XIII. Digital Collections and Indigenous Communities

In recent years, there has been a shift in museums where they are reexamining how they handle Indigenous collections and digital heritage. Technological developments over the last several years have offered new ways for museums and Indigenous communities to work together around Indigenous collections, increasing their agency and control over their digital heritage. This paper will explore three separate case studies, which span Australia, New Zealand and the United States, to consider how museums and other cultural institutions might better support Indigenous communities and their needs around digital heritage. It will then touch on related concepts, such as shared authority and some of the challenges of open access to cultural collections. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to working with Indigenous communities since each will have different needs and wishes, but there are lessons that can be applied by museums that wish to better support Indigenous knowledge and agency in relation to their collections. The first takeaway is that museums need to invite Indigenous communities to have conversations about what to do with Indigenous collections. The second takeaway from these case studies is that Indigenous collections have their own protocols for online collections that are separate protocols from traditional practices. The final takeaway is that Indigenous communities need to define what they need, it is not up to the museum to determine what Indigenous communities need.

For centuries, Indigenous communities been unable to control their objects, their knowledge, and their history in museums. Objects that were stolen from Indigenous communities have been kept in the museum’s collection with the museum deciding how these objects were presented and defining the associated narrative.1 This narrative was one that typically portrayed Indigenous culture as an exotic and primitive spectacle for visitors to marvel at.2 It is important that Indigenous communities gain control over their collections because they need to control their heritage and the narrative around it. Their knowledge protocols need to be followed when handling Indigenous collections. After centuries of not being able to control their cultural heritage or the narratives around it, it is time for Indigenous communities to regain that control, and museums have a role to play in helping Indigenous communities regain control.

Case Studies

As mentioned above, there is no single way for museums to work with Indigenous communities. The following case studies demonstrate the variety of possibilities of what can be created when museums and Indigenous communities come together. They are excellent examples of how to handle Indigenous collections. Museums can use these case studies to learn how to deal with their own Indigenous collections.

Mukurtu

Mukurtu (pronounced MOOK-oo-too) is an open-source content management software created in 2007 that allows Indigenous communities to create an online digital archive of their cultural heritage. Mukurtu is a community archive that puts the needs of Indigenous communities first.3 Since the platform is open-source, it is broadly accessible, allowing any Indigenous community to create their own digital archive so long as they are able to host a website. The Mukurtu CMS enables Indigenous communities to define the terms of access to their cultural materials, so the community has control what information is available to members of the community and those outside of it. Each archive is maintained by the community that created it, and they are able to add in community narratives to the institutional data. For example, the Plateau People’s Web Portal, puts “narratives, histories, and tribal knowledge from each tribe with the standard metadata from the institutional sources.”4 Mukurtu allows these tribes to add on to the institutional information about an object giving them a place for their voices to be heard.

The project originates from a collaboration between the Warumungu tribe of Central Australia and Kim Christen, a professor at Washington State University. Mukurtu was created after discovering that commercially available content management systems were unable to fit the needs of the Warumungu people because they did not enable Indigenous communities to customize access based on their own cultural parameters.5 The name Mukurtu comes from a Warumungu word that means “dilly bag” which is supposed to be a safe place to store things. The name was chosen by a Warumungu elder because he wanted “to remind users that the archive, to is a safe keeping place where Warumungu people can share stories, knowledge, and cultural materials properly using their own protocols.” 6

Indigenous knowledge do not always fit within existing models for accessing collections. Many Indigenous communities have knowledge protocols that determine who is able to access parts of their cultural heritage. These protocols are done because it might be more practical or appropriate to restrict knowledge within and outside the community.7 Instead of having all information be available to everyone, many Indigenous tribes have restrictions in place on knowledge. These restrictions can be based on the time of year, gender, age, family, and whether someone is or isn’t a part of the community.8 For example, in Washington State University’s collection there is a set of religious song recordings that are not meant to be heard by outsiders. Upon learning this information, the tapes were removed from circulation, digitized, and digital copies were given to women visiting from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation.9 Mukurtu was developed with knowledge protocols in mind, and the software is adaptable to any form of knowledge protocols. It allows Indigenous communities to establish their own protocols for viewing and circulation of materials within the software to ensure these protocols are adhered to.

