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Decolonizing Digital: The Future is Indigenous

August 30, 2019

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This post is part of a series setting the context for Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Our last post, Decolonizing Digital: Data’s Role in Indigenous Data Sovereignty, discussed how Indigenous and Western ways of understanding have not been treated equally. This post explains why this is unjust and dangerous to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples throughout the world. 

Defining and Achieving Indigenous Data Sovereignty

You may have noticed that we still haven’t nailed down a concrete definition of Indigenous Data Sovereignty (ID-Sov). The International Indigenous Data Sovereignty interest group defines ID-Sov as the right of a nation to govern the collection, ownership, and application of its own data. Simple, right? But what does that mean in practice? 

Finding a unified definition is important to establish common terms and work towards a shared understanding of what ID-Sov means. An entire book has already been devoted to beginning this task, and there are many presentations on youtube that show ID-Sov as not just a concept, but a movement. So far, there are at least three formal ID-Sov networks working to both develop ID-Sov intellectually and practically. Those networks include: 

This list is not exclusive as there are informal initiatives underway everywhere that Indigenous Peoples live. As the previous articles in this series have discussed, Indigenous Data is not new nor has Indigenous Sovereignty ever been dismantled. However, sharing ID-Sov as an international concept is new and is gaining popularity on a global scale. There is some poetic justice in that the international nature of colonialism also allows for global Indigenous solidarity.

Four Elements of Decolonization

ID-Sov sounds like a reasonable and straightforward concept, but how do we promote it? There’s no single answer to the question, as it heavily depends on local circumstances. Adopting a static one-size-fits-all model would only promote top-down paternalistic colonial mentalities that assume all Indigenous Peoples are the same.

As ID-Sov is just one part of the much larger idea of “decolonization”, it’s appropriate to acknowledge that a linear approach to progress doesn’t encapsulate Indigenous ways of thinking. Instead, we'll use mother nature as the ultimate teacher. This process involves trading linear thinking for circular processes and feedback loops with an emphasis on relationships and mutual dependencies.  We can use all of the complexities of the organic world to help us understand that ID-Sov is a process, not an event. It will move in stutters and starts, forwards and back, never standing still and always changing.

Instead of a linear diagram that moves towards a pre-established end goal, our Decolonizing Digital series focuses on a series of related elements that we can visualize with the following diagram.

graph

This diagram is not a definitive way to “achieve” ID-Sov. ID-Sov is an effort which is both collaborative amongst communities yet independent of each community. We provide these elements to act as a potential framework; each Nation or group of Peoples can build their own idea of what ID-Sov means by thinking about these elements and how they relate to each other.

Decolonization Element One: Indigenous Peoples are still here

To those who are engaged in Indigenous spaces, it may seem absurd that we need to make this statement, but centuries of colonial erasure have warped popular perceptions of what Indigenous Peoples are. Many people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, conceptualize Indigenous Peoples as a relic of the past, either a tragic story or an inevitable hindrance to civilization's progress, or both. The very notion that Indigenous Peoples still exist on Mother Earth and they can be just as “modern” as anyone else can be a shocking paradigm shift. Authentic Indigeneity is not a performance piece meant to satisfy the settler gaze, it is a way of being that challenges the mainstream global perception of Indigenous Peoples.

What is Indigeneity?

Indigeneity is another one of those loaded terms that, in defining, often loses the nuanced complexities that encapsulates what it means to be Indigenous today. Indigenous Peoples and their communities are as diverse, complex, beautiful, and resilient as the land on which they live. Where the problems arise are when observers of so-called Indigeneity dissociate Indigenous Peoples from modernity, innovation, or adaptability.

Major global institutions are coming to terms with this reality and are working towards promoting more useful concepts of Indigeneity. Yet what continues to frustrate Western thinking is that there is no single or easy way to define what makes a person Indigenous. The concept itself is incompatible with a colonial language like English which may explain why it’s so hard to define. Sometimes, we use “Indigenous” in the wrong contexts with no sense of irony. Regardless, it’s still a better term than “Aboriginal” which we discussed here.

Using a self-described nation or community name to refer to a People is preferable, but at the moment it looks like “Indigenous Peoples” is the best collective term we have, in the English language at least. 

