IV Access, control, and Indigenous knowledge

Cross-cultural collaborations in the digital world: a case study from the Great Lakes Research Alliance’s knowledge sharing database

Heidi Bohaker, Lisa Truong, and Kate Higginson


Since 2005, members of the Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures (GRASAC) have been engaged in cross-cultural, collaborative work to share knowledge about aspects of Great Lakes heritage that, primarily because of the ongoing legacy of colonialism, are held in museums and archives around the world. There are two key aspects of GRASAC: a network of more than 500 people who have been engaged with GRASAC and its research projects over the past 15 years, and the GKS (GRASAC Knowledge Sharing), a database platform that GRASAC members developed as a repository of collaborative research findings and data collected from onsite visits to museums and archives. GRASAC team members include Indigenous and settler researchers, university professors (from Indigenous Studies, History, Art History, Law, Anthropology, Political Science, Museum Studies, and Linguistics), curators, archivists, graduate and undergraduate research students, as well as community-based Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, and Wendat knowledge holders, curators, artists, teachers, language revitalization specialists, educators, and people with a general interest in cultural heritage work. We note that members can and do hold multiple roles. New members are nominated by existing members, and any member can provide guest access to the database to anyone.

GRASAC is a large-scale multi-sited DH project that has been supported through multiple research grants and awards to date, and the service labour of its members. GRASAC members engage in critical interventions into multiple disciplines, developing and refining methodologies for working collabora- tively while respecting the autonomy, integrity, and sovereignties of the Great Lakes nations which are central to GRASAC. In so doing, we have found sites where our work brings into sharp relief the ontological differences that underlie ongoing colonial power relations in Canada, the United States, and overseas in institutions that themselves are the product of imperial projects of colonization (Hamilton 2010; Turner 2020). This chapter focuses more on the development of the GKS database, and our continuing work to avoid replicating those same colonial power structures in our use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). We also discuss the questions our work has raised in terms of access, control, and dissemination of the knowledge that has been collaborativelv produced.

Questions of access, control, and dissemination of information have occupied GRASAC members since the inception of our alliance. These questions are fundamentally about power. Complex power relationships and the work of members to recognize and address them are embedded in GRASAC’s digital humanities work. These relationships are visible through the history of our project, in our methodology and approaches, and in the challenges we have faced in attempting to represent the richness of Anishinaabe, Wendat, and Haudeno- saunee civilizations within the structure of a database, a digital tool which itself is a product of a colonizing, atomizing Western ontology. Note that even the language of data collection and dissemination (e.g. mining, scraping) reflects a Western ontology in which the land is seen as a source of resources. This contrasts with Indigenous ontologies, in which the lands and waters are peopled by ensouled beings (including plants and animals), with whom humans have relationships and to whom humans have responsibilities, including duties of care (e.g. Simpson 2008; Whetung 2019). Indigenous epistemologies in the Great Lakes region are not anthropocentric. Establishing and maintaining reciprocal relations between ensouled beings are integral parts of distinctive Anishinaabe, Wendat, and Haudenosaunee cultural and political practices. Indeed, as many Indigenous scholars have noted, these philosophical, ethical, and spiritual ideas are widespread throughout Turtle Island and are shared by many other nations (see, e.g. Deloria 2003; Duarte 2017).

But as Marisa Duarte has noted in her work Network sovereignty: building the Internet across Indian country, Indigenous epistemologies are entirely compatible with ICTs. In fact, the very decentred, multi-noded design of the Internet itself is structurally similar to many historic Indigenous polities that were based on building alliances of interdependence between autonomous peoples. Duarte writes, in this instance of Mayan political struggles both today and in the past:

The peoples are connected and waiting for the messages. Generations ago, Mayan ancestors learned a language, assembled a set of tools, and carved meaning into a rock face. Generations later, their granddaughters learned to program, assembled a series of laptops and radio equipment, and carved meaning into the airwaves flowing from the mountaintops of Chiapas to homes in Chicago, Mexico City, and Los Angeles.

(2017, p. 21)

She describes how Indigenous activists such as Idle No More use social media networks as “a means of working toward decolonization” (p. 25). Indigenous futures are being reimagined in digital spaces, most notably through collaborations such as The Initiative for Indigenous Futures (IIF), hosted at Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace (AbTeC), a research network based at Concordia University. This work includes research into and the production of digital art, video games, computer programming, and artificial intelligence. Examples include video games that explore and teach language and culture, such as Nu:ya! Nurya! A Tuscarora Exploratory Came, which launched in 2018 at Toronto’s ImagiNative Film and Media Arts Festival (Wilson & McKie 2018). Information technology, as Duarte points out, is not inherently colonial. ICTs can serve community needs through supporting “cultural revitalization and the strengthening of tribal governance” (p. 139). ICTs are simply tools. How they are managed, and who they benefit, are questions about power and governance, and about the relationships of trust and accountability that people build with one another.