Another important aspect of Mukurtu is protecting Indigenous knowledge. Since current copyright law and Creative Commons licenses do not currently account for Indigenous protocols around access and community ownership, The Local Contexts Project created the Traditional Knowledge (TK) Label platform as a way to help Indigenous communities protect their knowledge. Creative Commons Licenses were created to help define terms of reuse and circulation of different works. However there is still a need for “a set of licenses that recognize the varied types of stewardship over and re-uses of Indigenous cultural material, as well as the legitimacy of already existing Indigenous knowledge management strategies.”10 This is why TK Labels were developed. TK Labels offer a way for those outside the community to understand the importance of Indigenous heritage. It lets outsiders to the community know who has access to and object and how it is used.11 TK Labels are an addition to current copyright law, and they allow Indigenous copyright holders to protect their material by addressing cultural concerns about how materials should be used and circulated.12

Since Mukurtu was created, it has been used by numerous Indigenous communities in order to create their own digital archive. Examples of these include the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, Passamaquoddy People, Huna Heritage Foundation Digital Archives, and many more.13 Mukurtu has resulted in the needs of Indigenous communities being prioritized above all else by enabling them to curate their own archive that adheres to their own knowledge protocols.

Passamaquoddy

One of the communities that has utilized the Mukurtu platform is the Passamaquoddy tribe, a Native American tribe in Calais, Maine. The Passamaquoddy were studied by scholars for generations, with no say in how the information about them was then used. In 1890, Jesse Fewkes made phonographic recordings of Passamaquoddy stories, songs, and even a funeral ceremony. The recordings were held in the Harvard Peabody Museum where they were made available to the public without the consent of the tribe.14 By 1980, the Library of Congress had obtained the recordings made by Fewkes. They decided to send cassette tapes with the recordings on them to the Passamaquoddy tribe, but they were poor quality and hard to understand. This was the first attempt to return these recordings to the Passamaquoddy tribe, and it was the first time any members of the tribe had ever heard the recordings.

In 2013, Donald Soctomah, a Passamaquoddy tribal historic preservation officer, met with the Library of Congress where he laid out his idea to develop a website curated by the Passamaquoddy people where the tribe has complete control over all information on the site. Soctomah wanted a place for Passamaquoddy stories, language, and history to be completely free from outside influence.15 The Library of Congress agreed to begin restoring the recordings to create high quality digital versions of them. What happened after that was entirely up to the Passamaquoddy people. Since then, Dwayne Tomah, the youngest fluent Passamaquoddy speaker, has worked translating the recordings from the cylinders for the other tribe members. Some of the recordings have been made available online to the public while others are only accessible by Passamaquoddy members. To do this, the Passamaquoddy Tribe use Mukurtu content management software.16 The Tribe maintains the website where this information is kept, they own the recordings and any data about them, and they have complete control over what is and is not made available to the public. In this instance, the Library of Congress gave up some of their own power in order to give it back to the Passamaquoddy people.

There are clear benefits to returning these recordings to the Passamaquoddy people. It has helped with revitalizing and preserving Passamaquoddy culture for future generations. Soctomah and Tomah have played some of the songs from the cylinder recordings at annual tribe celebrations and at schools for children of the tribe in an attempt to ensure the Passamaquoddy language is passed on to the younger generation. The children have since learned the songs and began singing the songs themselves.17 This is important because it helps ensure that Passamaquoddy language, culture, and traditions are going to be passed on to the next generation. This collaboration between the Passamaquoddy people and the Library of Congress has worked well because this project gave the Tribe access to high quality version of recordings that they have not previously had access to. The recordings contain priceless information about Passamaquoddy culture from 130 years ago. In a time where many Indigenous communities are struggling to keep their traditions alive, this project has enabled the Passamaquoddy people to connect with their past in a way they were previously unable to do so.

