Category: Pub: Article / Paper
Details: Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2008)
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“Esdunèna keh kudoge dahkwandēʼ tedètsʼet. Neni dahtsʼadi netʼē dahkwandē tsʼèn keniden. Dahtsʼadi etʼē dahkwandēʼ. Dahkwandēʼ niʼushdèn shį̀. Dahkwandēʼ tsʼèn keniden. Dahkwandēʼ tsʼèn keniden.”

[“To all my children, we are losing our language. You are our future leaders; you must learn our language. It is the root and heart of our culture. I pass you our language. You must learn our language.” Lucy Wren, aged 91, the last remaining fluent speaker of the Tagish language (from the FirstVoices project website at]

Among the obstacles indigenous peoples face when implementing technology-based language and culture preservation and revitalization programs – such as remoteness, poverty, access to training, lack of basic infrastructure, low levels of literacy, and the uncertainty of project sustainability (14-16; Khalid et al) – community resistance ranks high. Resistance results from a variety of factors that share a common source, the fear of change and cultural impact. One form of resistance comes in the form of rejecting the Western values embodied in the technology – often as a result of the lack of programatic autonomy and governance. Indigenous communities may also share the concern that the introduction of new technology is antithetical to the restoration of their traditional systems. Another fear is that sacred or protected knowledge will be misappropriated, decontextualized, and exploited by others outside of the community. Indigenous communities and their program partners can work together to reduce these forms of resistance and resolve the issues that create them by acknowledging the validity of such concerns and implementing systemic protocols that address them.

Rejection of Western Values and Issues of Authority and Governance

Charles Ess warns that the use Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in cultural revitalization efforts can bring with it a “computer-mediated colonization” or an emphasis on the Western cultural values embedded within the technology used which can overshadow the values and communicative preferences of indigenous peoples (Ess, 1). These embedded cultural memes are of great concern since they represent the history of cultural hegemony exacted upon indigenous populations that has led to the current state of language attrition. The use of ICT to sustain cultural identity “generates wide-ranging discussions concerning cultural values, modes of representation and teaching, and contrasts between Native and non-Native ideologies” (Moore, 119). The list below presents a sampling of ways that various ICT can negatively impact indigenous values and ways of knowing.

Connectivity (Internet access) on isolated communities
Promotes economic opportunity and access to information, but invites outsider values and creates opportunity for cultural exploitation
Digital archiving on social memory
Memory is stored outside of the body – no longer “indigenous.” Becomes static, not part of a dynamic social process
Videography on oral tradition
Orality no longer hearth-based or ceremonial, but situated in “tech centers” or institutional settings
Global positioning systems (GPS) on resource mapping
Helps to preserve sacred places and community resources, but also creates a virtual de facto “reservation” by setting boundaries around otherwise fluid territories
CyberTracker3 on traditional hunting
Aids in tracking animal and plant resources, but creates a reliance on non-traditional technological devices which require costly infrastructure
Radio broadcasting on language customs
Ties distant communities together, aids in areas ranging from health care to agriculture, but creates language situations that fundamentally change the nature of local communication structure
Computers on education practice
Can “level the playing field” in economics, education, etc., but places emphasis on Western modes of learning which devalue indigenous methods

Successful cultural revitalization efforts share a common approach that can help to assuage community concerns about “computer-mediated colonialism.” This approach involves establishing binding guidelines or a comprehensive ideology that sets the stage for the undeniable changes that the infusion of ICT will bring to the community. The efforts of the Tagish-Tlingit peoples of Canada and the Nyoongar peoples of Western Australia illustrate how a strong language or cultural ideology can create a healthy awareness of potential problems and provide ways to counteract or minimize the potentially harmful cultural effects of adopting ICT.

The Tagish-Tlingit established four main guidelines that “can be considered ideologies in the sense that they provide a coherent agenda for changing the existing social order to achieve language revitalization” (Moore, 133). The language ideology emphasizes community control over the development of ICT language resources by:

(1)recognizing the elders as cultural and linguistic authorities,
(2)training younger community members to document the language,
(3)making use of the potlatch and associated traditions as a prestigious model of language use and cultural representation, and
(4)making all language resources available to the local community in multiple modalities, free of charge (Moore, 124).

