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Indigitization: Supporting an Indigenous Path to Digital

Canada’s universities and museums have directly and indirectly contributed to colonial harms inflicted on First Nations societies. Given this problematic history, what is our role in supporting cultural revitalization for First Nations in British Columbia? This is the question that the Museum of Anthropology should constantly ask itself, and one that we had to consider when opening the Oral History and Language Lab (OHLL) in 2009.

I am from the Heiltsuk Nation on the central coast of what is now British Columbia. This heritage deeply affects the way I approach relationships with First Nations people and cultures. I can’t repeat the unhelpful models of the past: Academic research engagements that would esteem western analysis and publishing over Indigenous understanding; and professional outreach that sought to reverse the “broken” or “backwards” methods of naïve First Nations practitioners. While these concepts seem archaic, they are often repeated today, wrapped in modern jargon. The truth is that the First Nations community organizations must respond to a much greater breadth of responsibility than non-Indigenous organizations do in similar sectors, be it education, land management or governance. First Nations organizations can rarely afford to specialize in the ways that western organizations can. 

(L-R) Rosalie Macdonald (Lake Babine Nation), Ryan Dennis (Tahltan Central Council), Marvin Williams (Lake Babine Nation), Pauline Hawkins (Tahltan Central Council) and Roger Patrick (Lake Babine Nation) with Gerry Lawson. Photo courtesy of UBC Indigitization Program.

Indigitization is a unique collaboration between MOA, the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre (IKBLC), the UBC iSchool, and has recently expanded to include the University of Northern BC Archives. The program’s purpose is to develop resources that enable First Nations organizations to digitize their own archival material. These materials include text, photographs, slides, audio, film and video. The immediate focus, however, is helping to digitize the many thousands of audio-cassette recordings that exist in these communities. 

Indigitization began as a pilot project funded by the IKBLC to develop a set of guides to help First Nations organizations digitize their own analog cultural heritage materials. We at MOA were asked for recommendations on a set of equipment that could be lent to community organizations to digitize audio cassettes. 

“There’s so much room for growth in supporting Indigenous communities in BC in terms of information management so they can support their cultural heritage and rights and titles” – Ann Stevenson.

In coming to MOA as the first Coordinator of the OHLL I was very fortunate to work with Ann Stevenson, MOA’s Information Manager, to collaboratively develop a service model for the lab. The Indigitization project came along at the perfect time. Very early on we discovered that to be effective, we would need to not only digitize cultural heritage material, but also help community partners learn to transfer these materials on their own. This was the kind of help that they were often requesting. Community recordings often come with very complex traditional rules around who can hear or allow access to this knowledge. Communities are also justifiably distrustful of outside organizations but have real problems accessing digitization skills. Cultural heritage managers have been paralyzed trying to understand best practice requirements that in many cases are impractical or, at times, impossible to meet. 

Ryan Dennis (Tahltan Central Council) and Pauline Hawkins (Tahltan Central Council). Photo courtesy of UBC Indigitization Program.

Having experience working directly for First Nations organizations, both Ann, and myself set out to address many of our long-standing frustrations in how archival “best practices” are communicated. With the help of student staff and input from community colleagues we assembled a hardware kit that was easy to use, and manuals for project-planning, condition assessments and digitization. These resources have proved to be quite useful and have garnered very positive feedback from community partners. The first digitization kit we assembled was tested at the Heiltsuk Cultural Education Centre (HCEC). This kit turned out to be valuable enough that the HCEC asked to buy it from the program instead of sending it back. The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre saw enough value in these resources to invest $100,000 per year to turn the pilot program into an ongoing grant program that directly assists First Nations community organizations in digitizing their own cultural heritage recordings. To date, the UBC Indigitization Program has funded 34 projects and helped to digitize almost 9,000 audio tapes. 

There are many important parts to the grant program. We combine digitization training with tours of UBC departments, programs and people that are of interest to First Nations. Some examples are MOA’s collections and conservation staff, the UBC Laboratory of Archaeology, the First Nations and Endangered Languages Program, the iSchool and the Xwi7xwa library to name a few. We are also trying to build a network of information practitioners so that we at UBC can become less and less important over time, and community partners can become each other’s support network. Probably of greatest importance, we try to get feedback from our community grant recipients and make the program more effective each time out. Most of this work is done by Sarah Dupont, the Indigitization Program Coordinator and IKBLC’s Indigenous Outreach Librarian. To quote Ann Stevenson, “There’s so much room for growth in supporting Indigenous communities in BC in terms of information management so they can support their cultural heritage and rights and titles, but there’s a really large gap in our understanding of information management, and what is needed in the communities.” 

The UBC Indigitization Program brings together university colleagues with technical, administrative, library and archives backgrounds to provide resources that First Nations communities have repeatedly requested. The program has been effective because it is focused on being responsive to community needs rather than pressing an academic agenda. In order to understand what our role should be in supporting the cultural health of First Nations communities, we must first build relationships with them, and then simply ask.