As part of our ongoing project, Building Campus Strategies for Coordinated Data Support, we completed a national inventory of research data services offered at higher education institutions across the US and Canada. While conducting the inventory, we observed an uneven approach to the topic of Indigenous research data sovereignty and governance at libraries and other units involved in research support and facilitation. Some schools provided robust information about the imperative for Indigenous groups and scholars to have control over how the data related to their community heritage is managed and used, while other schools included little to no mention of Indigenous data stewardship or the CARE principles for Indigenous Data Governance.

The CARE principles (Collective Benefit, Authority to Control, Responsibility, and Ethics) emerged as a complement to the FAIR principles and advocate for data practices that ensure any use of Indigenous data results in tangible benefits for communities, recognizes the inherent right for Indigenous communities to govern their own data, and emphasizes the responsibility of data stewards to manage data in ways that respect Indigenous rights and worldviews.

Despite the crucial importance of the CARE principles to the research data services ecosystem, we found that services offered for Indigenous research data were seldomly advertised on university websites as part of the menu of services available. To gain a better understanding of the issue, and what an Indigenous research data services framework might look like, we asked the Data Services for Indigenous Scholarship & Sovereignty (DSISS) team to share their experience and insight working in this space.

The responses below were developed and written collaboratively by Miranda Belarde-Lewis, Sandy Littletree, Carole L. Palmer, Nic Weber, Nestor Guerrero (University of Washington, Information School), Jenny Muilenburg (University of Washington Libraries), and Sebastian Karcher (Qualitative Data Repository, Syracuse University).

We are grateful for their willingness to share their expertise as we work toward understanding key issues in the research data ecosystem.

Can you tell us about the current approach DSISS takes to providing services for Indigenous data governance?

Yes, collaboration is key to our approach! We’ve designed DSISS to put scholars and Indigenous communities at the forefront to assure they are the beneficiaries of services for Indigenous research data. The goal of DSISS is to support libraries and repositories in the implementation of the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance. Collaboration is essential to making sure the practices, values, and needs of scholars and Indigenous communities guide how CARE is put into practice in research data services.

Our work tightly aligns with the “collaborative curation” approach practiced by the Qualitative Data Repository at Syracuse University, a process that emphasizes active dialogue between curators and researchers to describe crucial contextual knowledge and identify missing information. Collaborative curation ensures researchers’ perspectives are prioritized in how data are represented and encourages development of meaningful documentation. Since we are currently focused on Indigenous language and cultural data, we also bring a humanities orientation to data stewardship. Most importantly, we center the relational methods prominent in Indigenous research and the Indigenous community interests and values at the heart of that relationality.

Where is this project taking place?

The project is mostly based at the Information School at the University of Washington (UW). Our primary investigators include two Indigenous researchers who specialize in Indigenous knowledge, culture, and libraries and two researchers who specialize in data curation. The Qualitative Data Repository is our primary partner, contributing their long-standing experience in qualitative data services and the curation of sensitive data. Collaborators include experts from the library’s Research Data Services team and scholars from the American Indian Studies department. We’ve also been working in consultation with experts on Indigenous intellectual property from the Local Contexts initiative and Indigenous librarians from the X̱wi7x̱wa Library at the University of British Columbia.

Through our engagement with scholars, we are producing Indigenous data case studies that emphasize how different dimensions of relationality relate to CARE and the implications for research data services’ practices. Contextual metadata is an important focus, as we work to inform how to represent the richness of relationships and the significance of accountability in descriptive records.

What tools or resources do you recommend to researchers who are working with Indigenous data? Are there other technologies that are available to help libraries, data curators, and repositories adhere to the CARE and OCAP principles?

It’s been exciting to see the growth in the body of material available on data sovereignty and CARE. Here are a few of the developments we’re excited about:

  • We have created a Learning Resources web page that highlights items that can help libraries move toward practical applications as they build cultural competency. This resource features a selection of the available work on Indigenous data sovereignty and governance. We’re prioritizing practical guidance and examples that support the development and implementation of protocols unique to Indigenous qualitative data.
  • The Local Contexts initiative’s work on TK notices and labels for Indigenous content is a touchstone, especially for the cultural heritage domain. We are working toward adaptations of their advances for application to digital research data.
  • The Data Curation Network primer on the CARE Principles has been an important recent contribution to the profession.
  • With our emphasis on contextual metadata, we are closely tracking the Indigenous Metadata Bundle work from the Collaboratory for Indigenous Data Governance.

How do you navigate the tension between Indigenous data governance and sovereignty and universities’ commitment to open access for research data?

In our work with scholars, we are careful to avoid suggesting or assuming any data should be open access. Instead, we emphasize the importance of representation and preservation of not just the data but also Indigenous methods and knowledge, and benefits for Indigenous communities. Any visibility of or access to data is secondary and needs to be driven by scholars and communities.

With qualitative data generally, and with Indigenous data in particular, we adhere to the increasingly common tenet that data should be “as open as possible, as closed as necessary.”

With qualitative data generally, and with Indigenous data in particular, we adhere to the increasingly common tenet that data should be “as open as possible, as closed as necessary.”  The value of this positioning is continually reinforced as we engage with scholars and learn firsthand how common it is for Native communities to have experienced extractive treatment by non-Native researchers and later be confronted with their materials being made widely available online and in print formats. These leakages propagate a false impression that Indigenous communities lack agency and autonomy of their knowledge.

We are also learning how the Collective Benefit element of CARE can vary significantly across communities. Data sharing can be tied to the wellbeing and benefit of one community, but that same exchange of information may negatively impact or harm another.  With Indigenous data, we cannot assume pan-Indigenous agreement across communities or even within communities. Further, tribal government representatives do not always reflect the values of individual culture bearers or families. We will need to ensure a diversity of Native voices are involved in consultation processes and develop robust techniques for determining how far to reach out to include the rights and interests of all involved.

Data sharing can be tied to the wellbeing and benefit of one community, but that same exchange of information may negatively impact or harm another.

What’s next for the DSISS project?

We’re starting a new phase of work this year that will extend our case studies to include scholars whose Indigenous research data is already held within research libraries as a condition of their funding. These cases will have implications for the many collections of Indigenous data currently within library special collections. They will help us make progress on a range of related questions about preservation, access policies and controls, Indigenous data literacy, and, perhaps most importantly, retrospective community building.