These guidelines constitute an act of resistance against the culturally destructive practices and policies of the teachers and leaders of the residential schools who devalued the Native languages when the Tagish-Tlingit Elders were young. The Elders, who form the backbone of the committee that created the ideology, “see themselves turning the tables by reinstating traditional practices” (Moore, 122). In this way, their rejection of Western values constructively negotiates their use of ICT by placing primacy on the cultural needs of the Tagish-Tlingit peoples. For example, although they are using cameras, audio recording devices, and computer technology – with their embedded Western memes – to digitally capture the essence of their culture, the Tagish-Tlingit have chosen to employ young people for this process. Traditionally, young people served as message runners between distant moeities. Thus, as in the past, young people serve as ambassadors, effectively making “elders out of the young people” in accordance with traditional modes of social interaction (Moore, 129).

The Nyoongar peoples of Western Australia developed an e-learning platform for Nyoongar students that is built on a similar set of guidelines. The principles they adopted recognize the students’ capacity to construct their own knowledge and call for authentic learning activities that respond to the students’ cultural and learning needs. Learning environments are student-centered, collaborative and interactive shifting the locus of control away from the teacher (Dyson and Underwood, 73). Although these principles are not unique to the Nyoongar (and may well describe some American learning environments, for example), the importance of these ideas coming from the Nyoongar themselves, as opposed to an outside organization, cannot be overstated. Along with their pedagogical ideology, the Nyoongar project also demonstrates the successful implementation of culture-specific design principles that showcase traditional motifs and use Aboriginal English terms to name various sections of the online component such as “Yarning Place” for the class discussion forum (Dyson and Underwood, 73). Unlike the Tagish-Tlingit program, the Nyoongar are not necessarily acting in direct resistance to Western influence, but their decisions clearly indicate a desire to place operational emphasis on Nyoongar traditional culture – a key factor in that project’s success.

In general, many of the concerns addressed above can be allayed if the indigenous communities being served by revitalization efforts have authority and governance over the management of the project. Often indigenous people have little control over the information presented through projects hosted by government or academic institutions, such as how their community is portrayed on web sites. Proper governance of these projects “needs to explicitly acknowledge Indigenous people as the beneficiaries of the site rather than the object of discussion, and to recognize collective ownership and collective privacy in determining how information will be accessed, used or interpreted” (Dyson and Underwood, 67). This will ensure that the project reflects the interests of the community and positions the project for long-term success by increasing community-wide by-in of the process. Authority and governance is important because, as Krauss (in Fishman, 56) notes, “You cannot from the outside inculcate into people the will to revive or maintain their languages. This has to come from them, from themselves.”

Antithetical to Tradition

In any kind of media translation, there is a loss of nuance. For example, consider the four ICT typically used to populate a digital archive: an audio recorded conversation resides out of context, a photograph lacks motion, text lacks nonverbal cues, and video – which addresses some of the deficiencies of the last three examples – lacks spacial dimension. Even though the technologies used for collecting these forms of media has improved in quality over time, they are still imperfect cataloging tools, especially in regard to capturing sophisticated social experiences such as a storytelling performance comprised of songs, anecdotes, aphorisms, nonce words, and so on. One may possess a high definition digital video recording of a performance, but much of what makes the performance culturally valuable is lost in translation from live action to digital media. For example, unless special instructions are given to the camera operator to record the reaction of the audience, viewers may miss out on important social cues (what is surprising, disdainful, humorous, etc.). Also, without a knowledge of present affairs, community history, the local environment, social status of the storyteller, circumstances under which the story is being performed, and other factors, a recording of an oral performance – even if it is in high definition – may look good, but won’t be particularly useful as part of a functional digital archive used for passing on a full range of cultural knowledge.

