The explosion of data over the past 20 years — and the collection of said data — can feel overwhelming to anyone. Few people know the full extent of the data they create and what private companies and government organizations do with it. 

But what about foreign governments? How would you feel if the government of another country requested your data or took it by force in order to craft laws that could affect you? 

This is the reality that Indigenous people in Native America and across the world are currently facing. These are sovereign people whose data is being collected, analyzed and even commercialized by foreign entities. As a result, some scholars and Native leaders are developing guidelines for Indigenous data sovereignty. They’re fighting to regain control of their data and the privacy that comes with it. 

To better understand this movement, you have to know what constitutes data and how various nations have collected it (or had it collected from them) in the past. Then, you can appreciate how these groups are working to protect their cultural futures through data sovereignty.  

What Does Data Sovereignty Mean?

It’s easy to get caught up in the modern tech definition of data, where you think about your electricity usage or blood pressure. However, the data that humans have created for centuries go well beyond the metrics and analytics we study each day. 

The writers at Animikii, a source for Indigenous news and discussion, worked carefully on a series discussing Indigenous data and its uses. One of the key points is that the data produced and collected by Indigenous tribes may be different from settler definitions of data, which typically connote machine interaction,, but that doesn’t make it isn’t any less valuable. 

“Regalia, songs, art, language, ceremonies, mentorships, perceptions of land, oral traditions, cultural teachings, and world creation stories are all examples of Indigenous Data usage,” they write. “They involve processes where information is recorded, stored, analyzed, and shared in a flurry of activity that, to outsiders, may appear confusing or irrelevant.” 

The data collected from people across the world isn’t exceptionally different from those used by Indigenous peoples. 

“At the moment we entrust not only our lifestyle data, but our digital assets (documents, photos, videos … ) to the companies from whom we purchase software for editing and sharing (Pinterest, YouTube, GoogleDocs…),” sociologist and activist Amory Starr explains. 

Currently, tech companies store this data, often at the price of privacy for those who use their services. In the same way that some technology advocates are calling for personal sovereignty from tech companies, Indigenous peoples are calling for data sovereignty over their information.  

Who Is Leading the Indigenous Data Sovereignty Movement?

There are a few groups working to provide information about the Indigenous data sovereignty movement and guide nations and settlers toward an agreement. 

If you are looking to learn more about the movement within the United States and Canada, start with the United States Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network (USIDSN), a group that works to “provide research information and policy advocacy to safeguard the rights and promote the interests of Indigenous nations and peoples in relation to data.” The organization is built on the belief that a sovereign nation should be able to govern the collection, ownership and application of its people’s data. 

Elsewhere, the Maiam nayri Wingara Indigneous Data Sovereignty Collective in Australia and the Te Mana Raraunga – Māori Data Sovereignty Network in New Zealand are also working to lead the discussion of Indigenous data sovereignty within their respective regions. These groups are built around the idea that “data that are collected about Indigenous people should be subjected to the laws of the nation from which it is collected, including tribal nations.” 

Senior couple questionnaire for marketing worker or employee of the company at door. Indigenous Data Sovereignty Movement

Indigenous Data and the 2020 United States Census

The discussion around Indigenous data sovereignty is especially gaining traction this year as the United States 2020 Census approaches. 

In 2019, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) issued a statement encouraging all tribal leaders to write to the Census Bureau to discuss which data sources they need and what information needs to remain confidential. 

“If the Bureau doesn’t hear from tribes and Native organizations across the country it will make its own decisions as to what data on the American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) population to publish from the 2020 Census and what to suppress as a result of the new confidentiality procedures,” they write.

Historically, federal agencies have used their own units of measurement and processes of data collection to collect information on Indigenous populations. Not only were the results inaccurate, but the data was also used to make decisions for resource allocation and what was in the “best interest” of local nations, often without involving them. 

For example, Dr. Teresa Scassa, a member of the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, discussed issues related to data sharing and the use of Inuit Knowledge in cybercartography and polar repositories. In this case, Western best practices conflicted with Indigenous ones. While “open access” models are often encouraged in Western society, Dr. Scassa says, this open data may not align with the research methodologies of the Indigenous communities. There needs to be a discussion about how data should be collected and shared — and whether it should be shared at all. 

And there is a lot of data out there. Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, a dual Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Arizona and demography at the University of Waikato in New Zealand and the co-founder of USIDSN, says there is a significant datasphere curated about, but not by, Indigenous peoples.

“The U.S. Census … has asked for tribal affiliation since the 1970 census, yet tribal leaders continue to push back against the accuracy and utility of federal enumeration pointing to the vast undercounts of their tribal populations decennial after decennial,” she writes.

By not involving these nations and letting them take the lead on what gets counted and how (as the NCAI is encouraging), federal organizations have collected poor datasets and made poor decisions as a result. This led many nations and Native peoples to further ignore the census and other population surveys because they didn’t see any benefits from participating. This creates a cycle of underrepresentation that only continues to grow from a crack to a canyon.

Native Innovation Is Driving Sovereign Data Management

In response, many nations are dedicating resources for accurate data collection and developing guidelines based on the historic challenges they’ve faced when working with Western governments and other research bodies.

“Native nations often existed in a data desert where information is gathered on or for them and not always to their benefit,” the writers at NativeKnot explain. However, the rise of technology and data collection have spurred an interest in Indigenous data management. As a result, more nations are creating positions with a focus on data management and are developing their own guidelines and expectations for data sovereignty.  

Data sovereignty within this context has been an issue for some Indigenous nations for decades. In 1993, the Alaska Federation of Natives shared a list of best practices that researchers who wanted to conduct studies among Alaska Natives should follow. These practices were sent out to all local tribes in an effort to curb the abuse of Indigenous people by scientists. 

Some examples of those guidelines:

  • Advise Native people who will be affected by the study of the purpose, goals and timeframe of the research. They should also know about any possible positive or negative implications of the research.  
  • Hire and train Native people to assist in the study. 
  • Include Native viewpoints in the final study. 
  • Provide copies of the study to local people. 

The goal, then, has been to give Indigenous people access to the data and turn the research process into a partnership rather than a scientist-specimen experience. 

The Indigenous Data Sovereignty Movement Gives Back Rightful Control

Data comes in countless forms, from stories of the past to population health statistics. Data comes in numbers, in images and in personal items. All of these items make up the information that we use to create representation in media and identify each other as people. 

Respecting the data sovereignty of Indigenous people is essential for letting these groups take control of their cultures, how those cultures are represented and the futures of their communities.

As these nations decide how they want to engage with other governments and what access they are willing to allow, it’s the role of Western nations and private companies to respect these decisions and, when possible, help Indigenous people collect the data they need for the purposes they want. 

Forcing our own data collection and sharing methods — as well as insisting upon a Western definition of data — continues the management and oppression upon Native people that have been the standard for centuries. Our new era of technology is a chance to break that cycle, grant rightful sovereignty and autonomy to Native representations, and ultimately paint a more informed picture of the world around us. 

Images by: Bernardo Ramonfaur, Iakov Filimonov/©, Glenn Carstens-Peters

Amanda Dodge