Indigenous Climate Knowledges and Data Sovereignty
In this episode of Warm Regards, we talk to two Indigenous scientists about traditional ecological knowledges and their relationship with climate and environmental data. In talking with James Rattling Leaf, Sr. and Krystal Tsosie, Jacquelyn and Ramesh discuss how these ideas can challenge Western notions of relationality and ownership, how they have been subject to the long history of extraction and exploitation of Indigenous communities (practices which continue today), but also how Indigenous scientists and activists link sovereignty over data created by and for Indigenous people to larger sovereignty demands.
You can learn more about the ideas and projects James Rattling Leaf, Sr. discussed in our conversation at the following sites:
You can follow Krystal Tsosie on Twitter and visit the following links for more information on her work:
A recent collaborative article on Indigenous data sovereignty and data sharing
CARE Principle for Indigenous Data Governance
Finally, you can listen to Good Fire at their website or wherever you get your podcasts.
Further sources and reading:
Several of Kyle Whyte’s articles informed out team’s understanding as we prepared this episode:
Dominique M. David-Chavez and Michael C. Gavin, A global assessment of Indigenous community engagement in climate research.
Eve Tuck & Wayne Wang, Decolonization is not a metaphor
For more on how climate change impacts in Shishmaref are exacerbated by existing policies and threats that have undermined the community’s resilience, check out Elizabeth Marino’s book, Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground.
This Teen Vogue article is a nice introduction to land acknowledgements
For more on the Land Back movement, visit this site. You can also listen to this Flash Forward episode (with lots of links for further reading) and also check out the 2Land2Furious project by the Métis in Space podcast creators.
Jacquelyn would especially like to thank Katherine Crocker, who has deeply influenced her own thinking about Indigenous sovereignty and ethical partnerships. Check out her essay, Cricket Egg Stories.
Please consider becoming a patron on Patreon to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Joe Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.
The full transcript of this episode can be found below.
Jacquelyn Gill: After the devastating wildfires in Australia and California last year, there was a surge of articles about what we can learn from Indigenous communities about fire and landscape management as fire seasons get longer and more dangerous. In fact, there’s a growing interest in Indigenous knowledge about the environment in general, for several reasons: for starters, they’ve taken much better care of the planet than colonial nations; 80% of the world’s biodiversity today is maintained on indigenous lands. Many indigenous communities have thousands of years of accumulated knowledge about their climates and ecosystems, with lifeways that aren’t based on the extractive practices of capitalism.
Traditional ecological knowledge (or TEK) is a field of research that seeks to understand how indigenous cultural practices, beliefs, and knowledges can inform ecological management and sustainability. TEK has been around for decades, and it’s gone through its own growing pains as settler scientists and managers grappled with how to reconcile oral tradition with Western science or with issues of ownership and intellectual property. Settlers can be disrespectful or even hostile to the idea of oral knowledge, misconstruing it as a game of telephone rather than the accumulation of generations of highly-vetted, peer-reviewed environmental expertise.
But Potawatomi scholar-activist Kyle Whyte reminds us that in the last centuries, indigenous knowledges have been disrupted by settler colonialism — not only through of genocide and land theft, but stolen children, murdered and missing indigenous women, language suppression, and other crimes that continue today. It’s important to take a moment here to recognize the resilience of Indigenous communities in the face of this ongoing violence; indigenous peoples very much exist in the present, despite repeated efforts to cast them in the past tense.
Returning to Kyle Whyte, in a 2017 paper, he reminds us that anthropogenic climate change is “an intensification of environmental change imposed on Indigenous peoples by colonialism”. In other words, it’s a harm that’s actively perpetrated by settlers — extracting fossil fuels from stolen lands, in service to colonial goals. Meanwhile, indigenous peoples — and especially indigenous women — have borne the impacts of climate change the earliest and the hardest through rising sea levels, disruptions to plants, animals, and water, and other threats.
Colonialism has also undermined Indigenous resilience to climate change. Anthropologist Elizabeth Marino has worked with the community of Shishmaref in Alaska for over a decade. In talking with villagers, Marino found that for thousands of years, the Iñupiaq people had a mobile way of life that allowed them to adapt to climate change — but because of the way that colonization played out in Alaska (particularly around decisions of development) they’ve become tied to a village that is literally falling apart due to sea level rise. Marino has argued that situations like Shishmaref’s are just as much an outcome of history as they are of changes in the weather or sea level rise.
Many Native communities have taken matters into their own hands to organize and plan for climate change — like coming up with tribal climate resiliency plans, building networks like the Indiginous Peoples Climate Change Working Group, or the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals. And as more non-Native scientists, planners, and managers recognize the value of indigenous climate knowledges, they’re reaching out to these communities — looking to learn, exchange ideas, or collaborate.
But as Kyle Whyte has noted, without addressing colonialism, climate action can be just as harmful as climate denial; and the relationships among colonial and tribal governments are not always conducive to indigenous climate justice (lacking consent, trust, accountability, or reciprocity). In a 2019 study of the partnerships between climate science organizations and Native American tribes, social scientist Scott Kalafatis and colleagues found that while both groups felt that the benefits of such collaborations outweighed the harms, tribes were much more concerned about potential harms than the climate scientists were.
In another study, climate scientist Dominique David-Chavez and geographer Michael Gavin found that 87% of climate change studies practice what they call an extractive model where outside researchers essentially take Indigenous knowledge with minimal participation from the communities who hold that knowledge, often failing to share their findings back to their communities. But when non-Native scientists actively partnered with Indienous collaborators to co-produce questions and knowledge, the outcomes were far better for Indigenous communities.
These findings are a powerful reminder that modern partnerships run the risk of repeating or exacerbating colonial harms if we’re not careful. Definitions, understandings, values, and ways of knowing may be very different between Indigenous and settler cultures; and when they conflict, settlers have to be willing to take a back seat. Importantly, settler scientists have a responsibility to undo colonial harms — whether we’re actively partnering with indigenous communities or simply working on lands that belong to indigenous peoples.
