This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the National Endowment of the Humanities-sponsored workshop on Digital Native American and Indigenous Studies (thanks, NEH!). We were a diverse group of about thirty attendees representing tribal governments, tribal museums, universities, and university archives. Over the course of the week, we looked at many sample projects (including Mukurtu!) and asked questions about intellectual property rights, the ethics of digitizing content that may be sensitive to indigenous communities, and the logistics of creating healthy partnerships based on collaboration, conversation, and community.
In this process, we also attempted to define Native Studies and the Digital Humanities to see where they may support one another. I see NAIS is an interpersonal, textual, and digital space for me to ask questions about identity, belonging, history, policies, economics, arts, religion, education, culture, geography, and relationships. As my colleague, Jenny Davis, notes, NAIS can include any work that centers Indigenous epistemologies. For me, Digital Humanities are the online projects people create to manifest their ongoing question-asking and the digital tools they develop to help them identify answers or further questions. So, I don’t think this is an issue of NAIS supporting DH or DH supporting NAIS; rather, like most things, I see them engaging in a relationship that in turn creates new things.
My favorite DNAIS projects of the week
Tomaquag Museum: the site of the only museum entirely dedicated to telling the story of Rhode Island’s Indigenous Peoples
Dawnland Voices 2.0: an online magazine featuring indigenous writers from New England
Kim-Wait/Eisenberg Collection at Amherst: an incredible collection of over 2000 Native-authored books (Native authors — if you’ve written something and they don’t have it, they’ll buy it!)
Gibagadinamaagoom: a site dedicated to preserving the Anishinaabemowin language for future generations of speakers
Mukurtu CMS: an online platform that allows Native communities to set strict access standards based on locally defined cultural protocols
Sites that build on Mukurtu:
My thoughts about the future of Digital NAIS
If you just wanted to see what cool new projects I was going to share, stop reading here. If you want to hear some of my thoughts about the future of DNAIS, please keep reading below.
I believe the most important factor in the future of Digital NAIS will be the degree to which DH chooses to recognize the inherent assets in Native communities and to build relationships as equals. People are going to need a better understanding of who does work in DNAIS and a better understanding of what each party seeks to get out of any collaborative DNAIS relationship.
I want to take a moment here to address some concerning misconceptions that I’ve noticed recently. Too often, I’ve heard conversations about DH and Native communities make one (or more) of the following mistakes:
Pitfall #1: Assuming Native communities are devoid of technology and need the help of an “expert.”
Some of the comments I’ve heard from DH programmers and theorizers have held up digital tools as “salvation” to preserve indigenous stories and traditions. This dangerous salvage-anthropology way of thinking propagates the myths that:
- Technology is new to Native people;
- Cultures are static and need to be preserved in a set form;
- Native peoples are dying out; and
- Native people are incapable of engaging in their own forms of tradition without external “help.”
Do I really need to explain why none of these are true?
Pitfall #2: Believing that all people address the fundamental DH principles of openness and access in the same way.
One of the defining principles of DH since its foundation has been the belief in open access to digital content for everyone. On the surface, this seems like a great goal, one that may even be in line with many social justice movements. Within DNAIS, however, this idea ignores that many of the items which museums, archives, and collections now hold (and want to digitize for public use) were acquired through the very kind of salvage anthropology that I referred to in Pitfall #1. Some of these objects, photographs, and personal papers were never meant for public distribution. Of these, some are personal family documents and others are intended for ceremonial purposes only. Making such items public access should be understood as a choice, not as a default.
When I hear non-Natives argue that such items should be publicly accessible just for the sake of the principle of public access, it makes me wonder about whether they are insensitive to the beliefs of Native communities or whether they just privilege their own curiosity over the priorities of other people.
Side note — due to intellectual property laws, many of these taken items are now in the public domain, a status from which they cannot be removed. Check out Murkurtu’s TK labels for one possible solution to this problem.
Pitfall #3: Thinking that Native communities are all rural reservation communities with no access to digital resources like computers, social media, or the internet.
Sure, this may be true in some places. But, by and large, Indigenous communities are pretty digitally savvy. Just ask the programmers at Ogoki Learning Systems, the makers of the video game Never Alone, writer and video game designer Elizabeth LaPensee, photo and video producer Ryan Comfort (I love his project The Ways), or any number of Native bloggers (my favorites are Adrienne Keene, Debbie Reese, Leslie Locklear, and Jessica Metcalfe). These folks (and many others) are doing amazing work. DH folks — look for the assets first. Let’s not assume that tribal communities are deficit in technological skills or machinery.
Pitfall #4: Operating based on the idea that the “community” and the “DH-ers” are two ends of a binary.
As evidenced above, many of the folks doing digital work are Native. I’ve often heard that “scholars” and “Native people” should work together, as though someone cannot be both scholar and Native. There are too many Native scholars working across a variety of fields to list here, so suffice it to say if you don’t know about them, you’re not looking.
If you’ve gotten this far and you’re not sure what to do next, I’d recommend you turn to LaDonna Harris’ article on the 4 R’s: relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, redistribution. I’m not an expert, and I’m certainly still learning about what mutually beneficial collaboration looks like. I have learned this much, though: Engaging in projects that deal with Native communities automatically puts you in a position of responsibility. You’re likely going to benefit in some way (economically, professionally, intellectually) from your work; it only seems right that you would attempt to redistribute some of what you reap.