In Canada, we associate the concept of Indigeneity and Indigenous Peoples with the descendants of the occupants of Turtle Island who have been here since time immemorial. However, this definition of “Indigenous” is not universal on a global scale. There is also a risk of lumping all Indigenous Peoples around the world into one group as each community has their own languages and cultures unique to their history and experiences. The mere attempt of defining Indigenous Peoples under a single definition can be problematic. For example, one accepted definition is the following adopted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO):

[I]n accordance with international legal agreements such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 and the Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Indigenous Peoples share the following characteristics:

  • They self-identify as [I]ndigenous and in some cases are recognised by other groups, or by State authorities, as having a distinct collective identity;
  • They have ancient historical ties with respect to living in and using a specific territory;
  • Their cultural distinctiveness is voluntary and handed down through generations. This may include aspects of language, social organization, religion and spiritual values, modes of production, laws and institutions; and
  • They have experienced or are experiencing subjugation, marginalization, dispossession, exclusion or discrimination.

It should be noted that the recognition or identification of certain collectivities as “Indigenous Peoples” shall not be dependent on whether the national government has recognized them as such.

The term “Indigenous Peoples” in plural was internationally agreed by Indigenous Peoples

to encompass diverse collectives that also fit the characteristics outlined in the working definition (above). It can include tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, adivasi, janajati, or occupational and geographical terms like hunter-gatherers, nomads, peasants, and hill people.

That we need this complex and often contested definition illustrates just how pervasive colonialism is. Instead of being able to refer to a defined group of People we often have to invoke these problematic terms and then spend time trying to explain what we mean. Imagine having to do that every time you needed to explain what a North American or a European is. While there are intellectual debates that contest those terms, they don’t take place anywhere near the frequency of those surrounding Indigeneity in everyday life.

The Problems with a Colonial Approach to Data

Let’s look at some common statistics associated with Indigenous Peoples:

Numbering at least 370-500 million, indigenous peoples represent the greater part of the world’s cultural diversity, and have created and speak the major share of the world’s almost 7000 languages.” Quote from UNESCO.

We can’t even agree on how many Indigenous people there are. There are loose estimates ranging from 370-500 million people, and despite the rapid growth of humanity, these estimates remain stagnant. 

“There are more than 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries worldwide.” Quote from IWGIA

“There are approximately 370 million Indigenous people in the world, belonging to 5,000 different groups, in 90 countries worldwide.” Quote from Cultural Survival.

Another cited statistic is that 5% of the global population is Indigenous, yet the countries where these people live ranges from 70-90 countries which is another rather odd discrepancy. To be fair, borders are fluid social constructs that don’t respect Indigenous relationships to land. For examples, see the differences between these two mapping systems: native-land.ca and landmarkmap.org. Limiting certain Indigenous Peoples to certain countries is politically and practically problematic.

Other questionable but common statistics claim that Indigenous Peoples:

“constitute 15 percent of the world’s poor, and one third of the 900 million people living in extreme poverty.” Quote from UNDP

“Worldwide, over 50 per cent of indigenous adults over age 35 have type 2 diabetes and these numbers are predicted to rise… [Indigenous Peoples] suffer from poorer health, are more likely to experience disability and reduced quality of life and ultimately die younger than their non-indigenous counterparts. The gap in life expectancy between [I]ndigenous and non-indigenous people in years is: Guatemala 13; Panama 10; Mexico 6; Nepal 20; Australia 20; Canada 17; New Zealand 11.” Quote from UN DESA

While these are grim statistics that we should take seriously, they also suffer from common Indigenous data problems:

  • these sources don’t state the statistical origin of their data or the research method used to create them;
  • the discourse that invokes these statistics doesn’t question the reliability of the data;
  • these are data about Indigenous Peoples that Indigenous Peoples did not generate; and
  • they frame these data from a perspective of a deficit, insinuating that the correct and inevitable thing to do would be to “close the gap”.

While the rhetoric of “closing the gap” sounds noble, perhaps we should think about what that means for Indigenous Peoples. 

  • What do we mean by “gap”?
  • Who creates and controls the data that “reveal” this “gap”?
  • Why is there a difference in the first place?
  • Does a gap denote some singular whole that is “broken”? 
  • Is this discourse assimilative?

When we answer the above questions are we pursuing changes for the better of “other” Peoples or are we pushing approaches that make “us” feel better to avoid the deeper and more troubling questions of ongoing colonial violence and genocide? Why the need to frame Indigenous existence in terms of deficit in the first place?