For CRASAC members, collaboration through networks of alliance relationships is our central and crucial methodology, in both the physical and digital worlds. GRASAC research projects began as museum and archive visits to document collections, but in recent years they have become much more focused on supporting community collaborations, including the following:

  • • facilitated visits between seniors from Nipissing First Nation and the Toronto Native Canadian Centre;
  • • studies of wampum bringing together Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe knowledge holders for comparative conversations;
  • • focused research into Indigenous methodologies for collections-based work involving Indigenous researchers and students at the University of Winnipeg, the Manitoba Museum, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute of American Indian Arts;
  • • the development of accessible media formats for the digital dissemination of Anishinaabe makers’ knowledge through a partnership with the Michigan Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program and the Michigan State University Museum;
  • • a collaboration between Cornell University, Ganondagan, and the Seneca- Iroquois National Museum Translating Onondowa’ga:’ Archaeology into Stories;
  • • a pilot project exploring the link between the Native North American Travelling College at Akewsasne and Carleton University’s Indigenous Research Institute, with a particular focus on the Salli Benedict basket collection at the NNATC.
  • (CRASAC 2019)

Each of these projects engaged with and used the database in different ways, but they also did significant work (arguably their most important work) in the physical world. Nevertheless, the GKS and its records are intimately connected to the in-person collaborations and knowledge sharing that GRASAC members facilitate. The GKS is an “arch-collection” with a twist. As anthropologist Emanuela Rossi noted, GRASAC’s GKS “enacts new systems, being itself the product of diverse forms of collecting” (2017, p. 667). While it is “not unlike a museum” in how it collects and organizes information, nevertheless it establishes connections between items. In that respect it is like a basket, and the items in it are like berries, carefully gathered together, as a foundation for a feast. Over the past 15 years, GRASAC members have worked to create space for different ontologies, to share and learn from each other. Our success to date has mostly been shaped by the goodwill of our members, and is ultimately more evident in the interactions of our teams than in the design and architecture of our database, although with each iteration of the software we have moved closer to the idea of an “indigenized record”. In this chapter, we discuss the history of GRASAC as an organization, the structure of our database, and the questions of intellectual property raised by our work within this cross-cultural context. GRASAC’s DH project (the database) has emerged as an important tool, but we find it is secondary in importance to the relationships we have built and continue to grow and maintain across our alliance. In other words, our DH work has activated, enabled, and continues to support our alliance relationships.

Founding GRASAC and developing the GKS

GRASAC was founded in 2005 by a gathering of Indigenous and allied researchers in response to the ways in which Euro-American practices of collecting, curating, archiving, and interpreting Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, and Wendat objects have distributed Indigenous heritage among different repositories. These practices separate items from their source communities and often from any really meaningful cultural context, thereby distorting histories and rendering many items unintelligible. Members recognized how the scattering of texts and material items among unrelated institutions in distant cities made it nearly impossible for contemporary community members to access and learn about historic items connected to their own heritage, and, in particular, to items that are central to assertions of sovereignty, Indigenous law, and historic governance practices, such as wampum belts, wampum strings, headdresses, and diplomatic gifts. To support this research, founding GRASAC members sought grant funding for and created the first research database: the GRASAC Knowledge Sharing system (GKS). The database, now in its fourth version, was developed to put records of our many field trips to museums and archives into conversation with each other and with contemporary Indigenous community members, including contemporary makers, teachers, and students. Our Steering Committee, which is balanced equally between Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, has sought since GRASAC’s inception to develop a holistic and capacious database that would record as much relevant institutional data and cultural knowledge as possible. The hope was that community members, including contemporary makers, teachers, and students, would also make use of the database.

The ideas for GRASAC and its research database were conceived by art historian Ruth Phillips (Carleton University), historian Heidi Bohaker (University of Toronto), Anishinaabe legal historian Darlene Johnston (University of British Columbia), anthropologist Cory Willmott (State University of Illinois, Edwardsville), then Ojibwe Cultural Foundation director Alan Corbiere, and Woodland Cultural Centre director Janis Monture. In consultation with international museum curators and researchers who came together at multiple organizational meetings beginning in 2005, we designed and implemented our database for sharing knowledge and refined our research methodologies. GRASAC members work individually or in interdisciplinary teams to visit institutional settings, document collections, and add research and observations to the database. Over the last 15 years, teams of GRASAC researchers have travelled through North America and Europe and have produced 4454 detailed descriptive records of material culture, archival documents, documentary art, and historic photographs, accompanied by multiple high-resolution photographs and video clips of teams working in situ on selected artefacts. We refer to this set collectively as heritage items.

The data in the GKS bridges disciplinary divides with our innovative record structure, contributed by co-founder Darlene Johnston, which requires researchers to address not only specialized features but also the shared qualities of different types of heritage items (see Figures 10.1-10.3 for a look at a heritage item). We use one record form for different types of heritage items, from archival documents to historical photographs to material, cultural, and documentary art. Using this form requires our researchers to describe the materiality of archival documents (e.g. including the type and size of paper, the seals and wax of a treaty document) and to consider the textuality of material cultures— what does the wampum belt communicate, for example, or how can the symbols, icons, and images on a woven bag or woven mat be read? We include information about calendar dates (when we think an item was made), but also have a field for seasonal and ceremonial time, which is an equally if not more important consideration—in what season was an item likely made? In what season was it used? At what time or times of the year (or time of the day) is it culturally appropriate and respectful to view the item’s record? Attributions and sources of information are also clearly defined for each field. The GKS record structure encourages the critical reassessment of existing collections documentation, much of which was created many decades ago according to outdated cultural and typological approaches. By pooling different disciplinary and cultural knowledges, we have been able to solve problems which cannot be answered by any one researcher, institution, or discipline. The records comprise complete physical descriptions of each item, including how the item was made, what it was made from, and analysis of symbolic or iconic imagery, along with transcriptions and/or translations of texts. For museum collections, we also include

