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Using ICTs for Indigenous Cultural Preservation

Using ICTs for Indigenous Cultural Preservation

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Published by: THINK The Innovation Knowledge Foundation on May 09, 2012
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Using ICTs for Indigenous CulturalPreservation: Challenges and Strategies
by Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2009)
 
Introduction
As Indigenous communities endeavor to maintain their traditional ways of knowing, many are turning to information andcommunications technologies (ICTs) to sustain and stimulate their Indigenous knowledge traditions ([1],[2],[3]). They areusing analog and digital video and audio recording devices, as well as a constellation of computer, mobile, and Internet-related technologies, to capture, store, and make available to future generations important aspects of their languages,arts, and understanding. The use of ICTs for Indigenous cultural preservation and revitalization can lead to severalchallenges. There can be disharmony between aspects of digital technology design and traditional Indigenous ways of
 
knowing that are difficult to overcome. As well, the use of ICTs enters communities into a longitudinal relationship withthe devices and media used in the service of preservation. Consequently, the communities will be stemming the tide ofobsolescence by preserving machinery and media as well as aspects of their culture. This essay explores these twochallenges and seeks to identify strategies that address them.
Challenges
 
ICTs are being put to many different uses for cultural preservation
 –
from the creation of databases and archives toorganize and keep safe important understandings and artifacts to the development of iPhone apps for language learning.Challenges can arise when there is disharmony between the design of the technology and the knowledge traditions ofthe Indigenous communities using the technology. Indigenous knowledge is usually cast in terms not typically associatedwith Western knowledge:
 
local, holistic, and agrapha [4]
 
relational, conscious, animate and interactive [5]
 
non-formal, undocumented, dynamic and adaptive [6]
 
empirical rather than theoretical, negotiated, shared, distributed in fragments, situated within broader culturaltraditions [7]As a result, where Indigenous knowledge is rooted in a physical or ritual place, situated within a human community, orally
and experientially shared, and subject to change, the design of preservation technology is often in opposition: “the prime
strategy for conserving indigenous knowledge is ex situ conservation, i.e., isolation, documentation and storage in
international, regional and national archives” [8]. The collective, oral
-based knowledge systems of many Indigenous
people are a poor match for technologies that “reflect
Western values of individualism, the privileging of texts and thecommodification of knowledge
 –
trends that run counter to and likely threaten many indigenous traditions (cf. Bowers et
 
al. 2000)” [9]. The problem with ICTs is that they tend to foster indi
vidualism (i.e. computers are designed for singleusers), ex situ conservation, and literalism (i.e. facts stored in databases, removed from narrative or proverbialstructures).In addition, Indigenous knowledge bases are often housed in ways that are not conducive to communal sharing. The act
of disconnecting knowledge from its source “will remove from that knowledge the very context which infuses it with life.
Because indigenous knowledge is continuously generated and renewed in the living practices of people, archiving in
isolation from practice removes its ongoing relevance” [10].
 
Charles Ess uses the phrase “computer 
-
mediated colonization” to describe the process by which Western cultural values
embedded within ICTs overshadow the values and communicative preferences of Indigenous people [11]. The question
of technology’s cultural neutrality or non
-
neutrality is critical: “specifically, the extent to which ICTs (and their attendant
praxes and idioms) are assimilable into local values and lifeways; or conversely the extent to which dominant modes of
thinking and doing are embedded in their very matrix, luring users into an inescapable ICT hegemony”[9]. Since
technology is rarely designed for the Indigenous user, it is the user who must adapt to the technology.
 
 Strategies
 
The use of ICTs to sustain cultural identity “generates wide
-ranging discussions concerning cultural values, modes ofrepresentation and teaching, and contrasts between Native and non-
Native ideologies” [12]. Three efforts in Australia
serve to show how the disharmony between the technology and tradition can be addressed. One, the IndigenousKnowledge and Resource Management in Northern Australia (IKRMNA) project, which ran from 2003 to 2006, tackled
 
the issue of values head on by laying out answers to such questions as:
 
Isn’t Aboriginal knowledge in the land itself? How can knowledge be stored in the land and in databases too?
 
 
 Aren’t ritual and ceremony important parts of Aboriginal knowledge? How can you recognise the role of ritual when
knowledge is stored in databases?
 
Access to Aboriginal knowledge is controlled by elders, and only certain people can know certain things. How doesdatabasing deal with these problems of privacy?
 
Databases are forms of Western scientific knowledge. Aren’t t
hey incommensurable with Aboriginal knowledge?How is this overcome?
 
If young Aboriginal people are using computers, doesn’t that impair their learning of traditional knowledge, and
alienate them from their culture? [13]The answers in some cases led to more questions, but the organizers at least attempted to situate their endeavor in a
light of awareness. One answer acknowledges that “Often a lot of work and much skill and patience, is required toovercome incompatibilities … Western knowledge traditions a
re often not very good at recognising the metaphysics and
metaphoricity that is built into all knowledge” [13]. Although not connected to the questions above, this quote fromLieberman embodies the spirit of the responses provided by IKRMNA: “To get ahead
in the modern world without losingtheir heritage, indigenous communities need to develop a biculturism that enables them to move between two cultures
and to combine certain elements of each harmoniously” [14].
 The approach IKRMNA took in trying to reconcile some of the concerns they faced is echoed in a similar but
unconnected project, Ara Irititja (which means “stories from a long time ago” in the language of the Anangu people of 
Central Australia). From its inception in 1994, Ara Irititja has gathered hundreds of thousands of cultural and historicalitems significant to the Anangu people for preservation in their growing digital database. Patterned after the ways
knowledge is shared in their community, the archive “is interactive and participatory at the
community and personal level.
 
People of all ages are able to work together at the Ara Irititja workstations. It is a family and community group activity that
draws together people of several generations” [15]. The database allows for the interconnecting of 
items and the
inclusion of personal narrative, creating a living community exchange. Evidence of the archive’s participatory
engagement is found in pictures from the project website that show several generations of people seated around acomputer terminal together.The third endeavor, Mukurtu, began with the creation of the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive designed for the
Warumungu Aboriginal community who “wanted a system to archive and organize their digital cultural materials in line
with their cultura
l protocols” [16]. The word mukurtu means “dilly bag” in Warumungu: “Dilly bags hold sacred items and
are accessible by acting responsibly within the community and gaining the permission of knowledgeable communityleaders. Like the dilly bag, the archive i
s a ‘safe keeping place,’ a community repository for cultural materials andknowledge” [16]. The project is currently receiving a facelift and will be re
-
released as a “free and open source
community archive platform that provides international standards-based content management tools adaptable to the local
cultural protocols and intellectual property systems of indigenous communities, libraries, archives, and museums” [16].
 As an open source platform, some of the unique features that respond to Indigenous cultural practices include adaptablecultural protocols (communities can set their own protocols to match user access levels), extensible metadata fields thatsupport traditional knowledge concepts, custom keyboards for data input in indigenous languages, and on-the-fly audiorecording for comments, translations and traditional knowledge [16]. The last item takes the functionality that Ara Irititja
has in terms of a user’s ability to add narrative elements to archived entries, but extends it through mobile
technology.

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