Data Conversations – Indigenous Data and Its Discontents

By Deborah Lee, Kevin Read, Sarah Rutley, Catherine Boden
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

Since April of 2020, University of Saskatchewan (USask) librarians have been meeting monthly for “Data Conversations” – a discussion series in which we explore library supports for research data-related activities and envision how they might look in our local context(s). Our second session focused on Indigenous data. We discussed a recording of a panel on Indigenous data sovereignty from the Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) Symposium (University of Melbourne, 2017), and a 2019 Media Indigena podcast entitled “Taking the measure of data on Indigenous peoples”. Below, we recount and expand upon the four central themes from our discussion.

Ownership and control.

In keeping with the centrality of the OCAP principles, we first explored the idea of data ownership. There are complexities around where ownership of a dataset should reside.  We noted that the IDS panel raised questions about who has ownership of a particular dataset or topic area, when communities are diverse (Walter et al., 2017).  Related to this are questions about the roles individuals or communities may have regarding data collected in their communities. Who has an ‘advisory’ role with respect to that data and who might have a decision-making role in how the data is shared (or not shared), made identifiable, and preserved? The data itself must reside somewhere and an academic institution may not be the preferred choice for the researchers and/or the communities participating in the research. It may be preferable for data to be entrusted with the community or with other organizations connected to the community.  Who has possession of the data has implications for findability, accessibility (where data is shared), and long-term preservation. These are important questions that need to be asked for each research project. The particularities depend upon each unique situation.

Trust, barriers, and building relationships.  

A recurring theme in our conversation was the centrality of relationship-building to Indigenous participation in – and benefit from – the research process. A long history of non-Indigenous researchers treating Indigenous communities and their resources as raw material for the advancement of projects and careers has rightfully erected barriers of mistrust by Indigenous peoples in the research process (see Smith,1999). We talked about how respectful and reciprocal relationship-building takes time; not only should researchers expect to invest sustained effort into the process, but norms and expectations in academia must also evolve to support this reality. Finally, it was noted that relationships must not only engage Indigenous communities as consultants or advisors, but as true partners at all stages of research design, implementation, and dissemination. Community ownership of and investment in the research process lays a foundation for researchers to “ask the right questions”. This ensures that data collection is designed to provide insights that are both relevant and beneficial to partner communities.

Centering Indigenous communities and perspectives – What kinds of questions are we asking?  

For this theme, we discussed the idea of centering Indigenous values, communities, worldviews, and perspectives when conducting research with and by Indigenous peoples. Dr. Marie Battiste, Professor Emerita, U of S, has often been quoted with: “Nothing about us without us”.  Following this guideline / motto, it is important for researchers to aim for improvement in the situation of the Indigenous peoples and communities who participate in the research. An example of a good outcome from research is a report sanctioned by the Indigenous community that assists them to apply for funding that supports their well-being. Such a report will have respectfully engaged the community at every stage of the research process, including in the development of the methodology (for example, interview questions if the research is qualitative).

We also talked about how Dr. Maggie Walter (in the IDS panel) provides an excellent example in her longitudinal health study of Indigenous children in Australia when she discusses her primary research question: “What are the factors that help Indigenous children to grow up strong?”  All other research questions were required to align with this primary research question. That way, research results could focus on obtaining positive health outcomes for these children. This is unlike many research investigations where there are myriad statistics about Indigenous people that speak to their deficits. Walter’s key message is to reject research which focuses on a deficit model for Indigenous peoples, especially when there are no explanations of how colonialism has impacted the well-being of Indigenous peoples.

Similarly, in the Media Indigena podcast, Dr. Jennifer Walker, an Indigenous researcher located in Ontario, discussed alternative indicators of health and well-being from an Indigenous perspective. Often, a Western researcher may wish to focus their questions on how, as subjects age, their physical health is declining. Yet, the aging research participant may feel that their overall health is satisfactory because they have gained wisdom and more balance in their lives.  What was important for the participant was managing the practicalities of everyday living, for example, that they could still collect and chop wood. Questions generated by community and which utilized an Indigenous worldview would encompass: (a) the nature of participants’ functioning in their daily living, and (b) whether or not they have been able to access family and community supports if required and if available.

Library service development.

When our conversations shifted to how the library could develop services that would support Indigenous data, we returned to the themes of relationship building, collaboration, and ongoing communication. A key part of developing services related to Indigenous practices is to recognize our own assumptions. At USask, the library is in the initial stages of developing research data management (RDM) services, and we see this as an opportunity to center Indigenous data issues. We agreed that our library would need to partner with Indigenous research initiatives on campus to collectively shape how our library can support the management of Indigenous data. Researchers from the Department of Indigenous Studies, Indigenous faculty in the College of Education, Indigenous leaders from the USask-led, CIHR-funded Indigenous Health Network, and other Indigenous researchers across campus were mentioned as potential partners we could look to for guidance on first steps. Finally, we discussed how our library could work together with these partners to advocate for ways non-Indigenous researchers can practice responsible RDM when working with Indigenous data. Those who participated in this conversation felt strongly that to move forward with RDM library services, Indigenous data practices should be considered from the very beginning and this focus on Indigenous perspectives should be sustained as services evolve.

There are many unanswered questions related to the ownership, protection, preservation, interoperability, discovery, and sharing of Indigenous data that should be considered when developing library RDM services. The most important question we can ask ourselves at the beginning of this process is “Will this service benefit the Indigenous communities involved?”.


The First Nations Information Governance Centre (2014). Ownership, Control, Access and Possession (OCAP™): The Path to First Nations Information Governance. Ottawa, Canada: The First Nations Information Governance Centre.

Harp, R. (Producer/host) & Walker, J. (Guest) (2019, Sep 29). Taking the measure of data on Indigenous peoples. (Ep. 179) [Audio podcast episode]. In Media Indigena.

Smith, L. Tuhiwai (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.  London ; New York : Zed Books: Dunedin, N.Z. : University of Otago Press.

Walter, M. & Andersen, C. [2013]. Indigenous Statistics: A Quantitative Research Methodology.  Walnut Creek, California, USA: Left Coast Press.

Walter, M., Lovett, R., Thorpe, K., Finlay, S.M., & Al-Yaman, F. (2017). “What is Indigenous Data Sovereignty Panel?” Indigenous Data Sovereignty Symposium, Oct. 2017, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.  Available on Vimeo: