Access to Government Information and Inclusive Stewardship of North America's Archaeological Heritage

Eric C. Kansa, Sarah Whitcher Kansa, David G. Anderson, Joshua J. Wells, Kelsey Noack Myers, and Stephen Yerka


This chapter explores some tensions and challenges in access to information about the heritage of Indigenous peoples. The notion that access to information is always good has seen rightful critique. Even well-intentioned, arbitrary exposure of information about the histories of colonized peoples can further reinforce colonialism. At the same time, information asymmetries also reinforce colonialism. In the United States, as well as many other nations, governments at the national, regional (state), and local level administer laws and regulations about archaeological and historical sites. Tribal Nations also have legal administrative jurisdiction over archaeological and historical places, but typically work with far less funding and staffing. Information flows critical to the protection of Indigenous heritage requires coordination among various federal, state, and Tribal Nation officials. Yet such coordination and information sharing is typically haphazard, leaving often under-resourced offices of tribal historic preservation with little information needed for decision making.

Digital data plays a key role in these administrative processes. Extrapolating from available government records, there are least two million recorded archaeological and historical sites across North America. In many cases, information about these sites is scattered across museum collections, published papers, and unpublished reports. Other government published documents describe regulatory decisions about these sites, especially decisions about repatriation, preservation, and legal custody. Efforts to collect and compile archaeological data have a long history, and information about archaeological sites and collections is maintained in every state and territory. However, this information is scattered and largely inaccessible, especially to des- cendent communities who may often lack access to government information systems or university libraries. Only rarely have these data been compiled and examined at large geographic scales, especially those crosscutting state lines.

In this context, the Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA)1 provides infrastructure for linking archaeological sites to other web-based resources that describe those places. Using transparency and access as a strategy to make stewardship of North American cultural heritage more inclusive, DINAA aggregates archaeological and historical data from state and tribal governmental authorities that manage United States cultural resources (Figures 9.1 and 9.2), providing the most comprehensive and detailed database documenting human settlement in North America currently available. The nation’s investment in archaeology and historic preservation has produced a vast, widely dispersed, and variably curated literature. DINAA helps make the results of that effort,

Sites indexed or being incorporated into DINAA as of September 30, 2019 (n = 881,166 sites indexed, 1,045,319 sites compiled total)

Figure 9.1 Sites indexed or being incorporated into DINAA as of September 30, 2019 (n = 881,166 sites indexed, 1,045,319 sites compiled total).8

DINAA has compiled data from 1,045,319 sites as of September 30, 2019

Figure 9.2 DINAA has compiled data from 1,045,319 sites as of September 30, 2019. The total includes information provided by state site file managers and State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs) in the Eastern United States, as well as information obtained from other repositories, including museum collections, online research databases, and through text mining of journals like American Antiquity and the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, and gray literature such as the Federal Register and the Index of Texas Archaeology. For current data, visit: http://ux.

often overseen by State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs), Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs), collections managers and curators, and a vast research community, more accessible to scholars, land managers, and the public alike.

DINAA publishes (highly redacted and generalized, see further) aspects of these data for anonymous open access without login or intellectual property barriers. Is such openness appropriate in this context? After all, data about people—especially people who have undergone a traumatic colonial history and continued oppression—is sensitive and problematic. Data can be used abusively, especially in the hands of powerful government officials or private companies. It is not only bureaucracies that can use data abusively. For example, location information about sites can be used by individual vandals, who may be motivated by hate and racism, to defile a place sacred to Indigenous peoples; furthermore, contested definitions of archaeological sires and their perceived importance, as instantiated in digital data, have the potential to spark tremendous political abuses and discord.2

How can an open access data program like DINAA work to avoid these risks? First, it is important to recognize that access barriers have their own risks that can compound the risks of managing sensitive data. Access barriers typically track personal logins and accounts of individual users as they access sensitive data. Appropriately authorizing the correct people, keeping their access credentials secure and secret, and responsibly managing data that tracks user behaviors all involve additional security risks and responsibilities. In other words, user data is itself sensitive data. Collecting user data in order to monitor access permissions or appropriate uses of data involves privacy risks. A program needs enough financial and technical resources to responsibly manage such risks. The funding constraints in archaeology make secure management of sensitive data doubly challenging.

These perspectives inform DINAA’s open access strategy. A central goal of DINAA’s open access strategy is to reduce risks of harm. The most effective approach to protecting sensitive data is to avoid the collection and storage of such sensitive data in the first place. For that reason, Open Context, the data management platform that hosts DINAA, collects and stores no user data. It avoids such common tracking mechanisms like logins, cookies, Google analytics, and the like. More importantly, as we describe next, DINAA only manages highly redacted and low-precision data. There is no password protected version of DINAA with more sensitive data that can be exposed by accident or hacking—the project only manages redacted, “low risk” information and it is all made public. Finally, DINAA serves as an “index,” meaning it works as a finding aid that directs users to richer information resources stored elsewhere. Those other information resources can have additional protections and requirements, as judged necessary by the communities that manage them. Thus, in its capacity as an index, the DINAA project highlights how open access/open data can work collaboratively, in conjunction with systems and communities, especially Indigenous communities, that protect sensitive information.

This open data approach also contributes to recent collaborations among archaeologists, archivists, museum curators and American Indian Tribal Nations, tribal groups, traditional landowners, and other sovereign Indigenous groups, that attempt to better understand and address damage caused by colonialism. Executive Order 13175—Consultation and Coordination With Indian Tribal Governments (November 6, 2000), initiated federal government policies that further promote such partnerships, leading to collaborative land management, cultural heritage preservation, research, education, and community development programs.3 DINAA builds upon and further enables these partnerships by making key data more accessible for descendent communities and Native American officials that manage the historical preservation efforts of sovereign Tribal Nations.

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