When an Elder Dies, A Library has Burned Down

Indigenous Peoples are not supposed to still be here. It’s a haunting thought, but we need to recognize this perspective because, regardless of how people’s worldviews have changed, many of the systems that support genocide have not.

The ongoing genocide of the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island is often framed as if it were a tragic occurrence, not an ongoing systematic issue. Many people, settlers, in particular, think of Reconciliation as a method to acknowledge the brutal history of Indigenous-settler relations, forgive past grievances, and move on to a brighter future. Unfortunately, that’s wishful thinking. There’s far too much evidence available in the current context to ignore the ongoing genocidal process that is at the heart of the Canadian state.

To combat media misinterpretations of the findings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), Gitskan professor Cindy Blackstock published a learning series on twitter using the hashtag #isitgenocide that goes into depth about this complex and troubling issue. Mi’kmaw professor Pam Palmater is another brilliant and outspoken Indigenous woman who is not afraid to speak truth to power and she offers a multitude of materials to aid self-education for those who don’t want to be ignorant of the horrors of colonial violence. Tanya Talaga's CBC Massey Lectures, books and numerous articles offer further insight into cultural genocide and the need for Indigenous self-determination.

While “we” as an artificial collective of people commonly called “Canadians” may not explicitly intend any for Indigenous Peoples to “disappear”, we are still living our day-to-day lives under the same systems that were created with that very intent. Here’s an example from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report, What We Have Learned: Principles of Truth and Reconciliation, pg. 103:

The closing of the schools did not bring the residential school story to an end. Their legacy continues to this day. It is reflected in the significant disparities in education, income, and health between Aboriginal people and other Canadians—disparities that condemn many Aboriginal people to shorter, poorer, and more troubled lives. The legacy is also reflected in the intense racism and the systemic discrimination Aboriginal people regularly experience in this country. More than a century of cultural genocide has left most Aboriginal languages on the verge of extinction. The disproportionate apprehension of Aboriginal children by child-welfare agencies and the disproportionate imprisonment and victimization of Aboriginal people are all part of the legacy of the way that Aboriginal children were treated in residential schools.

How is this possible? Aren’t we supposed to live in a post-colonial era? Isn’t equality now the rule of law with human rights at the forefront of many international discussions? Indigenous Peoples are human, right?

Indigenous Peoples are Not Going Anywhere

The cultural, emotional and physical resilience demonstrated by generations of Indigenous People is astonishing. Despite all of the horrors they have endured both as Peoples and as individuals, Indigenous Peoples have not and will not give up the struggle for their rights. Here’s another passage from the TRC, pg. 121-122:

every Indigenous nation across the country, each with its own distinctive culture and language, has kept its legal traditions and peacemaking practices alive in its communities. Although Elders and Knowledge Keepers across the land have told us that there is no specific word for “reconciliation” in their own languages, there are many words, stories, and songs, as well as sacred objects such as wampum belts, peace pipes, eagle down, cedar boughs, drums, and regalia, that are used to establish relationships, repair conflicts, restore harmony, and make peace. The ceremonies and protocols of Indigenous law are still remembered and practised in many Aboriginal communities.

The popular dictum, “every time an old man dies in Africa, it is as if a library has burnt down” is attributed to Amadou Hampâté Bâ, a Malian ethnologist, writer, diplomat and spiritual leader who defined himself as “a graduate of the great university of the Word, taught in the shadow of baobabs”. Before he passed away in 1991, he warned us of the disconnect between Elders and youth, particularly when it comes to transmission of traditional African culture. He emphasized that the sheer amount of knowledge that Elders hold is not only amazing, but it is vital data that needs to be protected and passed on. Youth may have the energy of the world, but it’s Elders who provide direction. Here’s another example from the TRC, pg. 123:

As Elder Crowshoe explained further, reconciliation requires talking, but our conversations must be broader than Canada’s conventional approaches. Reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians, from an Aboriginal perspective, also requires reconciliation with the natural world. If human beings resolve problems between themselves but continue to destroy the natural world, then reconciliation remains incomplete. This is a perspective that we as Commissioners have repeatedly heard: that reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the earth. Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous laws stress that humans must journey through life in conversation and negotiation with all creation. Reciprocity and mutual respect help sustain our survival.