A GRASAC heritage item record, in summary view

FIGURE 10.1 A GRASAC heritage item record, in summary view.

copies of catalogue entries and any information we can determine about the time and process of construction (which can sometimes be determined by the materials), the source community the item is from, and the path the item took to end up in its current repository.

For some items, we have a great deal of information, and occasionally we are even fortunate to be able to identify a specific source community where provenance is indicated in the host repository’s archive. In some cases, we have been able to match unsigned items to a known one produced by a particular person (Bohaker et al. 2015b). In many other cases though, the provenance is so uncertain or records so sparse that the best we are able to do is to identify the item as likely having been produced by an artist from one or more of the Anishinaabeg,

View of a heritage item record for an artifact entry, “a porcupine quil

FIGURE 10.2 View of a heritage item record for an artifact entry, “a porcupine quill box.” The tab highlighted is “Show Detailed”. A variety of specific information is available under drop down tabs; here the “Dates and Times Related to this Item” tab is open. Other tabs for related items are located on the right-hand side.

Images ofthe Heritage Item. Each small image links to a high-resolution detailed image permitting close study of the item

FIGURE 10.3 Images ofthe Heritage Item. Each small image links to a high-resolution detailed image permitting close study of the item.

Haudenosaunee, or Wendat civilizations. Indeed, the banner image for our project website is a finger-woven garter that was of the type that could have been made or worn by someone from any of these Great Lakes civilizations, since a more precise determination of origin is at present simply not possible.1

At this point, we have travelled to study a significant number of collections and the GKS database contains at least a selection of items from most of the major known collections of Great Lakes heritage materials, including the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec), the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, and the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, France, which holds the oldest known collection of Great Lakes material and dates from before the French Revolution. However, much work remains. Significant collections remain undocumented, or only partially documented. For example, in our trip to the British Museum in 2007, we were only able to study a small percentage of the entire collection of Great Lakes material culture. The records in our database have been contributed by many different people, in response to both community and academic questions. In 2014, we added 17,350 records of language terms (what we call language items) in Anishinaabemowin and Cayuga. Language items include head words or stems, detailed definitions, and examples of use in complete sentences or phrases, and each of these can be linked to heritage items along with sound or video files so that users can hear language in action.

Our achievements to date have been funded by Dr. Ruth Phillips’s Canada Research Chair, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and SSHRC (Aboriginal Research Grant; Image, Text, Sound and Technology grant; and International Opportunities grant), as well as the 2010 Province of Ontario Premier’s Discovery Award in the Humanities, and more recently by a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant and a SSHRC Connections Grant. Other researchers have secured smaller amounts to contribute specific project knowledge to the database. In 2012, for example, with support from the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices project, GRASAC language researchers Alan Corbiere and Mary Ann Corbiere, along with fluent Anishinaabemowin speakers Mina and Ted Toulouse, recorded Anishinaabemowin discourse related to maple sugar harvesting technology as represented by the National Museum of Natural History’s early twentieth-century collection (Bohaker et al. 2015b). Alan Corbiere subsequently produced Anishinaabemowin language videos of that work, and of Ted Toulouse working on the land to demonstrate historic maple sugaring techniques. All of this work is now available in our database, and the records are cross-linked, so that viewing the pieces studied by the Toulouses will bring up the associated videos produced by Dr. Corbiere.

Scholars and community researchers are certainly making use of the GKS. Data from it have been used in dozens of conference papers, published papers, and books (see, e.g. Bohaker 2020; Bohaker et al. 2015b; Phillips 2011; Rossi 2017, 2008; Willmott et al. 2016). The database has also contributed to the research supporting major exhibitions such as Before and after the Horizon: Anishi- naabe Artists of the Great Lakes, a co-presentation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Art Gallery of Ontario (Penney & McMaster 2013), and Anishinaabeg: Art & Power at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2017, co-curated by Arni Brownstone, Alan Corbiere, and Saul Williams. A small but growing number of graduate students have entered their research data into the GKS as part of their contribution to the larger project (Nahwegahbow 2013; Loyer 2013; De Stecher 2013; Bourget 2020). The GKS is one of three digital projects in museum anthropology which will be featured in the section on “Emerging Themes in Native North American Research” in a forthcoming volume of the Smithsonian’s Handbook of North American Indians (Phillips et al., forthcoming). Emanuela Rossi says that the GKS “and other databases like it stand out as innovative forms of digital collection based on a new premise: to assemble artifacts scattered across the world” (Rossi 2017, p. 667). Our methods are grounded in theoretical approaches that call for the decolonization of knowledge (Tuhiwai Smith 1999), and for Participatory Action Research (PAR) between Indigenous peoples and settlers that is truly collaborative, generating meaningful collective knowledge that addresses key issues that affect participants and their communities (Castleden et al. 2010; Reason & Bradbury 2015). Our principles and protocols, as described in our governance and ethical protocol documents, are in alignment with Canada’s Task Force on Museums and First Peoples and Chapter 9 “Research Involving the First Nations, Inuit and Metis Peoples of Canada” in the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (Canadian Institutes of Health Research et al. 2018, Task Force on Museums and First Peoples et al. 1992).