Things are changing.
Land acknowledgements, led by efforts in New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, are finally beginning to be adopted here in the United States. In preparing this essay I realized our own omission here: Warm Regards is recorded and produced in Lincoln, Nebraska; Bangor, Maine; Seattle, Washington; and Ypsilanti, Michigan on the homelands of the Oto, Pawnee, Sioux, Penobscot, Duwamish, Ojibwe, Odawa, Potowatomi, and Wyandotte peoples. We failed to even acknowledge this fact, nor have we honored the resilience and stewardship of the tribal communities whose land supports our work. That’s an omission we are rectifying going forward, starting with this episode.
It’s also important to remember that land acknowledgements are a starting point — not an end point — in decolonization. And as Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang remind us in a 2012 article, decolonization is “not a metaphor.” It’s not just about diversifying our syllabi or updating our Twitter handles with tribal names. Decolonization is the process of a state’s withdrawal from the lands it occupies. It’s a central to the Land Back movement, which has the goal of getting indigenous lands back into indigenous hands. It means recognizing Indigenous sovereignty — whether by honoring broken treaties, returning stolen artifacts, or in many cases the repatriation of the remains of Native ancestors back to Native communities. And for scientists and others working on climate change, it means moving away from extractive models, to support indigenous sovereignty through respectful, long-term relationships; putting an end to “parachute science”; and recognizing indigenous autonomy over their lands, artifacts, knowledges, and data.
Welcome to Warm Regards. I’m Jacquelyn Gill.
Ramesh Laungani: And I’m Ramesh Laungani. For this episode, we’re exploring issues related to indigenous climate knowledges here in the United States, and how diverse forms of data are central to how tribal Nations are adapting to a warming world. We start with a conversation with a Lakota scientist about how tribal communities are using traditional ecological knowledges to prepare for climate change, both together and in partnership with settler scientists. Then, we talk with a Diné geneticist and bioethicist about Indigenous data sovereignty and its connection to issues of tribal sovereignty. We also talk about what settler scientists should know if they want to develop ethical, respectful partnerships with Indigenous communities.
Jacquelyn: Our first guest is James Rattling Leaf Sr., a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and coordinator of Climate Partnerships for the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance at the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center in Boulder, Colorado. James has decades of experience in indigenous ways of knowing — through his work as Director of the Geo-Spatial Applications Center at Sinte Gleska University, as a Fellow of the International Indigenous Resource Management Institute, and as Cultural Advisor to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Drought Information System (just to name a few). We talked with James about his experiences working with tribal communities in building climate resilience through traditional ecological knowledge.
Jacquelyn: James, thank you for being on our show, it’s an honor to talk with you today. To start us off, can you tell us a little bit about who you are, and how you got started on this path? What led you to working on how indigenous communities are using and sharing traditional ecological knowledge?
James Rattling Leaf, Sr.: Well, Jacquelyn, and let me begin by introducing myself, which is part of our culture protocol. I am Lakota, so I would say
James Rattling Leaf emaciyapi
sicangu lakota oyare hematahan
With a good heart
I shake your hands
I am known as James Rattling Leaf
I am a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe]
I’m happy to be with you today and to talk about this issue, this opportunity called traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge has always been with my people — in particular the Lakota people here in the Great Plains. In my work at the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, we’ve been very adamant and deliberate and intentional in how we approach the whole idea of traditional knowledge and how we use that for our climate adaptation planning, research, education, and outreach. The Lakota people, for instance, have began systematically to plan for climate on our reservations here this past year, and I can use that as an example of how we’re approaching and working with our people. I think it’s important for the audience to know that we don’t separate knowledge from people; it’s really important that the knowledge, the people go with the knowledge and knowledge goes with the people. I think that’s a really important point that when we talk about it, the people, the community, the culture, the history, the custom protocol all are part of that discussion; and know that in particular Lakota people have expressed in so many ways the importance of not only practicing our traditional knowledge we do, but also the protection of that and really understanding how that knowledge gets transferred to the next generation.
So we find ourselves in this time of climate adaptation, understanding the vulnerability of our communities to a changing climate — which means increased natural hazards, natural disasters. I think it’s important that the audience knows, as well, that the issue of traditional knowledge is really an important contributing factor to all climate research in particular. I think we all have to be mindful that, this is another way of knowing, another way of understanding. I think the more that shows like this will promote the importance of traditional knowledge and folks like me who are advocates of sharing and utilizing (but also doing it in a respectful and reciprocal way), I think we can make progress in all areas of climate adaptation.
Ramesh: So James, you do a lot of great work with Indigenous communities around climate change and climate adaptation. I’m curious to know, how did you get started doing this work?
James: Yeah, well, Ramesh, I think it’s been inculcated into me from the beginning of my life. Growing up on a reservation in South Dakota as a tribal member, you always listen to your elders and your parents and those you know in your community. In those teachings you are always reminded again daily about the importance of not only your life, but also contributing what you know of your life to the community and to the nation. Now that we find ourselves in this time in 2021, we also recognize the importance of bringing other additional knowledge and things into that.
I pursued college (a Western form of education) in my life, but I also went to our tribal college and university. I would also promote that idea here to your audience, that we have thirty-five tribal colleges and universities across America. Most of these universities are on tribal reservations; most of them are in the Northern Great Plains. So I went through school there and why that’s important to me was that it brought together higher education and culture — higher education and traditional knowledge. It was really an outgrowth, a response to a Western form of education. Tribal colleges are very successful in doing that.