Te Ataakura

The Te Ataakura project in New Zealand was put together by members of a Māori tribal group known as Te Aitanga a Hauiti. Members of the Te Aitanga a Hauiti have formed an organization called Toi Hauiti whose goal is to revitalize their cultural heritage.18 The Toi Hauiti organization has made multiple efforts in collaborating with museums over the years in an effort to regain access over their cultural heritage.

The first digital collaboration Toi Hautiti worked on was in 2005 when work began on a project called Te Whatakōrero. The initial plan for this project was to create an online archive for the Tribe’s artifacts stored in five museums across New Zealand, however, it became clear this was too ambitious for them to take on due to the financial resources and technological resources available to them.19 The project then transformed into a CD-ROM that would store the information of Te Aitanga a Hauiti artifacts in an interactive format for the tribe. While the Te Aitanga a Hauiti were able to regain access to their culture through digital means, there was no transfer of ownership from the New Zealand museums. The CD was considered to be a success by Toi Hauiti and the institution it collaborated with because it raised awareness of Te Aitanga a Hauiti and their cultural heritage. The Toi Hauiti group used the success of the CD to begin building relationships with other institutions in order for them to continue rediscovering their artifacts in institutions all over the world. 20

The next step Toi Hauiti took towards regaining access to their cultural heritage was in 2010 with two projects. One of these projects was called Artefacts of Encounter and the other was called Te Ataakura. Artefacts of Encounter was a three-year project at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at the University of Cambridge which aimed to examine artifacts from 40 voyages to Polynesia that took place from 1765 to 1840. Toi Hauiti was brought in to collaborate on the project in order to help trace the history of the artifacts. The project allowed for some members of Toi Hauiti to receive funding in order for them to visit the institutions holding their objects, so that tribe members have the opportunity to reconnect with these objects. The goal of this project was to look at the interactions between Europeans and communities that are Indigenous to Polynesia.21 After collaborating on this project with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Toi Hautiti embarked on another project with the museum called Te Ataakura. This was a two-year project that lasted from 2010-2012, and it received funding from New Zealand’s Māori Centre for Research excellence. The aim was to discover ways to present Māori artifacts in a digital form, and it sought to repatriate the knowledge associated with these artifacts. It was discovered that the best way to present their objects would be by creating two separate yet linked hubs, one for Toi Hauiti and one for the MAA. This resulted in the KIWA hub being created for the MAA while Toi Hauiti created Te Rauata.22 This was the result because it created an autonomous space for each group instead of one group “inviting” the other to their space. For Toi Hauiti, this project served to further strengthen community identity.23

After gathering an online collective for their digital heritage, Toi Hauiti created a separate digital platform which they named Te Rauata. Te Rauata differs from KIWA in that it is owned and created by Toi Hauiti. It is not simply a research platform to help bring together objects and research, but it is a digital repository that incorporates all of the objects gathered by the Te Ataakura project.24 It incorporates the objects, relationships, and knowledge of the Te Aitanga a Hauiti tribe. Te Rauata was not made to create something that does not already exist, but it serves to be a digital resource for tribal knowledge that is completely controlled by the tribe.25 Since then everything about Te Rauata is owned and maintained by Toi Hauiti including the servers, they have complete control and ownership of everything involved in the project. Toi Hauiti has been embracing the abilities of technology to reconnect their tribe with their cultural heritage. They continue to experiment in uses of technology, and they are currently looking at using holographic technology to recreate a full-scale model of a meeting house. Currently the only things that are able to limit the endeavors of Toi Hauiti are cost and the current limits of technology.26

For Toi Hauiti, the value of an object is not whether or not it is in a physical or digital format, but the value is in a person’s relationship to the artifact. For someone who has a relationship to an object, the object serves as a representation of that connection and of the history behind it. This means the digital object is not inferior to the physical one for Toi Hauiti.27 Toi Hauiti has been working to reclaim their heritage through collaborations with museums for over a decade. Now they own all digital content they create, and it is stored on their servers. Their many collaborations over the years has helped them build relationships with museums, so that the museums are able to provide support when they can.