However, in the process of all this work, the very communities that GRA- SAC was intended to serve, including artists, teachers, students, and language learners, still do not have an easy or appropriate way to access our research data without requesting a login to our site and an account as a guest or full member of our research network. Indeed, in her analysis of the GKS, Rossi asked “who are these products meant for?” (2017, p. 664). GRASAC membership is open to all members of Great Lakes Indigenous communities in theory, but during community visits we have been told that people see the need to join the organization and request a password as exclusionary and an unwelcome hurdle. At a recent research gathering in May 2018, our project leaders and new potential collaborators all expressed a strong desire for a public website that could make as much of GRASAC’s research as possible available to the broader community (we currently have an informational public website, at grasac.org, but it showcases only a small fraction of the findings available in the GKS database). This public version of the database must be easier to use than the current research database, and should transparently allow communities, elders, and knowledge keepers to mediate and control how research data about community heritage will be publicly shared through the database. In addition, creating a database assumes that communities have the information and communication technologies required for access, specifically high-speed internet and security. Many reserve/reserva- tion communities are in rural areas poorly served by commercial broadband providers, further “constrained by the sovereign rights of tribes” (Duarte 2017, p. 104). Though GRASAC was formed in 2005, Manitoulin Island, where one of our Anishinaabe partner institutions, the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, is located, received high-speed internet and expanded broadband only in 2017 (Manitoulin Expositor 2017; Sudbury.com 2015). Many of our partner communities have reported frustrating delays, especially when downloading high- resolution images of the items they wish to study.

Focus group testing has revealed that GKS’s database is unsuitable for more general audiences because its interface is complex, text heavy, and requires discipline-specific knowledge, even though we have invested in improvements (Migwans 2011; Kaakati 2016). While the two most positively selected words in our usability testing were “useful” and “valuable”, our community and user testers also described our site as “hard”, “overwhelming”, “confusing”, “slow”, “intimidating”, and “frustrating” (Kaakati 2016). It typically takes seven clicks from login to reach a high-resolution photo of a heritage item. The reason for this at times cumbersome structure is now clear—the desires of our researchers for comprehensiveness and completeness of information resulted in us designing a text-heavy form for each item. Rossi observed that the GKS “requires one is already trained in these technologies and possesses a scholarly approach that, ultimately, is linked to the world of collection and museums, and more in general to Western classificatory systems” (2017, p. 664). The specialized jargon of each contributing academic discipline influenced the form’s lay-out and inevitably the types of questions researchers ask when working with items within institutional collections. Although we did achieve a breakthrough towards a more holistic model of data collection in the use of one heritage item form for diverse types of items/beings, there is still much decolonizing work that we all need to do before the GKS really reflects Indigenous ways of knowing.

Our database was intentionally built initially to be accessed by password partially because in the early to mid-2000s our initial partner institutions had concerns about putting the high-resolution images of their items on the open Internet. However, over the past 15 years, there has been a sea change in attitude towards the public dissemination of images by museums and archives. Not only do many museums encourage visitors to take photos of their collections on display (a practice that was generally forbidden even a decade ago), these institutions even encourage digital sharing with recommendations to tag them on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. Increasingly museums and archives are now digitizing their own collections and putting them online. Indeed, the GKS record for the garters that serve as the banner image for our GKS is password- protected on our site, but a detailed description and high-quality photograph are publicly available now on the Pitt Rivers Museum website (http://objects. prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID4837.html), complete with information about the GRASAC team visit in 2007. Generally, museum offerings provide the user with much less metadata and less cultural context than the GRASAC database, and typically only one or two photos of an item, rather than the multiple, high- resolution images that we take of each. However, this too is changing, as the Pitt Rivers example demonstrates. As GRASAC moves into the next phase of development, it is clear that we need to balance simplicity of presentation and ease of access with the rich store of information in our data set, and to do that effectively we will need to engage our user base and user design experts. We are also benefitting from working with data librarians. As of writing, our current GRASAC project manager Haley Bryant, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Information, is exploring how to incorporate the International Image Interoperability Framework into the GKS with advice from Data Librarians Kelli Babcock (Digital Initiatives Librarian) and Rachel Di Cresce (Project Librarian) in the Digital Scholarship Unit at the University of Toronto Libraries.2 The objective here is to facilitate the sharing of image information across databases and prevent the further creation of research silos.