Who better to guide us than Indigenous Elders? They embody diversity, resilience, wisdom and knowledge passed on since time immemorial that give us hope for the future. With the multitude of global problems facing us all, the world needs all the help it can get. So let’s stop thinking of Indigenous Peoples in terms of deficit, and start thinking about the wonderful things they bring to the international table. What if we adopted a more balanced approach and focused more on abstract but positive metrics, after all, Indigenous Peoples:

  • maintain over 5000 diverse cultures;
  • adapt to overtly hostile environments; and
  • curate massive libraries of experience, knowledge, and wisdom.

Decolonization Element Two: Indigenous Peoples are Global Actors

What if some of the answers to the urgent problems of the world could be found in Indigenous worldviews, actively demonstrated and lived through Indigenous languages? Protecting Indigenous languages is vital for not only self-determination but global well-being. It’s worth noting that the UN has deemed 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages

Maybe Indigenous Peoples need a little love, not only amongst themselves but from others. With love comes respect; admiration and a willingness to listen, cooperate with, cohabitate with and generally embrace each other as humans; and acceptance of our differences without erasing them. 

For example, many voices of the United Nations (UN) acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples are:

key sources of knowledge and understanding on climate change impacts, responses and adaptation. Their traditional knowledge, focused on sustainability and resilience, – from forecasting weather patterns to improving agricultural practices and management of natural resources – has increasingly gained recognition at the international level as a vital way forward to tackle climate change.

Then there’s the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) who note that:

Indigenous [P]eoples make an important contribution to the culture, heritage, and economic development of these member countries. The diverse spiritual beliefs and worldviews of Indigenous peoples worldwide are rooted in connections to land and nature, emphasizing its stewardship. Indigenous worldviews illuminate the path to sustainable development.

Here’s the World Economic Forum (WEF):

Indigenous wisdom can be used in both the mitigation of global warming and the adaptation to it. It can help us anticipate the impact of climate change, withstand new diseases, restore damaged ecosystems, avoid food insecurity and safeguard traditional livelihoods.

Even the World Bank notes that:

 [w]hile Indigenous Peoples own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s surface area, they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. They hold vital ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks.

You may have heard about the terrifying UN report on global biodiversity loss, but have you thought about the Indigenous Peoples on the front lines of the fight to save the world from destruction? Have you considered that they may be our last line of defence?

This growing recognition of Indigenous Peoples as key players in the solutions to the climate crisis is very exciting. However, not all of these voices are from activists, human rights advocates or Indigenous Peoples themselves. Many are neoliberal global institutions that support or enable disaster capitalism under the guise of “international development”, so we need to be critical of their proposed “solutions” to the “plight” of Indigenous Peoples.

Cultural appropriation, land grabs and the horrors done in the name of development are ongoing issues that continue to devastate local communities and threaten global well-being. However, this is not the time for Indigenous Peoples to shut themselves away from the world. It’s too late for that. Given the interconnected nature of the world’s problems, Indigenous Peoples need to feel welcome to participate in solving these problems. Some would say the answers are already there, but the powers that be simply don’t pay attention to the right voices.

Fortunately, walls established through Western ways of thinking are being demolished and Indigenous issues are increasingly recognized as world issues. The links between Indigenous Peoples and the climate crisis are taken more seriously in a diverse range of media outlets. A decade ago this article would probably be considered somewhat radical at the time: Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change (June, 2008). Now, these headlines are relatively common among NGOs, mainstream media outlets, even scientific journals:

It’s important to acknowledge that Indigenous Peoples have allies throughout the world and these organizations also require support. One example is the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), an NGO based in Denmark, founded in 1968 by a concerned group of European anthropologists. They have since helped coordinate a worldwide network of Indigenous organizations and work to support Indigenous Peoples through documentation, advocacy and global partnerships. Every year since 1993 they’ve produced their flagship publication, The Indigenous World, a country-by-country summary of Indigenous Peoples concerns.

bookThe Indigenous World is an ambitious and ongoing attempt to document both the struggle and sheer diversity of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world. The 2019 book was written by 97 different authors all over the world, many who are Indigenous, and they documented 62 country reports and 13 reports on international processes. If you are looking for a glimpse of what’s happening in Indigenous spaces throughout the world, this book is a great place to start.  

(Source, IWGIA website, the dark colours denote countries that have a report in the book)


This article touched on two of four elements for Decolonizing Digital: Indigenous Peoples are still here and they are key actors in global issues. Next post will explore two further elements, Indigenous rights and the data needed to exercise them.

August 30, 2019

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