Importance of Shared Authority

A useful concept in understanding the importance of each of the above projects is shared authority. While museums have long grounded their authority in expert knowledge, shared authority looks for expertise from non-experts and source communities to provide information about their objects and their culture.28 Shared authority acknowledges that “both scholarly authority and the authority of ‘culture and experience’” are equally valid sources of knowledge and authority.29

For shared authority to work, it requires museums to be able to admit they do not know everything and that there are people out there who are more knowledgeable about a topic than a museum professional.30 While Indigenous communities may not be able to change the official museum record, there is value in making their narrative visible alongside the museum’s narrative. It places the two sources of information on next to one another allowing there to be different versions from the official museum record.. This is also beneficial because it shows the museum record can be questioned, and it is not an absolute truth. Mukurtu allows Indigenous communities to add their community narratives to be seen alongside the institutional record of that object. It gives the Indigenous communities the opportunity to add to the official record and to be presented on an equal footing.

There is still a huge power imbalance between museums and Indigenous communities. The museum cannot be the one to have complete control over the narrative and interpretation because that puts the academic perspective above a person’s lived experience. It is not typical for lived experience to be considered as valuable as academic experience. This can be attributed to the subjectivity of lived experience. The variation that can be within lived experience is exactly why it is so important. Academic knowledge about a culture may not be entirely reflective of the culture itself. Lived experience can give the realities of a Native American culture, and it can provide multiple perspectives of what a culture may look like in reality. Both the subjective and more objective sources of information are important to have complete understanding of a culture.Going forward, the two parties need to work together as equals or else shared authority cannot truly happen. For lived experience to be regarded as being as valuable as academic knowledge, then it must be given recognition and compensation equal to that of academic knowledge. It is not commendable for museums to have members of Indigenous communities come share their knowledge, and then not give any credit or compensation to them. Not giving members of an Indigenous community the proper recognition and compensation for their knowledge just exploits Indigenous communities even further as they are not being recognized for their contributions.

Giving Back Control

A key part of these collaborations is that Indigenous communities are given curatorial control over the digitized objects and information around them. This means Indigenous communities must control who objects and information are made available to, including within the community and the general public. For museums to handle Indigenous collections correctly, the Indigenous communities must be consulted about access, and they need to have their wants and needs respected. They must have complete sovereignty over the collection and its associated data and cannot be pushed into making it open access.31 While today there is a big push for open access to online collections, the idea that one has a right to information is a very Western idea. The idea of a public domain for information does not align with Indigenous systems of knowledge production.32 In Western societies, any form of information restriction or censorship can cause negative reactions. The idea that information should be available to everyone can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, but the twenty-first century movement for information freedom goes hand in hand with the idea of creating a digital revolution.33 This had led to the push for open access as it pushes the idea that making all information available will be a social and political benefit to everyone. 34

However, there are Indigenous communities across the world do not share this belief, and they have their own protocols for information that restrict what is made available to people outside the community and to those within it. For some Indigenous communities, it is more practical and appropriate to have protocols about who may know what. For example, the Warumungu tribe in Northern Australia spreads their knowledge throughout the community, so that there is no one group that holds all the knowledge. This ensures that different groups within the community come together to share what the know in order to keep the information alive.35 Knowledge protocols are not just limited to Warumungu people, and this idea is common among Indigenous communities. Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies must be taken into consideration which is why Indigenous communities need to have curatorial control over these objects.