I went through that system, and when you go through a system like that (go through that process of education) you work with your own elders, and you also work with Western forms of knowledge as well. They bring those students together (not that they change either one, but they respect the integrity of both ways of knowing) and they bring those things together and they really allow the individual to work with both of them. I think that that was important in my development as I grew as a human being, as a person, to understand my place in the world. Now as a tribal member, then I find myself in these opportunities like working at the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, and those goals again talk about working with tribes in our region. We have thirty, thirty-plus tribes in our region that we work with, and they’re all different. They’re all distinct. They all have different histories. They have different cultures, different languages and such; so you have to be able to function in a culturally intelligent way to do this kind of work.
I’m really grateful that the tribal college has allowed me to learn my language, to learn my customs; but also to expose me and to provide opportunities for me to also study in a Western form. Western form for me was environmental science, geospatial technologies. Geotechnology, [unclear], and those sorts of things. I got to work with those things, got to meet people, got to work with those systems, got to be part of research. I got to do internships. So, I would say Ramesh, that I’ve really been blessed in a way to have so many different people in my educational process to help guide me, to help me think about the bigger questions, and also to know that a lot of good work has happened in the past. I get to carry that on in a way as a tribal person, really exhibiting those cultural values that promote this idea of what we say is tribal self-determination or tribal sovereignty.
Jacquelyn: You’ve been involved in a lot of different efforts working with tribal communities to adapt to climate change. Can you share some examples of the work that you’ve done, and the impacts it’s had for your own community or others you’ve worked with?
James: You know that’s a good question. I think that for us on the Rosebud, we’ve been able to really glean and learn from other tribes in our region of how they’re dealing with climate change. For the first time our tribe received a BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] climate adaptation planning grant; I’m part of the leadership team to implement that. So we just started, and what has happened for me is that in my experience in this work is that it’s really allowed me to study other tribes and how they deal with climate change. On the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, I’ve worked with those folks in a way and we supported them in their way in terms of funding for how they do their climate work. What I liked about that is they brought in the youth, and I think there’s an important component to climate adaptation — really the defining the role of tribal youth in this work. They were able to use technology like iPads to go and record interviews with elders and capture those stories in a digital form; and we’re able to work with elders to select the kind of information they wanted to share — both internally, as well as externally. There was this idea of . . . the big term is “intergenerational knowledge transfer”. And I think what I’ve learned in this work with climate adaptation planning is that there has to be built into this effort to bring in both the knowledge holders and the youth to the work, because we know that the youth will inherit a lot of this issues (but also the opportunities) to work on.
I would also say the role of renewable energy has been really interesting for me in my work, in terms of climate adaptation. On the Rosebud, we’ve been one of the leaders in renewable energy — in particular wind, and developing one of the first wind turbines. It’s really the history of tribal renewable energy here on the Rosebud. That was a very enlightening work for me to understand sort of the issues of policy around energy, sort of understanding the infrastructure and how energy is moved from one place to the other, and really understanding the difficulties of energy markets and how really a tribe can make money with that.
The other point I would say in terms of my work is really working with what we call tribal historic preservation officers. These are the people that are hired by the tribe to really protect and sustain tribal cultural heritage. Now in particular with climate change, we’ve been working with those folks on developing a particular vulnerability assessment tool that they can use specifically designed for the THPO, or tribal historic preservation officer. I think there are critical in ending dealing with climate because they’re really responsible for all things cultural — not only on the reservation, but also in what we call our traditional homelands. Like in South Dakota our THPOs would work in the Black Hills area where I live now, would work in the Badlands area where I live now. We’re very interested in what’s happening on those landscapes that are impacted by climate.
So I think a vulnerability assessment (what we’ve been working on) now really begins to empower tribes and really begin to broaden the policy work that needs to be done, because there are there are flora and fauna on those parks are still culturally significant to our people. I think it’s important that we develop these kind of these kinds of projects that can influence policy so that tribes can continue to have access to this flora and fauna — but also that we’re we’re all understanding the importance of that. I think that there’s a really strong educational component to what every I’ve done is, including shows like this where we talk about these things; we bring it forward and we have dialogue and discussions on the importance of traditional knowledge, the importance of tribes, and being involved in this kind of work — just because of our unique relationship to the federal government. It’s important. So I would say education, outreach, communication, traditional knowledge, intergenerational knowledge transfer, and the role of tribal colleges has been my role up to this point.
I would also say (another point I would before I forget is) that we’re also looking at the role of data in all this work (in particular climate data) and so that’s brought a lot of different kinds of discussions, concerns, and opportunities for our tribes when we talk about the role of data and data sovereignty, data self-determination, data governance. We believe that good data leads to good governance and so we’re also on that pathway as well to advance our understanding about those, in particular with tribes.
Ramesh: I have a couple of questions. What do you see as the role of data in Indigenous self-determination, and how have Indigenous communities used climate data in their own adaptation efforts? And are there particular types of data that complement traditional knowledge?
James: One example is really looking at the idea of drought planning and drought vulnerability assessment. I was a part of a couple of projects here this last few years ago, working with four tribes here in South Dakota. We looked at the sort of different datasets that’s used to produce the Drought Monitor (U.S. Drought Monitor) and so that precipitation and temperature — those sorts of things — have been useful in terms of bringing that into the tribal planning process. A lot of times, we’re finding a lot of people who are not familiar or not familiar with using; they’re aware of the Drought Monitor, but they didn’t really know how that Drought Monitor was put together. How was the data used to put together these maps to show the impacts of drought? So I think that’s been very helpful to really educate tribal resource managers with the four tribes that we worked with here in South Dakota.
I think a lot of this is really educational yet, Ramesh, in terms of how climate data can be useful. I think that’s the pathway we’re on right now to understand that. But I think that with drought and really those hazards that really hit tribes hard, that the tribes understand that tools like the drought monitors use to make decisions about agriculture relief programs and how funding can come to the tribes using this kind of data — that’s supported by the federal government. It’s understood that this is what’s needed. I think tribes more and more are really interested in participating and not only understanding how the Drought Monitor works, but maybe someday they could be authors to the Drought Monitor; which is what we want. We really want those tribal managers and such in their local communities to become authors of the Drought Monitor because that’s one of the issues that we face, that in terms of data coverage (in terms of local data that’s relevant to the tribes) it’s still not there yet. And so we still need like weather stations; we need a soil moisture network. I know that’s sort of been working on and coming upon, but some of the issues with that is just the funding and the maintenance and the sustainability of the station.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but those of us like me and others really believe in the role of data in this work. We gotta continue to not only educate, but also make the case why that’s important, and that really stops. I think we need each other; we need organizations/partners to always make the case why this matters because there’s funding involved in it. There’s people involved in it. These stations are on tribal lands and so we have to understand all that as well. I think that also brings forth these real issues yet still facing our tribes. So those of us that are advocates for climate data and the use of it, we continue to go forward while we need to continue to need education I guess with our tribes.
Ramesh: So James, can you talk about a particular example of a collaboration using climate data that could complement traditional knowledges to help Indigenous communities with their own climate adaptation and planning?
James: Yeah, I would share a little bit about the Wind River project. I have relatives there on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. They’ve worked closely with Drought Monitor folks that do that, and they’re involved in a lot of training to get the tribe up to speed on terms of how you do something called “climate summaries”. I also learned in that work that some of the tribal members I worked with down there, they really talked about water being one of the the key sectors that need to be monitored and need to be looked at for outlooks and for those sort of things. The tribe really expressed (in terms of how you look at traditional knowledge) really wanting to bring those sorts of things into that planning process.
I think that through oral conversations that I had that they use the Drought Monitor, they use climate summaries, and they use those sorts of tools alongside their own traditional knowledge; and that’s sort of then shared among themselves. I think that’s an important point that we all have to understand, that each tribe has its own way of incorporating traditional knowledge and it’s important that we respect that, and that that stays with the tribe and they share — again — what they want to share.
Jacquelyn: Ecological knowledges are often so specific to a local place or community, and yet knowledge about one place might sometimes be beneficial for another place. How do you balance tribal sovereignty and sharing — both among tribal communities, and also between Indigenous and settler colonial communities?
James: I’ll give you an example of kind of what’s happening, I think, that’s relevant to that question. I’m a Rosebud [unclear] tribe, and there’s something called the Oceti Sakowin; that’s one of our original Confederacies that united us as tribes. You have the Lakota, you have Nakota, and Dakota. At the time of contact, this Oceti Sakowin was a confederation really to help support the tribes; it was almost like an alliance. At that time, there was a vision to help support each band of each each tribe within that Oceti Sakowin. It was really a foundation of how decisions were made as a collective. There was strength in that Confederacy, so hen tribes had to deal with a threat or something like that, the Oceti Sakowin was a way to respond to that.
And so today in 2021, our tribes within the Oceti Sakowin are working to rebuilt that alliance, that confederation, and we’ve been gathering now for a number of years now, really trying to organize ourselves within ourselves. How do we take this Confederacy again? How do we renew it? How do we bring it back to life? We know that we have a new challenges in a way to deal with — things like climate change like sovereignty, like protection of our lands from development, like really protecting our languages and restoring our customs and our cultures again and how we govern ourselves, dealing with things like missing and murdered Indigenous women. All those things have threatened us and still today.
At one level, we look at it from a regional or national level. We have a local level or system level, a community level, and a family level, really trying to organize ourselves again, looking back to go forward. I think what we hope to do through this work really is to develop a unity, a unity with one voice. We want to really promote the idea of customary law again; things that haven’t worked for us, we need to find and go back to ways that worked with us before. We really, really want to encourage development of leadership. I think leadership matters now, and we need more and more Indigenous leadership at all levels — not only within Oceti Sakowin, but also in universities and governments (local governments and such) to participate in things that matter to us.
I think we will have to look at our treaties again. We want to look at these treaties. Treaties are the law of the land here in America, and so we want to enforce and strengthen those treaties cuz that’s what makes us unique as tribal people. We want science and research to inform policy; that’s to make a better difference for us. I think we want to look at our languages. 2021 to I think the next ten years is a UN Declaration of Indigenous Ianguages. We understand that to be a nation, we have to retain our language — our Lakota language — so we need to increase our language speakers. I think we need to think about what happened at Standing Rock. Standing Rock really showed the world in a way that when Indigenous people get organized and they stand and they make a statement for something important like protection of water. And also we bring in our spirituality to that.
Finally, I would say is that the Oceti Sakowin really has also a global vision that we hope to connect with other Indigenous people around the world, and to learn about dealing with climate change, dealing with biodiversity issues, dealing with issues with water, dealing with languages, dealing with customs, development and all those sorts of things, data. It’s a really important time for us now and I think to your question . . . it’s a big answer to your question, but I think it’s important to know that that’s how we’re seeing the future and we need this Oceti Sakowin really to stand up again with a strong foundation. This can be driven by leadership from the elders to the youth. It’s going to be a framework of how we go forward in dealing with government relations, state relations, local relations. Again, it’s a framework to how we want to educate our next generation of young people — both in customary law and language, but also not afraid to look at technology and science as well.
Finally, I think again it’s really thinking about the next seven generations. We have that perspective; we still do. Things that we do today matter in the next seven generations. To make it personal, I think about my new granddaughter. I mentioned missing and murdered Indigenous women. All these issues are related. And so now I think about more and more about how in my work going forward I can prepare and promote and advocate and amplify Indigenous women voices. They can do that, I just want to come alongside them and support them. And so my little granddaughter, Eleanor Charlotte, whatever I do I want to make sure that that generation (particularly Indigenous women) have greater and greater opportunities to have good lives.
Ramesh: The term co-produced knowledge is used a lot when discussing partnerships, particular academic partnerships with Indigenous communities. What does knowledge co-production mean, and how can it be done in a way that ensures the partnership is truly beneficial for the Indigenous community, not just the academic researchers?
James: That’s really the big question I think that we’re all faced with — those of us that are in the Academy, for instance, like myself and others. What we try to do, I think, part of it is really this whole idea of creating opportunities for scientists/researchers to begin to understand us better. I mentioned the word cultural intelligence. I think there’s a real need in the academy for researchers to develop a greater sense of cultural intelligence. The second part, I think, to encourage co-production (or at least to begin to think about that) is what are the sort of the institutional frameworks now in place to review that, to assess that — how that knowledge is produced/co-produced and what are the benefits to Indigenous people on that work.
Increasingly my work has led me to Canada. They deal with something called truth and reconciliation. They’d done the hard work of trying to understand as a country,what happened to Indigenous people through the residential school system. There was a great harmful intergenerational trauma that happened. Out of that work really had kind of look at everything that they’d done now in collaboration with Indigenous people, including what we’re talking about today — about the big question of knowledge and how that’s produced. There was really a recognition that relationships — deeper relationships — need to be developed between native and non-native people, so that that generation of knowledge on the land for instance (or about the land) sometimes needs to be co-beneficial. It needs to be recognized from the beginning of that if you’re going to collaborate, that has to be an outcome that these things also benefit Indigenous people.
Also, I think we have to look at the issue of knowledge sharing. Whatever we do in co-production, how is that shared? Does that benefit the Indigenous people? The non-Indigenous? And I think that only when we can agree ahead of time, only when we agree to put together agreements (like memoranda of understandings) that we can understand that, and we can both agree and understand that this is for all our benefit. That really talks about values and protocols of respect, and we have to respect one another. The more and more we do that, I think we have greater examples of co-production and co-knowledge. I think that we also have to think about the role of elders in this work. I think we need things like council of elders. We need circles of elders [that] centers and academic institutions need to invest in and fund and support, because I think if we’re really going to be serious about working with Indigenous people and their knowledges, we have to figure out what roles and how we respect elders in that role.
I think if we’re going to really sustain co-production and co-knowledge, again, we go back to the role of youth. More and more, I see young Indigenous people really working both with the knowledge system and with science, and they’re reproducing things like media — multimedia — and they’re bringing story into addressing serious questions and bring in voices (and I would say authentic voices) into the conversation.
Jacquelyn: As more and more non-native or settler scientists work with tribes to explore ideas of traditional ecological knowledges, I know there are these questions that come up about sovereignty and access to information — especially because of the long histories of theft or exploitation of tribal knowledge. As more of us settler scientists reach out to build these partnerships, do we need to be prepared for the answer to be “no”?
James: Well, that’s a great question. I guess you could say “yes”. I mean, that obviously that’s also part of the equation that they can get “no.” But I would say that my advice to the young up-and-coming scientists that I think they really have to again go back and understand the history; they call it the social political landscape of a particular Indigenous community or nation. I think, our school system here in America has done a disservice to our young people. They don’t really give them the full history and I think that has to change. But I think those of us that are from the Indigenous side of things are willing to work with institutions to help support that work in terms of education and awareness and training and such like that.
Also, I think that I would recommend I guess a way is that for young settler scientists is to really think about — again — their motivation. A lot of times in this era, people are in a rush in a hurry to do something. I always remind people to go back and really check your motivation (why you want to do this work) again. Sometimes it starts with yourself. The more that you have a greater understanding about your motivation for this kind of work . . . because this work really isn’t easy, as you mentioned that. There’s a lot of things that a scientist has to deal with today if he wants to be effective working with Indigenous people; it’s additional things that he has no turnkey solution to this kind of work. So it’s really . . . you heard the term relationship building a lot. I always tell people there’s no shortcuts. There’s no shortcuts to do to work with Indigenous people. I think that increasingly if you look at the whole global landscape, we know that to mitigate climate change, Indigenous people from around the world has to have a major role in this work because a lot of that is on in their lands under their stewardship. So I think to be successful (to be effective as a scientist) I think having experienced working with Indigenous people, Indigenous lands and Indigenous knowledge, I’d strongly encourage that just because of the way the world’s changing and learning how to work with someone different yourself is really important. The more that you can do that kind of work, I think it prepares you to be a good scientist, to ask good questions and such.
Jacquelyn: I think that’s going to be such a challenge because — for lots of reasons — people can be really impatient; they want the world to change for the better. And I often wonder if the urgency of climate change creates this tension between wanting to work quickly, and the time and trust that’s needed to build these relationships. Do you have any advice for how to navigate that for folks who are frustrated because they’re motivated by that sense of urgency, and they’re butting up against the reality these relationships just aren’t built overnight. There’s no turnkey solution, as you said.
James: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think that, obviously, I think it’s important to really take a look at what’s happening now, and I think you’re gonna find that there’s a lot of Indigenous organizations around the world in those key places to address climate change — like Canada, like the Arctic, I would say even Australia or even South America. I think you’ll find a lot of Indigenous organizations are working on these issues. So I think that you’re not gonna start from zero, but it’s gonna take what I might call cultural brokers or traditional knowledge brokers really to come in and facilitate, maybe can expedite some of those relationship buildings. You need somebody kind of that knows both systems, and maybe they can come in. Cuz that’s what I do; that’s the work I do. I come in and people have this idea or project and they want to work here. I may know people there, and then I start that facilitative process. I began to help educate people and bring people together so that they can decide if they want to go forward and things like that. You always find these bridge builders someplace in each community. And I think part of, part of that process is to just become more aware and also more connected.
I’m just really amazed by technology today. A couple of days ago, I was on a call with Indigenous people from Australia. They’re planning a big national Indigenous climate conference and they wanted to know about the work I’m doing. I’m part of a new global effort called the GEO Indigenous Alliance. The vision is to sustain and protect tribal cultural heritage — utilizing earth observation, science, data and technology.
