Posted to the Ethnos Project by on October 19th, 2009

Indigenous cultures across the planet are disappearing. In 2007, Wade Davis, a Harvard-trained ethnobotanist, presented at the TED conference on the (subject of endangered cultures). He said, “When each of you in this room were born, there were 6,000 languages spoken on the planet . . . and of those 6,000 languages, as we sit here today in Monterrey, fully half are no longer being whispered into the ears of children. They are no longer being taught to babies. Which means, effectively, unless something changes, they’re already dead.” Arguably, when the language dies, so do other aspects of the culture: ways of knowing, history, stories and other aspects of ephemeral culture that wither if not actively nurtured. Of the many reasons for this cultural scenario, modernity – with its interest in technology – has played a large part. Modern transportation draws people away from the villages while telephones and televisions bring the outside world in. Information and communication technologies invite new practices into the cultural terrain that violate or replace traditional protocol. A curious socio-technical problem space emerges when one considers how technology instead might serve to sustain and stimulate traditional indigenous ways. Specifically, this conceptual investigation will focus on technological solutions for storing Indigenous knowledge.

In terms of Indigenous knowledge management, typical database structures often do not work for storing cultural knowledge. For instance, when recording oral traditions, the usual metadata tags regarding ownership (author, copyright data, publishing information, etc.) do not apply. Primarily oral cultures that do not ascribe ownership of knowledge to individuals, that do not recognize the ‘right to copy’ in the way Western cultures do, and that do not publish but rather perform their stories, histories, and ceremonies, would find little use for such metadata. Knowledge management is made more complex by the very nature of orality. The term oral “indicates both speech and reception, and implies face-to-face interaction. With its coloration by tradition, oral also indicates a degree of informality. It does not refer to scripted expression, but rather unscripted expression, marked by improvisation and characterized by variation” (Tangherlini, 136). How does one catalog unscripted expression? How does one account for the possibilities of variation? Similarly, for cultures that understand the power of images differently than Western cultures do, the storage and retrieval of photographs (especially of ancestors) is problematic. A guiding question that informs this investigation then is how does one construct a knowledge management system that respects the various ways in which Indigenous peoples interact with their own sense of cultural memory?

Implicated Human Values

Friedman, et al offer a list of human values with ethical import that are often implicated in system design (364). Several of those values become implicated when considering the ways technology can be used to facilitate the traditional processes of Indigenous peoples. Among them, human welfare, ownership and property, privacy, trust and identity rank high. Martin Nakata lists other issues that arise within the frame of this discussion as well: “the classification of information about Indigneous peoples’ collection, storage, retrieval, access, copyright, intellectual property, the sensitivities of culturally different clients and communities, the politics, funding, distance issues, networking issues, the concerns about historical texts – and the list can go on” (281).

The value this investigation focuses on, and one which contains and overlaps a few of those listed, is that of respect for cultural ways – that is, the explicit consideration of how a proposed technological solution adheres to the cultural practices and ways of knowing endemic to the Indigenous population using that technology. Respect in this context might mean honoring traditions having to do with gender, role, or ceremony for example. Some knowledge is meant only for particular audiences under specific circumstances. As in the example from above, some knowledge artifacts contain power, such as photographs. Storage, retrieval and access of photographs must respectfully factor in these cultural attitudes.

Direct and Indirect Stakeholders

I. Direct Stakeholders

Members of an Indigenous community.
This category is shaped by subsections that will differ among the communities concerned. For example, in the Haudenosaunee tradition (the Six Nations of the Iroquois in and around New York State) there are the customs of the Long House which apply only to men. Men would then constitute a subgroup whose knowledge must remain accessible only to those who by traditional rights, and under specific circumstances, should have access to it. In this sense, access is tied to the notion of respect, since violations of this protocol would have critical cultural repercussions. A knowledge management system for sustaining Amur oral tradition in China, should respect the fact that, “the majority of traditional storytellers are women, a reflection of their long history as carries of oral tradition” (Van Deusen, xxi). Also, in many cultures, oral traditions carry knowledge that has age limits – some stories are not meant for young children. To remain respectful of this, the knowledge management system must take into account what subjects and forms of knowledge are appropriate for audiences at different ages.

II. Indirect Stakeholders

Future generations of the Indigenous community. Part of the idea of creating Indigenous knowledge management systems, is maintaining traditions at risk of being lost for future generations to enjoy and derive benefit. This group of stakeholders will be topologically similar to the subgroups listed above for any specific Indigenous community. In other words, whatever system design considerations are put in place for the present population will necessarily apply to the future generations of users.

Ancestors. This subgroup doesn’t make much sense to the Western mind, however, since knowledge implies a historical context, respect for the past and the people who lived in it is a subject of concern for many Indigenous populations. In this sense, respect may have to do with maintaining historical accuracy, preserving reputations, protecting spirits, honoring the dead, and so on. A popular caveat on Australian aboriginal historical resource websites reads with variation: “Warning! This site contains images of indigenous people now deceased!” Taking this idea further, respect for ancestors might take the shape of being able to “specify temporal access restrictions, either for a set duration from a start time or recurring (on a monthly or yearly basis). This functionality has been provided to support customs such as sorrow business, in which photographs or video recordings of recently deceased people are inaccessible for a mourning period” (Hunter, 118).

The ‘outside’ world. The outside world is a broad category including any non-Indigenous audience. From the perspective of the direct Indigenous community stakeholders, of special concern are outsiders whose interest in the Indigenous knowledge would be disrespectful or exploitative.

Works Cited

Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Borning, A. “Value Sensitive Design and information systems.” In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (eds.), Human-Computer Interaction in Management Information Systems: Foundations, (348-372). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Hunter, J. “The Role of Information Knowledge Management.” In M. Nakata & M. Langton (eds.), Australian Indigenous Knowledge and Libraries, (109-124). Canberra: Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 2005.

Nakata, M. “Indigenous Knowledge and the Cultural Interface: underlying issues at the intersection of knowledge and information systems.” IFLA Journal, Vol. 28, No. 5-6, 281-291 (2002).

Tangherlini, T. “Oral Tradition” in a Technologically Advanced World.” Oral Tradition Vol. 18, No. 1, 136-138 (2003).

Van Deusen, K. The flying tiger: women shamans and storytellers of the Amur. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, March 2001.

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