Intellectual property in the GKS

These questions of access, control, and dissemination raised by our community members and users point to another critical question—that of intellectual property—and even whether the idea of property is appropriate to the contents of a database containing information about Indigenous cultural heritage. Is property law, or intellectual property, even an appropriate lens through which to consider how best to со-manage the result of the collaborate work of the larger alliance? As Jane Anderson and Kimberly Christen have noted: “The very precarious legal position that many Indigenous peoples have to their cultural heritage materials, as well as the collective responsibilities of stewardship and care towards these materials, often limits the effective use of copyright law” (Anderson & Christen 2013, p. 106). Questions of intellectual property (IP) are everywhere in the GKS. Our records reflect data about items from source communities in (often) foreign jurisdictions, with competing legal regimes. The records themselves are nearly all produced collaboratively—with information contributed by multiple knowledge holders during site visits. Insights are also contributed from traditional knowledge (TK) experts in our source communities, sometimes in person and sometimes communicated through cultural centre staff who form part of an on-site research team. Data entry, photography, vid- eographv, audio recording, and editing are performed by different members and Research Assistants, who as producers of the media are considered creators or authors, regardless of who is providing the content. The database also contains many examples of Indigenous knowledge that is shared by contributors who are guardians or custodians of knowledge for past, present, and future generations, rather than as authors or rights holders. Further, some Indigenous knowledge is governed by specific channels of access, ownership, and use that are based on relationships and responsibility.

The collaborative nature of the GKS records and the collective ethic of care, responsibility, and stewardship of cultural heritage knowledge required by the members of our alliance are not well served by current intellectual property laws. Such laws do not adequately reflect or protect these forms of knowledge and the network of relationships that produce and sustain it. Intellectual property laws, in the form of trademarks, copyright, and patents focus on the individual or an entity as the creator, which limits who can petition for protection of Indigenous knowledge that is often communal or attributed to various kin groups (Anderson & Christen 2013, p. 109). Such laws also are specific to nation-state jurisdictions (Bohaker et al. 2015a). Within a Western legal framework, the solution to the problem of collaboratively created content is to create a body or legal person in the form of a corporation and then assign the intellectual property of those who work for it to the organization itself. The rights in the intellectual property are thus still held by an individual, but in this case a corporate being. Such an entity redefines who or what is the rights holder and beneficiary of Indigenous intellectual property. As a research alliance invested in thinking through and respecting Indigenous legal traditions and practices, we have consciously rejected incorporation as a non-profit or other entity. Moreover, since these modern nation-states bisect the traditional territories and homelands of the Anishinaabeg, Haudeno- saunee, and Wendat civilizations, we found we would need to incorporate in both Canada and the United States in order to provide this sort of protection to the data we have collected. In other words, the existing legal models open to us to resolve the questions of intellectual property within the GKS are all assimila- tory. Incorporation would require us to continue to work within a colonial and colonizing system.

So we instead have chosen the alliance model, one that draws on historic diplomatic traditions and practices, and which we think will enable us to activate those traditions and practices within and between the nation-states who also assert jurisdiction over the lands and waters of the Great Lakes. We have yet to get to the point where this can be respected as law in a multi-juridical context, but we are encouraged by the Indigenous legal scholars who are members of GRASAC (including law professors John Borrows, University of Victoria; Darlene Johnston, University ofBritish Columbia; and Jeff Hewitt, York University). What we are producing within GRASAC is collaboratively created knowledge where Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledges come together, rather than a researcher-informant relationship. GRASAC members have created a space in the GKS where Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and community members co-create knowledge, and now must act together as guardians or custodians of it. Furthermore, in reactivating regional diplomatic practices, we are modelling an approach that is not only a braiding of knowledges but also a braiding of knowledge systems. In this approach, questions of property and property rights do not disappear, but instead sit beside questions of responsibility for knowledge received from previous generations, and responsibility to transfer that knowledge to future generations. The alliance, then, preserves “the social conditions of creativity itself”, and requires the user to seek and establish specific relationships with members in order to determine their right to access and the responsibility for that knowledge if access is earned (Leach 2005, p. 36). The protection of knowledge and its material manifestations are thus predicated on social relations.

As a relational database, the GKS also makes relationships visible; however, it is not built to duplicate current Indigenous cultural or legal frameworks, but rather to facilitate and create new forms of knowledge production and interaction. Jane Anderson and Kimberly Christen note that, “knowledge is always culturally specific and derives meaning and possibilities for use from local contexts in which this knowledge is created and sustained” (2013, p. 110). This digital born data and the database itself are an extension of a network of relationships, which has its own culture where data are governed by collective respect and adherence to norms and restrictions. Though knowledge does not yet flow openly as an unrestricted resource open to all, the alliance encourages knowledge to flow between people rather than between people and things. The promise of disseminating information and sharing knowledge through digital technologies highlights debates of openness, access, and accountability. With online knowledge sharing systems continuing to be developed, researchers both within and outside Indigenous communities must consider what openness means. What are the ethical parameters for sharing materials in the digital age? How can local cultural protocols be used to manage access to cultural and academic knowledge? In online communities developed by and for Indigenous peoples, value is placed upon the circulation and production of knowledge according to Indigenous systems of accountability with regard to the openness and closure of material, rather than upon notions of freedom and openness (Christen 2009). And as Hennessy notes, while online databases and new media can generate articulations of rights, “at the same time they amplify the difficulty of enforcing those rights” (2009, p. 6). Simply put, digital data that violate Indigenous community protocols and laws are all over the Internet.

Questioning the value typically ascribed to freedom and openness of data is also a challenge for those who believe that once research is past a certain stage, data should be fully transparent. Certainly the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities federal funding agency (SSHRC), which has been a crucial supporter of CRASAC research, has a stated interest in supporting projects that make both research data and findings available to the broader public. Canada’s Tri-Agency Statement of Principles on Digital Data Management states that “research data collected with the use of public funds belong, to the fullest extent possible, in the public domain and available for reuse by others” (Canadian Institutes of Health Research et al. 2016).3 The password protection enabled on the GKS in an effort to ensure that only authorized persons can gain access to the co-produced knowledge that we share with members conflicts with the assumption that projects which are funded with public money should not be exclusive. However, such assumptions of freedom and openness ignore the history of colonial government and collecting practices which are centred upon controlling, collecting, and redefining Indigenous peoples, objects, and souls for historical and scientific study for the common good without consultation or regard for the governance over the use, circulation, and access to Indigenous cultural heritage and knowledge. Balancing these important competing priorities will be required.

One objective that came out of our planning meeting in May of 2018 was to seek ways to educate users about access protocols and the duty of care for cultural heritage knowledge. We hope to use the GKS as a site of pedagogy that develops an ethic of responsible custodianship in our users. In this way, the digital items can act as a site for the development of relationships between people through participation in cultural production and collective research. As discussed above, while cultural protocols for the use and circulation of Indigenous knowledges have no force in Western law, Kim Christen and Jane Anderson have developed a system of TK licenses and labels, which can be applied to digital assets as a complement to Western IP systems. Its purpose is to recognize, respond, and enhance Indigenous knowledge management systems. We are inspired by this work as it is in keeping with GRASAC’s practices to date. TK labels act peda- gogically, where the information provider can provide parameters of use based on their knowledge of culturally specific contexts and relationships with these materials (Anderson & Christen 2013). We have been also experimenting with other questions raised by Christen: can we imagine a digital landscape of social media that provides access controls but does not simultaneously invoke individualistic notions of privacy or abusive systems of censorship? Indigenous peoples’ creation, use, and reuse of digital technologies and platforms provide the framework necessary for a new vocabulary that understands the historical and ethical dimensions of digital technology and information circulation. Since 2000, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on TK, Genetic Resources, and Traditional Cultural Expressions (TCE) has sought to define TK and TCE, and to “develop an international legal instrument^) that would give traditional knowledge, genetic resources and traditional cultural expressions (folklore) effective protection” (Skrydstrup 2006, p. 117).4 The WIPO are looking towards Indigenous customary law as a legal system to help protect and enforce appropriate usage for TK/TCE (WIPO 2013), but this work is incomplete.

In Canada, important guidance on how to protect collaboratively developed and community held knowledge has been coming from the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC). In 2002, the FNIGC first developed the concept of OCAP or Ownership, Control, Access and Possession—a “set of principles that reflect First Nation commitments to use and share information in a way that brings benefit to the community while minimizing harm”. Most importantly, “it is also an expression of First Nation jurisdiction over information about the First Nations” (FNIGC 2014, pp. 4-5). OCAP was developed in part because Canadian laws do not recognize or protect community rights and interests or collective privacy interests in information (FNIGC 2014, pp. 12 and 41). While the Canadian government does not recognize OCAP principles as law over the use, access, and protection of data involving Indigenous peoples, its incorporation into data sharing agreements offers the ability to “implement governing structures, institutions and processes” (p. 13) and reinforces the mutual responsibility of both parties to ensure the ethical and respectful stewardship of data. Canada and New Zealand are two colonial jurisdictions both beginning to engage with the idea of making space for Indigenous law with the colonial common law tradition. New Zealand recently recognized the personhood of a river.5 Canada has multiple examples of recognition of Indigenous law within recent comprehensive land claims settlements and also constitutional recognition that protects historic treaty relationships.6 While these examples hold promise, this is still a long way from creating any sort of full legal recognition and protection for Indigenous cultural knowledge and collectively held property. Nevertheless, the work to date suggests that our approach to these questions within GRASAC is in keeping with current legal innovations. The GRASAC model of research alliance may, we hope, contribute to further developments in this area of law.

Is technology the answer or part of the problem?

Information and communication technologies are not and should not be simply repositories of archived and institutionalized Indigenous knowledges. Indeed, the technosphere is Indigenizing. Members of GRASAC envision contributing to these futurities. One of GRASAC’s goals is to hand control over the data in our database to the Indigenous communities to whom it rightfully belongs, and to develop appropriate cultural protocols for the sharing of this data. Since the GKS’s customized Drupal platform is currently approaching its end-of-life, we have been looking at different software models that would help us to achieve GRASAC’s long-term objectives. These were identified by our Steering Committee in 2015 (GRASAC 2015):

  • 1 GRASAC will have meaningful, productive, and effective collaborations and co-productions of knowledge with Indigenous partner nations, institutions, and individuals.
  • 2 Great Lakes Indigenous languages will be integral to both GRASAC and the GKS.
  • 3 GRASAC will be a collaborative international organization with stable funding, a mature well-defined governance structure, and a secure future.
  • 4 GRASAC will contribute to global scholarship on ongoing debates about the ownership of intellectual property and proprietary rights with respect to digital content.
  • 5 GRASAC will have a mature GKS, stable and easy to use, seamless input and retrieval of data.
  • 6 GRASAC will have effective knowledge mobilization strategies to multiple user groups, especially those within Indigenous communities.