So a year ago I was in Canberra, Australia giving the intervention on behalf of the United States. I was part of the United States delegation, and there we saw an opportunity to bring an authentic Indigenous voice into that work, while we know that earth observations are a key important part to climate research and monitoring and applications. We’re coming into that space now. The Australian Indigenous folks knew that (I met them when I was in Australia) and so now we’re taking the next step in terms of building these global alliances with one another to understand how we can do this work.
But to your question about time and expediency, I think we’re also understanding that, too, as Indigenous. As a counter to the relationship building thing, I think Indigenous people also recognizing that they also have to move quicker and to . . . I’m not sure, expedite the relationship building process? I’m not sure if that’s the word, but I think that you’re right. There’s an urgency and I heard them in Australia talk about that to me. So I think so we’re going to participate with them and then we’re going to come together. That’s an open meeting for everybody that wants to be a part of it, listen in. We’re ramping up in terms of our engagement process — our readiness — so that when opportunities come in terms of research projects, we want to be ready for that too so that we can get done quicker or how that’s going to meet the needs of the project.
Ramesh: Through your work, what are some things you feel that you have learned from other Indigenous groups outside the US? Has there been something you learned that was particularly impactful on your own thinking?
James: Yeah, well, in some ways we’re the same but we’re different, but we’re the same. When I was in Australia we had a little convening among ourselves. A lot of our infrastructure at the Indigenous level is, well, they need a lot of help, in particular in South America in that their internet connection is not very good yet. They want to work with Earth observation. They have a real interest in working with satellite technology, which surprised me. They want to work with drones. They’re not afraid to embrace that technology and I would guess one of the reasons why is they’re really protecting; they’re at that mode of protecting their lands and their places and their cultures against development. To me, that was a realization, again, that this isn’t an academic exercise or a feel-good cuz it’s a good thing, technology-wise. No, they want to look at every tool they can find to use to protect their homelands. That’s where I guess reality for me was that as much as we’re facing here in America, other Indigenous people are really facing with very limited resources big development companies with a lot of money, a lot of technology, a lot of earth observations; and the whole idea of protecting and sustaining their lifeways is a life of matter and death.
I think I looked at Africa, for instance, and how big Africa is. I didn’t really understand that until I met people from Africa and they’re sharing with me their work in terms of cultural heritage and how they want to think about their people and their lands and their tenure and how they want to plan for climate change. So they really want to get these earth observations. They see a value in this and yet their infrastructure is still lacking, but the diversity of those Indigenous people in Africa was tremendous.
Then I got to see and meet people from the Asian part of the world and those Indigenous people and how, again, they’re working and struggling with nation-states as well, and trying to assert their sovereignty. They see the role of mapping and collecting and monitoring the land to protect it. To me, it was inspiring. We were all reminded when we told our stories about our creation stories, for instance, of how similar they were; and that we all have a responsibility for protecting the earth. We still have spirituality in how we do that, and so we were exchanging stories as best we could in our time we had together. A lot of our Indigenous societies are honor-based, so it was an honor to be in their presence. It was an honor to hear their stories and to hear their prayers and their songs with us. We still have that today and each one of us is required to help sustain those things and protect our communities.
What a privilege to be a part of that! That’s I guess that’s how I see it.
Jacquelyn: What you’re saying here about connections among Indigenous communities and how you’re learning from each other sounds really powerful, and it makes me wonder about the ways in which Indigenous knowledge recovery or reclamation has become a way for tribal communities to find empowerment as you foster stronger connections with your ancestors, with your cultures, and with each other. Of course this knowledge is valuable for the practical reasons of climate change adaptation, but I’m also wondering about the process of gathering knowledge or reconnecting with lost or stolen knowledge. Has that been empowering for you?
James: Oh man, Jacqui, you ask some hard questions but they’re really good questions. I enjoy . . . it’s a good question cause I know you’re thinking about this. I think you are right. I think that because of the impact of colonization on tribal nations (for instance in America, in particular my tribe), we’re still recovering from that; which includes (let’s even use the word) repatriation: repatriation of our knowledge, repatriation of our identity, repatriation of our homelands. We’ve never stopped working, even though it may look like it. It’s very difficult, very difficult work. That’s why I think that the role of tribal colleges are important in this discussion. Each tribal college — the thirty who I mentioned — has a cultural heritage center where they work day-in-day-out to not only gather what’s available now, but also seek ways to build upon that knowledge base, based on their particular culture. That’s only thirty out of 530 tribes across the country, so there’s a lot of work to be done.
I think that in terms of knowledge repatriation, I think there needs to be greater and greater collaboration between Indigenous people and universities. I think at museums, you know that we have American Indian museum in New York city and in Washington DC, and they’re great. But I think each time you’ll find story after story where people have found things in their basements, in their boxes — things that are very important to Indigenous people. So I think part of the strategy as well is to really strengthen our laws and our policies so that those repatriation efforts of those things can come back to tribe. At least tribes will have an opportunity to bring that back into their place as they see fit.
I think it’s a part of our healing, which we haven’t talked very much about today; but it’s part of our healing as people because I do think we need to heal before we can reconcile. I think there has to be acknowledgement of these things that happened to us, too. I’ll say this as well: I know President Obama put it in sort of an official apology to American Indian people in America but, again, how many people know that and what’s being done to implement that. There’s a lot of work to be done. Again, I think that awareness of those issues are important.
Even looking at things like the National Climate Assessment, I was nominated to be an author on that. I don’t know if I was accepted; but I know if I do get an authorship opportunity to write for the National Assessment, I’m certainly gonna focus on cultural heritage and begin to raise those issues, and assess where we’re at right now in terms of our stuff, our tribal knowledge and really promote again, tribal colleges and universities — cuz those tribal colleges, are some of the biggest demographic (in terms of Indigenous people in land). So there’s a lot really to be gleaned, a lot to be learned from those institutions, and to really support them so they can do the work that they need to be done as well.