The argument above identifies one of the shortcomings of employing ICT in cultural revitalization efforts and begs the question of their efficacy. Add to this argument the problem of interfacing the database (ICT are often text based and written in a language that is foreign to the indigenous end user). Supposing these obstacles could be overcome, the effectiveness of ICT is still hampered by the nature of the hardware used to access the information. How does one access information stored in a digital archive when the keyboard employs a foreign alphanumeric system.
Indigenous communities and their program partners can minimize obstacles by implementing carefully considered systemic safeguards. The first order of consideration is the nature of the technology and to what degree it will interact with the knowledge system to be cataloged. To continue with the example of a storytelling performance, one might begin by conducting an assessment of the complex relationships visible in the cultural infrastructure surrounding the performance of a story and of the suitability of the technology chosen to record it. This involves “recognising the depths of interdependence of technical networks and standards, on the one hand, and the real work of politics and knowledge production on the other” (Bowker and Star, 34). For instance, a database that uses Western-style metadata tags such as author, title, and copyright may not be the most suitable for documenting oral performances. A system that allows for flexibility depending on the cultural and informational needs of the community would be more appropriate. Doing so recognizes that “classification remakes and alters information by constructing a particular context for it — gathering, scattering, and juxtaposing topics in relation to each other,” (Olsen, 233) and puts the indigenous community in charge of how that new knowledge gets constructed. One such system is the Text, Audio, Movies, and Images (TAMI) fluid file management and database system, “which bears with it no western assumptions about knowledge or the ecology, and which maximises the possibility for the user to creatively relate and annotate assemblages of resources for their own purposes.”

Although TAMI puts the indigenous community in control of classification, the database is still text driven which, as noted above, can cause access problems. A possible solution involves using a Unicode font substitution and key layout replacement.

One final example of how to reduce the impact of implicit Western values embedded within ICT is to shift emphasis from digitally archiving cultural resources to creating what Ranganathan calls “circles of knowledge.” A circle of knowledge is “a relevant and expanding body of knowledge identified by the members of the circle” (Ranganathan, 6). Similar to the TAMI, existing knowledge would be gathered using text, audio, videos, and still images. The indigenous community would select the manner of collection depending on the nature of the knowledge to be acquired. Instead of simply archiving data, however, what distinguishes this concept from the TAMI is that it assumes that “not all aspects of living traditions of indigenous knowledge can be captured as ‘artefacts’ using digital technology” (Ranganathan, 7). The shortcomings of a digital archive are overcome by building into the process a layer of social networking that allows a user to seek not only information, but living human knowledge resources. As Gerolf Weigel states: “It can be more effective to link people with relevant knowledge directly rather than accumulating knowledge in ‘stores’” (22). A user might for example query the database to find out which local village has the relevant knowledgeable person to assist with a water purification system.

Misappropriation, Decontextualization & Exploitation

Another major concern for indigenous communities adopting ICT for cultural revitalization projects is the fear that the knowledge they seek to save – some of which is sacred, proprietary, or meant for particular audiences – will be misappropriated or decontextualized. The prevalence of biopiracy worldwide illustrates that the fear of exploitation is justified. Several of the suggestions above offer solutions to this concern: ensuring that the indigenous community has authority over the governance of the cultural material, storing the information in the language of the community, and establishing an ideology that guides the project implementation. Other solutions involve proper resource crediting and securing the database with passwords, digital signatures, watermarks, etc.

Proper crediting of knowledge will vary among indigenous peoples depending on their traditions and often will not fit within the structures of international copyright law. For example, some knowledge may be the provision of special keepers (women, Shaman, a clan or moeity, etc.). A particular telling of a story may have been handed down through an identifiable lineage. A process for curing food for a specific celebration may belong to an entire community. The crediting schema for the ICT employed for the project should be constructed to reflect the needs of each group being served.

