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Indigenous Citizens

What is an Indigenous Approach to data and why is it important?

Since time immemorial, First Nations and Inuit peoples flourished in relationship with the lands and waters recently known as Canada. Health and longevity were supported by sophisticated and sustainable social and economic systems that provided for food, livelihood, health care, and culture. The foundation to this well-being was Indigenous knowledge, governance, science, and data.

Through colonialism, non-Indigenous people and governments sought to dispossess Indigenous people of their lands, resources, cultures, identities, and their very existence. To justify these efforts, a false narrative was developed about the inferiority of Indigenous peoples, including framing their knowledge as primitive. This is known as epistemic racism – where knowledge systems of one people are considered superior and more advanced than those of other peoples. Epistemic racism has been used to expropriate Indigenous knowledge and claim it as the knowledge of non-Indigenous peoples, to control Indigenous peoples through policy and legislation, and to maintain control of Indigenous peoples’ lands and resources.

Indigenous peoples have fought against this deficit narrative and advocated for their rights through court action, negotiations, and development of shared strategies. This includes development of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, concepts of Indigenous data sovereignty, and the OCAP(R) principles.

Today, Indigenous governments continue to advance data as a means to fulfill their responsibilities and support the well-being of their people, while navigating the challenges that exist because non-Indigenous governments are in the midst of their work to transform their relationships with Indigenous governments. In this work, Indigenous people are guided by a number of key truths about Indigenous approaches to data:

  • Indigenous peoples hold Indigenous data sovereignty. This includes ownership of data and intellectual property that relates to their unique identities and distinct societies (i.e. language, culture, worldview, history, practices).
  • Indigenous knowledge systems are comprehensive and sophisticated. This includes qualitative knowledge, oral knowledge, empirical knowledge, scientific knowledge. Much of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, unattributed to them, has contributed to significant advances among non-Indigenous peoples in areas like medicine and environmental management.
  • Indigenous knowledge systems grow and evolve. This includes building upon Indigenous ancestral systems with new methods and technologies developed by Indigenous people, or which Indigenous people learn from others. 
  • No knowledge system is complete or static in time. Comprehensive knowledge arises from applying various and evolving methods, perspectives, and approaches.
  • History has shown that the imposition of other data approaches has not worked for Indigenous peoples. Indigenous leadership and involvement in their data supports data usability today, and perpetuates their worldview for future generations.

Simply stated, Indigenous approaches to data are any approaches undertaken by Indigenous people, in the context of their worldview and experience, to produce the data they need to provide for the well-being of their people. 


Worldviews and Indigenous approaches to data

Worldview is our ways of knowing, being, and doing. It is how human beings – individually and in community – perceive, understand, and interpret the world around us and how we orient ourselves within it. It forms our values and belief systems and develops the lenses through which we observe all things. There’s an old joke about a person walking beside a creek, and they see a fish resting in an eddy. The person asks the fish, “Hey, how’s the water?” To which the fish replies, “What’s water?” Worldview is like the water to that fish – it is all around us, but we’re not aware of it in each moment. It affects everything we experience without us being aware of it until we experience contrast with others’ worldviews – like a fish out of water. 

Our worldview guides our approaches to data. Worldviews shape the purposes for gathering data, the methods used to meet those purposes, the values and beliefs used to analyze the data collected, and the way in which data are reported, used, and stewarded. These underlying belief systems are often unconscious and may only surface when faced with direct questions, challenges, or conflicting worldviews. This is why much of the data collected about Indigenous peoples has not served Indigenous purposes – as they were collected and used to serve another worldview.

It should be said that there is no singular Indigenous worldview. However, some general trends and commonalities do exist and are often revealed in language and narrative teachings, which give expression to worldview.