Ramesh: So James, I know that you have recently received some funding for the Rising Voices project. Can you tell our listeners about that project and how the project empowers Indigenous communities around their own data sovereignty?
James: Well, I think that what I try to share with you today in my disorganized way really is what we’re trying to do — what I try to do — is contribute to tribal termination self-determination and tribal sovereignty. One of those key elements to that is our own information, our own data on ourselves and in our lands and our people and our resources. I think that really goes back to what our elders taught us and what they did for us in terms of setting up these treaties and other mechanisms, and how they did it from a nation-to-nation basis. I really think good data leads to good governance. In this project Rising Voices is really to begin to really assess the role of data in terms of tribal governance. I always go back to governance, because part of tribal sovereignty is really supporting tribal governments and how they make laws, how they make policies to protect our homelands, and things like that.
I think what we’re finding in this project — for instance — as we reach out to our tribal thought leaders in our region (north central region, which we’re focusing on right now) is that there is a need for greater understanding of the role of data with tribes. I think tribes, they understand; they have data (they know that part), but how do we think about the idea of data sovereignty? How do we talk about and build our infrastructure to practice and implement data sovereignty? How do we develop laws and policies and codes to protect data sovereignty? And then how do we negotiate with organizations that want to work with us, to use data? And how to develop data, as you mentioned in terms of research?
I think the other part is really looking at: we have a framework right now with that project that’s really getting to utilize organizations like the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, University of Colorado — Boulder Earth Lab, sort of tremendous organizations that want to be part of this data sovereignty initiative. We got a good start in terms of understanding the issues in a deeper way. It’s a big undertaking, but we know that there’s other organizations that are looking at the same thing, and we hope that in the next year that, we can begin to pilot some efforts.
I think the Rosebud (going back to the Rosebud project, climate adaptation planning); there’s going to be a strong data component. Just a small piece of it will be data, but I think it’s going to be the beginning of what we call “Indigenous data management systems” at the tribal level. That’s going to be looking at the technology, looking at workflow, looking at policy, looking at culture, all those aspects that I’ve talked about in this whole hour; that’s important to nation building. So we’re always in this nation building mode. We’re not where we need to be, but we think that data will have a key part in that.
Jacquelyn: What do you find exciting about the future of tribal leadership and climate change?
James: Well, the first one I would say is the nomination of Deb Haaland to be Secretary of Interior. She’s the first native person to be nominated for a secretarial-level position, and we’re all excited about what she can do. I think we have to find ways to support her here on the ground level. I think we have to bring our ideas to her, and I think data’s going to be one of them. I would love to see the role of how she looks at data.
As an Interior person, I would also ask her to think about cultural heritage, again — not only on tribal lands, but also going back to the National Parks. You’ve probably heard about the Bears Ears monument issue and how that really brought to the forefront the role of tribes in management of those parks. So I think that the more and more tribes can be involved in the co-management of these lands where we have ancestral homeland ties, I think that there would be more and more opportunities for tribal members to seek those kinds of jobs and careers to do those kinds of jobs, the kind of work. I think in that we can bring the management frameworks that incorporate traditional knowledge into that, which maybe it hasn’t happened before. Maybe it has, but maybe we can create greater opportunities to bring Indigenous perspectives into the management of those Park lands that maybe she has purview over. I would love to see more and more opportunities where we can tell our stories as part of the park story in those places. I think places matter. Tribes still have vested interests in these places like Yellowstone and some of these really prominent places. I think more of our tribal presence — our tribal story — would be helpful in terms of advancing the cause for all of us.
Finally, I would also say a new opportunity that we’re working at the University of Colorado Boulder; we submitted an NSF grant for a Fire Resilience Institute, and this is for the Western United States. As you know fire was a great impact this last year, particularly in California. We’ve talked about good fire and bad fire. We talk about the role of traditional knowledge and fire and how we live with fire now as human beings. That institute will have a strong component of Indigenous knowledge. We’re going to be working with tribes in California who have been working on prescribed burning, prescribed burning training, teaching what the traditional knowledge in that work. We’re excited that if we get this funding, it’s going to be another opportunity to really to bring our knowledges into contributing to possible solutions and get opportunities for our people in the West. So things like that.
Plus finally, I’d say when one plug for a new program we have at the University of Colorado called the Tribal Climate Leaders Program. It’s a two year fellowship for master students, and we have five core students right now; they’re starting their second semester. We think that those things are important, that we all got to do that. Each institution gotta continue to find ways to get more of our native students in graduate-level courses so that they can be more effective in their tribes. So education will always be part of our work and I’m excited to see as they finish out the second semester; they’re right now they’re designing their research projects.
Ramesh: Thank you for the great conversation today James. I learned so much and I really appreciate your perspective on how to effectively work alongside Indigenous communities to adapt to climate change.
James: Well, first of all, I just want to thank you guys for the invitation to speak with you today. As you mentioned, the idea of social justice and the role of tribal nations today. I mean every once in a while (like through the Standing Rock event), at moments in time in our history in America we get these big moments — big events over the years. Indigenous people are still around; we’re still here and things like that. We as a native people as well need to do a better job of of participating in some of these kinds of new media outlets, communications. I just encourage your listeners and those from an Indigenous side of things that we just got to do a better job of telling our story and that we have to be engaged, and that we know that we have allies out there that we’ve seen that want to work with us to do the right thing. We just got to get involved and amplify our voice.
I appreciate the audience today. I appreciate you listening, and hopefully I said something helpful to you and your audience. I appreciate it. So I would say,
Wopila tanka eciciyapelo
[Many thanks to you all]
Thank you all very much.
Jacquelyn: Thank you so much, James.
Ramesh: Thank you so much, James.