In 2018, Bohaker established a trial server ofMukurtu (MOOK-oo-too; Mukurtu. org) in collaboration with the University of Toronto Library as a platform to explore our DH goals and to create a publicly accessible version of our database. Mukurtu, developed first in 2009, is now used by multiple Indigenous nations around the world as repositories for their digital cultural heritage. Developed by Kim Christen and the DH centre at Washington State, Mukurtu's approach to data governance was developed in collaboration with Indigenous partners who were interested in “[empowering] communities to manage, share, narrate and exchange their digital heritage in cultural relevant and ethically-minded ways” (Mukurtu 2007). At first, the platform seemed to address many of our data governance concerns with a rich set of cultural protocol controls that allow for nuanced access control to items in the database, and the embedded use of TK labels to protect and teach users about respect for Indigenous knowledge. Mukurtu is widely used and has a base of user support. It is an exciting and important project that has thought through many of the challenges of caring for Indigenous digital cultural heritage.

As of writing though, technical issues with our pilot instance of Mukurtu and the challenges we faced in attempting to fit GRASAC’s research data into Mukur- tu’s structure means that, for us, it was ultimately an unsatisfactory solution. The GKS contains data from over 80 different institutions. Mukurtu treats institutions as communities when it comes to the permissions tables that determine who can set the access permissions for each item. With multiple First Nations and Tribal Councils potentially regularly accessing heritage item records from so many institutions, we realized we were trading one set of complex problems (the way data is organized in the GKS) with another (trying to manage access permissions across so many different communities and institutions). We have returned now to planning to redevelop the GKS in the newest version of Drupal with a more user-friendly data structure and greater public access, including self-signup. An account will still be needed to save searches if one wishes a search to persist across multiple sessions.

As GRASAC embarks on a new multi-year set of research projects, a group of us, including the authors of this chapter, are thinking through what it means to really reflect Indigenous epistemes within the database, and how in so doing we can avoid replicating the problems of the past. We ask how GRASAC’s work can clear the path for Indigenous epistemes within the technosphere. At the same time, we do not want to lose sight of the value of our existing GKS and its records of Great Lakes material culture, since the database is important as a finding aid to widely dispersed and sometimes hard-to-trace cultural heritage items, and that too is a significant contribution. Nevertheless, maintaining software in today’s increasingly automated and digital world is harder than ever. Without significant investment, ongoing maintenance, and attention, the database will not meet security standards and the data become even more vulnerable in the years ahead.

Behind the curtain: the physical reality of networked data and the security and privacy implications

Leaving legal, epistemological, and philosophical debates aside for the moment, a critical and yet little discussed problem around projects that work with digital cultural heritage is the inherent insecurity of the networked and physical platforms in which the data live. Software is an inherently unstable thing—constantly being updated and patched to both improve performance and to maintain security. As discussed above, content management platforms like Mukurtu and GRASAC’s

GKS both use custom built applications running on Drupal, which itself runs on the MYSQL database engine. But both Mukurtu and the GKS are (as of writing) using Drupal version 7, which will reach its end of life in November 2021. After that date, Drupal (which is open source software) will no longer provide security patches and updates for Version 7 installations. Unless we migrate our system to Drupal 8 or 9, our host institution, currently the University of Toronto, will not permit our database to operate on their network, as the site would not only be at risk but would be a source of potential harm to other university digital assets. But the jump from version 7 to version 8 is a major change, and we have been advised that significant code changes will be required (at significant cost) in order to ensure that the existing database remains functional. These upgrade and data migration costs do not include the cost of any design changes to improve the user experience or to permit community control over their own data.

As we move towards greater public access to our research data, information security remains a critical consideration. Both the GKS and Mukurtu use passwords and other controls to ensure that sensitive data are not leaked or corrupted in any way. But as the headlines of recent years have amply demonstrated, even major well-funded corporations and nation-states are unable to prevent data and system breaches (Bohaker et al. 2015a, p. 6). Small-scale university and grant funded projects like Mukurtu and GRASAC’s GKS should assume that they too are vulnerable to similar attacks. When physical items of cultural heritage are stolen from museums and cultural institutions, the loss is visible and tangible; there is an empty case, or an unexpected space on a storage room shelf. But in the world of digital theft, data are not so much stolen as they are copied and replicated. Sometimes, through ransomware, access to one’s data is held hostage and release provided for a fee, but more commonly data are simply copied, used for the specific purpose of the thief, sold to the highest bidder, or made public. Data breaches become visible not when the data are first copied (unless very expensive intrusion detection systems are in place), but when the data first appear in places it should not, and in the hands of those who should not have access, and at that point, there is little one can do. The very idea of a digital repository as a safe place, given global cybersecurity issues, may also be an illusion.

