Why Indigenous people are fighting for data sovereignty

Unreserved54:00Indigenous Data Sovereignty

Data tells a story, and that’s why survivors of the notorious Mohawk Institute – Canada’s longest running residential school – are reclaiming data and sharing their truths. This week Rosanna speaks with Indigenous people who are reclaiming data to better understand the past and build towards the future. From traditional knowledge passed down through oral storytelling to the records kept by governments and institutions, data is power. Keeping that power in Indigenous hands is data sovereignty.

Abigail Echo-Hawk is tired of working with data sets that erase urban Indigenous people. 

Echo-Hawk, who is a citizen of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, is the executive vice-chair at the Seattle Indian Health Board and director of the board’s Urban Indian Health Institute. She regularly combs through large data sets from county, state or federal governments that weren’t collected with Indigenous people in mind or simply don’t count them at all. 

That’s why it’s important that Indigenous communities gather their own data, in their own way, she said. This is Indigenous data sovereignty. 

“As individual nations … we have the ability to govern our own data. That means how it is gathered, how it is analyzed and how it is shared,” Echo-Hawk told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. 

Indigenous communities are doing just this, on both sides of the Medicine Line. They’re taking back control of their data and using data to tell their histories.

“We use information to build the strength of our communities, not to tell people how bad off they are,” Echo-Hawk said. 

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‘Data crisis’

Echo-Hawk and her organization call this erasure of Indigenous people a “data crisis.” She says it lets governments off the hook for their treaty obligations to provide resources and supports to Indigenous nations. 

In 2018, Echo-Hawk’s organization published a report on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the United States. She and her co-author, Annita Lucchesi, gathered information from law enforcement in 71 cities across the country. 

“When we looked at the law enforcement databases, we found that they weren’t even capturing the race and ethnicity of our relatives when they went missing and murdered,” she said. 

Abigail Echo-Hawk turned body bags into this ribbon dress — a symbol of hope, resiliency and strength. She regularly combs through large data sets that weren’t collected with Indigenous people in mind or simply don’t count them at all. (Samuel Fu)

“So we were able to point out this discrepancy and the fact that it allowed for this crisis to become invisible, which meant they weren’t investing the resources that were necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of Indigenous women and girls in the United States.”

Echo-Hawk said she and her organization were able to make recommendations for where changes needed to be made in those databases. They also advocated for policy change, leading to two pieces of national legislation — the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act — in the United States, she said. 

“The data was key for us to be able to say, hey, this is what the problem is, this is how you need to do it better and this is the justice our people deserve.”

Memories on paper

Indigenous data sovereignty is about ensuring Indigenous people are recognized in data and are part of — or in control of — their own data collection. But it’s also about recovering stories, memories and information that were taken from Indigenous people and their communities. 

Laura Arndt is the lead of the Survivors’ Secretariat in Six Nations, Ont., which is working to make sure residential school data is held and preserved by Indigenous communities. 

She says that data sovereignty allows Indigenous people to correct the “damage-centred” record created by western governments and researchers.

“Indigenous people are over represented in incarceration, over represented in addictions, over represented in child welfare…. Somehow the Indigenous person who is part of that statistic is the bad person,” she continued. “[What] Canada and those who do that kind of research don’t tell you is the context of why.”

And that context is the history of the Indian Act and residential schools, she said. 

A woman standing in front of a podium.
Laura Arndt is the executive lead of the Survivors’ Secretariat, which is working to make sure residential school data is held and preserved by Indigenous communities. (Survivors’ Secretariat/Facebook)

The Survivors’ Secretariat in Six Nations, Ont., organizes and supports the work of uncovering, documenting and sharing what happened at the Mohawk Institute residential school in Brantford, Ont. It is guided by survivors of the Mohawk Institute, which was one of Canada’s longest running residential schools. 

For Arndt and the survivors she works with, gathering data isn’t just about numbers. 

“The records, the documents, everything that Canada, the operators of the schools, the churches recorded about those children from the minute they were taken from their families … it’s not data,” Arndt said. “It is the memory on paper of all those children. And Indigenous data sovereignty [means] that those memories belong in the hands of communities.”

Building a community archive

Samantha Tweet, an operations manager for the Indigenous technology company Animikii, is helping the Survivors’ Secretariat build a database to house these memories. 

“With all this information being spread across so many archives, it can be hard to get that one picture of what really occurred at the Mohawk Institute and other residential schools for that matter,” she said. “So by being able to take it all together, we can help build that story.”

The documents range from records of students who attended, school logs, pictures and information of people who worked at the institution. Although many of these documents are restricted, the secretariat has a legal team that is trying to gain access to this information, Tweet said. 

Because we have the truth, we have the records and the documents … now we get to decide what healing looks like for us.– Laura Arndt

In both this project and the others the company takes on, it’s so important that Indigenous communities have control over their own information, she said, but it’s also integral that this information is stored safely, and with care. 

“With a lot of technology, you put your information into it and you no longer own that information,” she said. “And that’s just not the case with the technology we build. We make sure it belongs to the communities that we build the technology for.” 

Arndt said survivors, their descendents and their communities want to heal from the traumatic experience of residential schools. To do this, they have to understand the roots of their pain. Collecting data, memories and records helps make that possible. 

“And the most important thing is we get to decide what we do with it,” she said. “Because we have the truth, we have the records and the documents, and now we get to decide what healing looks like for us.” 

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