenous Peoples are sovereign entities, then you need to recognize that they need good data and data practises just like any other government. Yet Indigenous governments have special challenges that need to be considered and openly discussed. Indigenous Data Sovereignty needs to be conceptualized and practiced from the Peoples that the data is for and about. Remember the golden rule: nothing about us without us.

We recognize that Indigenous Peoples never gave up sovereignty. We are not conquered Peoples. From one perspective, the settler state is an occupying force. From another, it is an unwelcome house guest. Most Canadians don’t think of Canada as an ongoing settler state - that’s not part of the widely accepted national narrative - however, there are indications that it is beginning to change. Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples alike aren’t going anywhere, so we should try to (re)turn to a relationship of mutual respect between sovereign nations as symbolized and embodied by the Two Row Wampum. For that to happen, we need Indigenous Data Sovereignty.

What now?

In the next article of our Decolonizing Digital series, we will dive deeper into what Indigenous Data Sovereignty is, what it means for Indigenous Peoples, and how the idea of Indigenous Peoples controlling their own data will make the world a more equitable place for everyone. 

Decolonizing Digital Series:


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June 17, 2019

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