  • Responsibility to and interconnectedness between humans and the natural environment. For example, in ʔayʔaǰuθəm, the language of the Tla’amin people, the word ǰɛʔaǰɛ? refers both to “tree” and “relative”.
  • Responsibility to and interconnectedness between past, present, and future generations. In the Nuu-chah-nulth language, the verb “Uu-a-thluk” means “taking care of” and encompasses the concept of responsibility to past, present, and future generations, the natural world and its resources.
  • Responsibility to and role of ceremony and protocol. Established and expected pathways and patterns of introductions, expectations for gifting, and clear roles and associated responsibilities are hallmarks of many Indigenous worldviews.

These worldviews shape Indigenous approaches to data (including research) throughout the data lifecycle. A number of case studies here illuminate and illustrate Indigenous worldviews and approaches in action.

How the site demonstrates Indigenous approaches to data

Indigenous approaches to data are integrated into every aspect of this website, from the content on the page down to its infrastructure. As visitors navigate the site, they are encouraged to be attuned to the intentional ways in which Indigenous approaches are woven throughout the site, and how the site is guided by Indigenous data sovereignty, protocol, and respect for different ways of knowing and being.

This site respects the ownership and intellectual property of the Indigenous peoples who have contributed to the site. Before entering the site, visitors are asked to agree to engage in a protocol, a practice deeply rooted in Indigenous customs. This protocol is not just an introduction but a crucial step in preparing to engage with the content in a manner that respects and honours the origins, significance, and ownership of the knowledge shared.

Indigenous knowledge is comprehensive, encompassing qualitative knowledge, oral knowledge, empirical knowledge, scientific knowledge. Each of these forms of knowledge is celebrated throughout the site. For example, the use of videos throughout the site honours the tradition of oral storytelling. The fictional case studies, woven into one narrative, offer a unique way to approach otherwise highly scientific knowledge through storytelling. This method aligns with the tradition of passing down wisdom through narratives, making complex concepts accessible and relatable.

The content of the tools on the site seeks to honour and uphold Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and governing. The applied tools are specifically developed to capture Indigenous understandings and systems of data governance within their governments and institutions, and to collect data about the factors that are relevant to their worldviews.

Finally, the site and the content presented on the site are both continuously evolving. As SGIGs continuously grow and deepen our unique approaches to data governance, so too does the site continue to move forward alongside us.

LITTLE SALMON CARMACKS FIRST NATION: Sothän nats’oji do dän nän ka – Living the Good Life on Our Land

Real Case Study

The PIPEDA case #2003-226 shows that the more sensitive personal information is, the more steps should be taken to protect it (see PIPEDA Case Summary #2003-226 Company’s collection of medical information unnecessary; safeguards are inappropriate). In this case, an employee’s medical reports were received in the company’s office by fax machine located in an unlocked, accessible room.

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Did You Know?

  • The FNIGC’s A First Nation Data Strategy “…envisions a First Nations‑led, national network of regional information governance centres across the country equipped with the knowledge, skills, and infrastructure needed to serve the information needs of First Nations people and communities.”
  • The ITK’s National Inuit Strategy on Research “…identifies practical steps to advance Inuit self-determination in research as the means for fostering respectful and beneficial research that serves the needs and priorities of Inuit.”
  • The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) launched the Global Indigenous Data Alliance in 2019.
  • The Māori Data Sovereignty Network advances Māori aspirations for collective and individual well-being.
  • The Sustainable Heritage Network (SHN) offers workshops, tutorials, and resources to assist communities and institutions that are involved in digital stewardship.

Data Sovereignty and OCAP®

Indigenous governments have the authority to be stewards of data about their citizens. This includes the authority to collect, access, and utilize this data, as well as responsibilities to protect privacy.

The First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC) has developed a set of principles related to these authorities, known as OCAP® (Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession). These principles were developed as a response to persistent problems with the way research on First Nations has been conducted.

The OCAP® principles are an expression of data sovereignty, and many First Nations and related organizations have endorsed these standards. While the OCAP® tool has been developed by a First Nations organization, the underlying principles and the concept of data sovereignty may apply for all Indigenous governments and communities.

The following resources discuss OCAP® in more detail: