Sacred Data

Poet, film maker and digital producer of Wiradjuri heritage, Jazz Money, examines the potential benefits and threats to Indigenous data sovereignty in increasingly digitised spaces.

Illustration by Emily Johnson.

Consider a sacred object, stolen from Australia in the earlier waves of colonisation of the late 1700s and early 1800s. The object becomes absorbed into a museum collection in Britain. Provenience is scant, no location of where the object was taken from has been recorded, let alone the maker or community. It sits in a glass cabinet on the other side of the world, disconnected from Country, until the early 21st century when it is 3D scanned and made available online. The stolen sacred object has been digitised. And can be 3D printed anywhere in the world. 

What are the ethical dimensions of this scenario? Is the 3D print of a sacred object sacred? Who owns that data? Who says where it can go, who can reproduce it and the care it needs? And who said it could be scanned in the first instance?

These are not hypothetical questions, they are current and necessary, as demonstrated by the digitising and 3D scanning of First Nations cultural material around the world. In fact, researching objects such as these made me physically sick.

As the world moves to digital solutions in a physically distant time, and many industries become new online creators, the issues of data sovereignty are becoming increasingly apparent. Our data has become our most valuable commodity, and protecting it is complex and imperative. For artists and organisations who are new to creating for the online realm, issues around intellectual property and copyright can be murky. These issues are heightened for First Nations creatives, who are more likely to make works within a cultural landscape imbued with legacy, responsibility and sacred or ancient skills. 

Within ‘Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an agenda’ (2016) Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor define the concept of data sovereignty for First Nations people as being intrinsically linked with Indigenous peoples’ “right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as their right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over these.”

As a First Nations person working in the arts, I have been fascinated by Indigenous data sovereignty and its potential benefits and threats to our industry for some time. Digitising increases our access to one another, our languages, our ceremony and our objects, which can be incredibly important for dispersed or displaced peoples. And yet, mismanagement of that digital space could have massive consequences for our communities. The multifaceted nature of Indigenous data sovereignty gives rise to a wide-ranging set of issues, from legal and ethical dimensions around data storage, ownership, access and consent, to intellectual property rights and practical considerations about how data are used in the context of research, policy and practice. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are gifted data managers. Our oral histories are passed through an intricate web of ceremony and custom, with restrictions built in for those who shouldn’t or are not yet ready to access certain information. This process of management kept our people strong for millennia - knowing who should receive certain information how and when. This gives us a unique and powerful starting position in the conversation around data sovereignty, as these knowledges are intuitive with systems developed by our ancestors.

In the museological context of a digital age, questions arise over who owns knowledge embedded within objects and artworks created by and for Indigenous people that are subsequently stored and housed online (massive-off-Country). Risks of piracy and misuse of traditional knowledge and cultural heritage become amplified. Kukutai and Taylor warn that  “if Indigenous peoples lose control because there are no existing laws and policies that recognise their rights and regulate the behaviour of institutions and individuals involved in gathering and disseminating data and knowledge, marginalisation, inequality and discrimination will persist.”

We need to move forward with these dialogues if we are to protect our sacred knowledges, and to ensure that our culture is not further mismanaged by outsiders. Currently much of the data sovereignty field revolves around large data management, like census statistics, and questions in the cultural arts sector are still evolving and largely unresolved. Indigenous data sovereignty invites a rethinking beyond Western models of knowledge storage to encompass management and regulation coded and recoded to protect the cultural knowledge holders and enshrining their rights within the objects of their production. 

I have been struck by the incredible initiatives our Māori cousins in Aotearoa have put in place in recent years that bring together ceremony and technology. At the 2019 National Digital Forum at Te Papa in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) I heard of an example from Archives New Zealand that detailed the ceremony and care around their recent server migration. The Archives recognise that the sacredness of taonga (treasures) and the tūpuna (ancestors) linked to them is not diminished by being digitised. It was therefore understood that these server racks, as the places that house the digital taonga, need to be treated with the same care as the physical taonga. As Talei Masters of the New Zealand Archives noted over email, “this doesn’t extend solely to Māori objects, but the protocol and practices put in place around them are led by Māori because they are the people of the land.” 

Recognising the mauri (life force) and wairua (spirit) of these archives meant consultation with local kaumatua (elders) to ensure that appropriate ceremony took place. As Stefanie Lash of Archives New Zealand explained, “The basic process for moving taonga is that they are awakened, the ancestors are called to be with us and aware of what’s happening, things are explained. A new space for the taonga is ritually prepared to receive it, sometimes that’s been done beforehand. The move of the taonga proceeds. The person/people who lead this are tohunga (priests, experts). Once the taonga is in its new space the ceremony continues with further oratory, karakia, singing, then food and drink to conclude the ceremony and return everyone from a state of tapu (sacred) to noa (normal and everyday). The old space can be put to sleep, and thanked for its service.”

I love this simple example of care, and wonder how we can adapt within Australian institutions to treat both our physical and digital objects with the respect their communities imbued within them. 

Indigenous data sovereignty teaches us we can recognise data as a force that shapes our lives and needs respect. The cultural arts sector in Australia often struggles to shake off its colonial legacy, and this new era of content creation and digital management presents an exciting opportunity to unlearn a variety of historical prejudices. We need to recognise that the sacred remains sacred even when away from its place of creation, and even when digital. That it is possible to inform the care of our objects and our data with the same care that we should show one another.

As we proceed into this digital age it is essential that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are afforded self determination that recognises our rich knowledge systems as essential to this transformation and adaption. Indigenous pedagogy should lead the data sovereignty movement in Australia, and can be informed by management systems developed by the cultural arts sector while prioritising sacred knowledges. As informed by Indigenous ontologies, the systems of ceremony that have always existed on these lands can continue to teach us as we adapt for greater online connection.

* With thanks to Talei Masters and Stefanie Lash of Archives New Zealand for their generosity of knowledge. And to all the First Nations people leading in this space – mandaang guwu (thank you).

Jazz Money - 27 April 2020