Resistance to ICT can be reduced by assuring the community that their knowledge will be respected and protected from misuse. The simplest means for protecting information stored in a database is to created a password system that allows insertion and retrieval access only to certain individuals who hold the appropriate key. The password system can be built around the social structures in place within the community “so that only women can access women’s business, men access men’s business, etc.” (Dyson and Underwood, 70). Other distinctions that might affect level of access to the database include membership, status, role, gender, and the relationship of the user to people, animals or objects depicted in the resource (Sen, 375). The Wangka Maya Pilbara Language Centre in Western Australia doesn’t use passwords, but has implemented a security protocol by which users can search a database via web, but must order copies of the material on CD-ROM from the head office (Dyson and Underwood, 70). Information cannot be downloaded directly from the site.


Successful ICT-based cultural revitalization programs ultimately must do more than classify, catalog, and store information, they must aid in what Fishman calls re-vernacularization – the reintegration of the knowledge into community: “Vernacularization is the opposite of institutionalization. Re-vernacularization requires not only inter-generational language transmission, but societal change” (171). It is that change that represents the greatest challenge for indigenous communities, especially when ICT are involved. Community resistance to ICT is natural, justified, and to be expected. Cultural change is difficult to bear even when one’s traditions are not at risk of disappearing. The addition of technology to the process of change can compound the concerns of indigenous people and raise questions that are difficult to answer. The solutions outlined in this essay are not exhaustive and are meant to suggest starting points by which indigenous communities might begin to address the complex challenges they face in their cultural revitalization efforts.

Works Cited

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Bowker, G. C., and S. L. Star, S. L., “Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences.” Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999.

Czermak, Karen, Philippe Delanghe, and Wei Weng, “Preserving intangible cultural heritage in Indonesia A pilot project on oral tradition and language preservation .” UNESCO Jakarta, Indonesia. SIL International, 2003. SIL International. 4 Dec. 2008 < unesco_jakarta.pdf>.

Dyson, Laurel E., “Cultural Issues in the Adoption of Information and Communication Technologies by Indigenous Australians.” Sudweeks, F., and C. Ess, eds. Proceedings Cultural Attitudes Towards Communication and Technology (CATaC). Karlstad, Sweden, 27 June – 1 July 2004. Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA. pp. 58-71. Available at:

Dyson, Laurel E., and Jim Underwood. “Indigenous People on the Web.” Journal of Theoretical and Applied Electronic Commerce Research Vol. 1, Issue 1 (2006).

Ess, Charles. “Questioning the Obvious? Ethical and Cultural Dimensions of CMC and ICTS.” Unpublished essay, 2004.

Fishman, Joshua, “Maintaining Languages: What Works? What Doesn’t?” Cantoni, Gina, ed. Stabilizing Indigenous Languages. Flagstaff: A Center for Excellence in Education Monograph, Northern Arizona University, 2007.

Holland, et al., “Using information technology to preserve and sustain cultural heritage: the digital collective.” World Culture Report 2000: Cultural diversity, conflict and pluralism. France: UNESCO, 2000.

Moore, Patrick, and Kate Hennessy. “New Technologies and Contested Ideologies: The Tagish FirstVoices Project.” American Indian Quarterly Vol. 30, Nos. 1 & 2 (2006).

Olson, Hope A. “Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing Classificatory Space for Marginalized Knowledge Domains.” Library Trends 47, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 233-255.

Ranganathan, Arvind. “Using ICT to place Indigenous Knowledge Systems at the heart of Education for Sustainable Development.” Paper presented at the Education for a Sustainable Future – International Conference, Ahmedabad, India, January 18-20, 2005.

Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. United Nations. The Report of the Global Forum of Indigenous Peoples and the Information Society. Geneva, Switzerland: World Summit on the Information Society, 2003.

Sen, Bharati. “Indigenous knowledge for development: Bringing research and practice together.” The International Information & Library Review 37 (2005): 375-82.

“Communication for Development and Poverty Reduction.” Weigel, G. and D. Waldburger, eds. ICT4D – Connecting People for a Better World: Lessons, Innovations and Perspectives of Information and Communication Technologies in Development. Berne, Switzerland: Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP), 2003.