Indigenous knowledge protocols can clash with protocols in Western societies for a number of reasons. It is not just about who is able to have access to information, but it also involves different takes on public domain. A lot of Indigenous materials and knowledge have fallen into the public domain despite Indigenous communities losing control of that knowledge.36 The public domain allows for “’culturally appropriate conditions for access’ [to] continue to be erased”.37 Further issues come from staff who wish to digitize Indigenous collections, but they are hesitant because they do not know who to obtain permission from or if permission is needed.38 The disregard and uncertainties surrounding Indigenous knowledge protocols is not a problem that can be solved overnight. It will require institutions to be respectful towards Indigenous communities’ ontologies and customs. It will require consulting Indigenous communities, letting them make the choices regarding their digitized materials, and ensuring their contributions are heard and abided by.39 If museums can be willing to try to take these steps and be okay with not always getting it right, then they can take vital steps in learning how to handle their Indigenous collections and how to give control back to Indigenous communities.

It is not enough to merely enable Indigenous communities’ access to their cultural heritage. They need to have access and control over it. It is imperative that control be given back to Indigenous communities. This is important because it is not just about giving communities access to a digital object, but it is about enabling community control about what information about their culture is made public, how it is presented to others, how its preserved, and how it will be remembered.40 After centuries of not being able to control what happens to their objects, their culture, and their history, it is imperative that museums and other institutions give this control back to the Indigenous communities, so they can ensure their cultural heritage is treated respectfully and according to their own standards. This may mean that the knowledge is no longer available to those outside the source community due to tribal customs.

Conclusion

It is important for museums to look at these case studies to learn what is possible when handling Indigenous collections. These projects have shown how today’s technology can be utilized to give Indigenous communities access and control over how and what elements of their culture are presented to the people outside and within the community. It is not necessary for museums to replicate these case studies, but instead they should examine and follow them to learn what they can do. From these case studies, museums can learn that they need to invite Indigenous communities in to have these discussions about their own collections. The second takeaway is that Indigenous communities need to define what they need, the museum does not get to decide that. The final takeaway is that Indigenous collections require their own protocols to be applied in online collections that differ from traditional collecting practices. Projects such as these case studies are not the only efforts museums should be making to support Indigenous communities, it is simply one thing they are able to do.