Furthermore, regardless of how securely a system is designed to protect against unwanted outside access, system administrators and data centre administrators with root passwords still have full access to all data on a site. When considering Indigenous cultural heritage, communities need to have systems administrators who are assigned the role of data guardians. They must apply best practices for system auditing and access control and be answerable to community governance. The control over access to data is also determined by the geographic location of the server, which is under the legal jurisdiction of the particular nation state. Law enforcement agencies and other nation states can request access to data without consideration of Indigenous cultural protocols (Bohaker et al. 2015a, pp. 6-12). Moreover, data are routinely copied and intercepted as they travel the global Internet. The net is simply not a safe-keeping place for data over which Indigenous communities wish to maintain full control. Network encryption offers some protection, but users must be educated on the limits of that protection. We know that databases and digital cultural heritage may be appropriate for some Indigenous cultural heritage, but elders and knowledge holders will undoubtedly have ideas about specifically what can or should be digitized and what should not. Such limits may become increasingly difficult to define or enforce as we move towards a world embedded with sensors, location monitors, and recording devices, from our phones to our self-driving cars and to our building automation systems, but questions of access and control must still be asked.


Our DH experiences with GRASAC’s GKS have on the whole supported the overall objectives of the larger research alliance, even as we have struggled to make the database function and operate as intended. Our intention now is to carry on with objectives outlined by our Steering Committee in 2015, as we continue to seek out the technical solutions and financial supports necessary to make goals number 5 (a mature and stable GKS) and 6 (an effective knowledge mobilization strategy to Indigenous communities) a reality, and a reality that is sustainable long into the future. At the same time, we remain mindful of the limits of technology and IP law to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. However, a new generation of Indigenous scholars with community engaged practice is thinking through questions of access and control of digital information that also hold real promise for GRASAC (Duarte 2017; Wemigwans 2018). Jennifer Wemigwans, for example, draws from the model of a sacred medicine bundle to envision “digital bundles” as ways of activating historic practices of care and responsibility in the online world. Along with Duarte, Wemigwans invites us to continue advocating for global legal and technology solutions that shift the conversation away from ownership and rights, towards notions of responsibility and duty of care. And in so doing, these scholars, along with Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Holders, remind us that the digital cannot replace human interactions, even in the age of Covid-19. As Wemigwans notes “no mere tool, no matter how well-designed or used, can ever replace—or even come close to—oral, person-to-person transmission of traditional cultural knowledge” (2019, p. 28). While GRASAC’s GKS is not a digital bundle, as Wemigwans describes it, we might conceptualize the database as a feast bowl, to which we ethically must all contribute in order to have something to share. The collaborations produced through our alliance are formed in the conversations around the feast bowl—and in the end, those are really what matters.


The authors would especially like to thank Mia McKie, doctoral student at the University of Toronto, for her insightful comments on an earlier draft, and the five students of the

  • 2019 Jackman Humanities Institute Scholars-in-Residence Program, who assisted with the literature review and were supervised by McKie: Aishah Cader, Cliona Duah, Adam El- Masri, Joel Fletcher and Jack Stewart, The responsibility for any errors of course lies with the authors.
  • 1 Unknown Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, or Wendat artist, late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. A finger woven garter, part of a pair with beadwork design throughout. Part of a collection loaned to the Pitt Rivers Museum by Colonel Shirley in 1952 and purchased from his son, Major Shirley in January 1966. Currently in the Pitt Rivers Museum 06 May 1952. Item photographed and described as part of a GRASAC research trip December 2007 (GKS ID 27110). A strip from the garter can be seen on the top of the login page to the database: https://gks.grasac.org/item/27110.
  • 2 A bibliography prepared by Babcock and Di Cresce on IIIF resources is available from: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/82481.
  • 3 The Tri-Agency refers to the three federal funding bodies that are the primary granting agencies for academic scholarship in Canada: SSHRC (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), NSERC (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council), and CIHR (Canadian Institutes of Health Research). The Tri-Agency develops policies for areas of common concern.
  • 4 Traditional knowledge “generally includes the intellectual and intangible cultural heritage, practices and knowledge systems of traditional communities, including indigenous and local communities [. . .] TK in a general sense embraces the content of knowledge itself as well as TCEs, including distinctive signs and symbols associated with TK” (WIPO 2013, p. 3, footnote 5). Traditional cultural expressions “refer to tangible and intangible forms in which TK and cultures are expressed, communicated or manifested. Examples include traditional music, performances, narratives, names and symbols, designs and architectural forms” (WIPO 2013, p. 3, footnote 6).
  • 5 In 2017, New Zealand granted legal personhood to a river, by the Whanganui Iwi Deed of Settlement. The river has its own guardians, and will be able to exercise its legal rights against other legal persons (like corporations or individuals) who pollute it. Debates about the extension of personhood to other beings including animals and ecosystem are ongoing. See Hutchison (2014).
  • 6 For constitutional protection, see the Constitution Act (Government of Canada 1982), sections 25 and 35. For comprehensive land claims settlements, see for example, the Nisga’a Final Agreement (2000).


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