Notes


  1. Sumaya Kassim, “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised,” Media Diversified, November 15, 2017, https://mediadiversified.org/2017/11/15/the-museum-will-not-be-decolonised/.
  2. Duane H. King, “Exhibiting Culture: American Indians and Museums,” Tulsa Law Review 45, no. 1 (2013): pp. 25-32, https://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/tlr/vol45/iss1/3, 25-26.
  3. “Home,” Mukurtu CMS, accessed November 3, 2019, https://mukurtu.org/.
  4. Kimberly Christen, “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the ‘s’ Matters,” Journal of Western Archives 6, no. 1 (2015), 4.
  5. Kimberly Christen, “Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation,” The American Archivist 74, no. 1 (2011): pp. 185-210, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.74.1.4233nv6nv6428521, 186.
  6. “Home,” Mukurtu CMS, accessed November 3, 2019, https://mukurtu.org/.
  7. Kimberly Christen, “Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation,” The American Archivist 74, no. 1 (2011): pp. 185-210, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.74.1.4233nv6nv6428521, 191.
  8. Kimberly Christen, “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the ‘s’ Matters,” Journal of Western Archives 6, no. 1 (2015), 5.
  9. Ibid, p. 2
  10. Ibid, p.8
  11. “Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels,” Local Contexts, 2017, https://localcontexts.org/tk-labels/.
  12. Kimberly Christen, “Tribal Archives, Traditional Knowledge, and Local Contexts: Why the ‘s’ Matters,” Journal of Western Archives 6, no. 1 (2015), 11.
  13. “Showcase,” Mukurtu CMS, accessed November 13, 2019, https://mukurtu.org/showcase/.
  14. E. Tammy, Kim, “The Passamaquoddy Reclaim Their Culture Through Digital Repatriation,” The New Yorker (The New Yorker, January 30, 2019), https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-passamaquoddy-reclaim-their-culture-through-digital-repatriation.
  15. Robbie Feinburg, “Historic Recordings of Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe Restored More than a Century Later,” CANVAS Arts, October 24, 2019, https://artscanvas.org/arts-culture/historic-recordings-of-maines-passamaquoddy-tribe-restored-more-than-a-century-later.
  16. “Passamaquoddy People,” Mukurtu CMS, accessed November 11, 2019, https://mukurtu.org/project/passamaquoddy-people/.
  17. Robbie Feinburg, “Historic Recordings of Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe Restored More than a Century Later,” CANVAS Arts, October 24, 2019, https://artscanvas.org/arts-culture/historic-recordings-of-maines-passamaquoddy-tribe-restored-more-than-a-century-later.
  18. Wayne Ngata, Hera Ngata-Gibson, and Amiria Salmond, “Te Ataakura: Digital Taonga and Cultural Innovation,” Journal of Material Culture 17, no. 3 (2012): pp. 229-244, https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183512453807, 231.
  19. Ibid, 236.
  20. Ibid, 237.
  21. “About the Project,” Artefacts of Encounter, accessed November 3, 2019, http://maa.cam.ac.uk/aofe/about.html.
  22. Bryony Onciul et al., “Relational Systems and Ancient Futures: Co-Creating a Digital Contact Network in Theory and Practice,” in Engaging Heritage, Engaging Communities (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2017), pp. 205-225, 208.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid, 210.
  25. Ibid, 210.
  26. Wayne Ngata, Hera Ngata-Gibson, and Amiria Salmond, “Te Ataakura: Digital Taonga and Cultural Innovation,” Journal of Material Culture 17, no. 3 (2012): pp. 229-244, https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183512453807, 232.
  27. Ibid, 232.
  28. Nick Sacco, “Sharing Authority Is More Difficult Than You Think,” Exploring the Past, September 3, 2014, https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/sharing-authority-is-more-difficult-than-you-think/.
  29. Viv Golding, Wayne Modest, and Mary Hutchison, “‘Shared Authority’: Collaboration, Curatorial Voice, and Exhibition Design in Canberra, Australia,” in Museums and Communities: Curators, Collections, and Collaboration (London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016), pp. 143-162, 145.
  30. Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, “Shared Authority: The Key to Museum Education as Social Change,” Journal of Museum Education 38, no. 2 (2013): pp. 121-128, https://doi.org/10.1179/1059865013z.00000000014, 123.
  31. Mathilde Pavis and Andrea Wallace, “Response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report: Statement on Intellectual Property Rights and Open Access Relevant to the Digitization and Restitution of African Cultural Heritage and Associated Materials,” SSRN Electronic Journal, March 25, 2019, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3378200, 1.
  32. Kimberly Christen, “Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation,” The American Archivist 74, no. 1 (2011): pp. 185-210, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.74.1.4233nv6nv6428521, 189.
  33. Kimberly Christen, “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness,” International Journal of Communication, November 30, 2012, pp. 2870-2893, 2878.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Kimberly Christen, “Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation,” The American Archivist 74, no. 1 (2011): pp. 185-210, https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.74.1.4233nv6nv6428521, 191.
  36. Kimberly Christen, “Does Information Really Want to Be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness,” International Journal of Communication, November 30, 2012, pp. 2870-2893, 2879.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Alex Byrne, “Digitising and Handling Indigenous Cultural Resources in Libraries, Archives and Museums ,” in Making the Intangible Tangible (Canberra: UNESCO, 2008), http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/mow/mow_3rd_international_conference_alex_byrne_indigenous_en.pdf, 4.
  39. Terri Janke et al., Indigenous Cultural Protocols and the Arts (Sydney, New South Wales: Terri Janke and Company Pty Ltd, 2016), http://www.terrijanke.com.au/indigenous-cultural-protocols-and-arts, 6.
  40. Mathilde Pavis and Andrea Wallace, “Response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report: Statement on Intellectual Property Rights and Open Access Relevant to the Digitization and Restitution of African Cultural Heritage and Associated Materials,” SSRN Electronic Journal, March 25, 2019, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3378200, 11.