Justin Schell: Hey everyone, producer Justin Schell here. Instead of a data story this week, we wanted to highlight another podcast you should check out — Good Fire — which is co-hosted by Matthew Kristoff and Amy Cardinal Chirstianson. Here’s Amy to tell you more.
Amy Cardinal Christianson: Hi, this is Amy Cardinal Christianson from the Canadian Forest Service, and I’m a Metis woman from Northern Canada from Treaty Six and Treaty Eight territories, from the Cardinal and Laboucane families. I just wanted to invite everyone to come and listen to our podcast, Good Fire: Stories of Indigenous Fire Stewardship. In this podcast, Matt and I talk with indigenous people from Australia and the US and Venezuela about the concept of fire as a tool for ecological health and cultural empowerment by indigenous people around the globe. “Good fire” is a term we use to describe fire that is intentionally lit to achieve specific ecological and cultural goals, and good fire is about balance. So if you’re interested, you can find it on any podcast platform. That’s Good Fire: Stories of Indigenous Fire Stewardship. Thanks so much.
Ramesh: As you heard from James, there are many aspects of climate data and Indigenous data sovereignty that intersect with larger notions of Indigenous sovereignty and traditional knowledge that are key to building respectful collaborations around climate change. We wanted to explore the ideas around data sovereignty a bit more. Fortunately, there are groups such as the Native BioData Consortium and the US Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network whose key focus is to ensure that data related to Indigenous groups are collected and used in a way that benefits Indigenous peoples. Our second guest, Dr. Krystal Tsosie, is a geneticist and bioethicist who is also the co-founder of the Native BioData Consortium. The Consortium is the first 501(c)(3) nonprofit research institute led by Indigenous scientists and tribal members in the United States, and so we thought she would be great to talk with us about Indigenous data sovereignty.
Jacquelyn: Krystal, thanks for talking with us today! Let’s just dive right in. For our listeners who might not be familiar with this concept, what is Indigenous data sovereignty? Can you unpack this idea for us?
Krystal Tsosie: Sure. “Indigenous data sovereignty is the right for Indigenous nations and people to govern the collection, ownership, and application of their own data. It derives from tribes’ inherent right to self-govern and exercise autonomy related to their people’s lands and resources.” That definition comes straight from the United States Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network, or the USIDSN. I just view myself as an academic who’s trying to promote Indigenous data sovereignty, specifically related to genomic data. It is my belief as an Indigenous geneticist and bioethicist that genomic data should benefit the Indigenous peoples and communities from whom that data has been derived. It’s a promise that is often made to Indigenous peoples (particularly in precision medicine and precision health research), but it’s not often actually followed through.
So for instance (just as a for instance just to recap the last twenty-plus years of genomics), genomics and genetics is a relatively young field. The last twenty years have brought a lot of advancements, such as the completion of the human genome, advances in sequencing technologies, also the ability to collect large amounts of genomes from peoples all over around the world, and also being able to collect that data in the large data sets. These are huge innovations that have not always incorporated Indigenous people. Indigenous people have for many reasons either participated in low numbers or are actively disengaged from genomics research for a variety of cultural reasons. But a large portion of Indigenous peoples’ hesitance to engage in genomics is related to, of course, what’s going to happen to their samples and then now what’s going to happen to their data. Data right now is a really heavily sought-after commodity. Commodification of Indigenous genomes is particularly well sought after today, as it was twenty years ago. There’s always concerns about patenting of Indigenous genomes, bio-commercialization of Indigenous genomes. And that reality is born true just when you consider how much money is involved in creating new technologies and therapies related to underrepresented people in genomics research.
Ramesh: I’m curious to know, how do ideas of Indigenous data sovereignty intersect with issues of Indigenous sovereignty?
Krystal: Largely data sovereignty is an extension of Indigenous sovereignty, but the important thing is that Indigenous sovereignty is our ability as peoples to self-determine and self-govern; it exists without being affirmed by colonial structures. We should not need some outside authority to tell us Indigenous people how to govern our data. But unfortunately that is what persists for many people within and outside of North American people. I unfortunately think too much within a US-centric perspective because I’m a member of and work for tribal communities within the US, but we have to acknowledge that there’s heterogeneity in how our sovereign authority is recognized. There are many Indigenous nations whose existence are not recognized and there are many Indigenous people who (due to assimilation and termination policies that try to remove us from our own lands) reside off of tribal lands outside of the jurisdiction of tribal research regulations.
For instance, this includes a lot of urban natives. In the last 2010 US Census, it showed that three quarters of US Native Americans lived outside of the tribal communities. Even though we have now 574 federally-recognized tribes within the US, that doesn’t include state-recognized tribes or tribes who are still struggling to find recognition. It totally disincludes the special status native Hawaiians, and that’s again within a US perspective; that doesn’t even include global Indigenous populations. That doesn’t include, for instance, Indigenous peoples in central South America whose existence isn’t even recognized by the governments whose structures they live under. So we really have to think about if we’re going to decolonize ourselves, we also have to think that sovereignty exists outside of colonial recognition.
Ramesh: So what was your path into this work focused on bioethics?
Krystal: I actually started as a cancer biologist at the bench and it was my intention to pursue a PhD in cancer biology. At the time all other cancer biologists told me not to pursue that field because it was over-saturated. My moment of reckoning came when I first started a doctoral program in cancer biology. I came to the realization that, first, there aren’t that many Indigenous peoples in science. But if I were to develop a technology or patent a drug that would perhaps cure or treat cancer, the harsh reality is that those technologies and therapies would probably benefit people who are more economically well-off than my own people. And I came to the realization that I really should be working to bring more proximal health solutions to my own communities and my own people, and that route wasn’t in cancer biology.
I actually returned to Arizona State University to pursue a master’s in bioethics, intending to pursue a career in law. When you’re Diné or Navajo, you’re basically taught that if you go to college and you graduate, you’re to pursue one of four fields: you’re to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or a teacher. Scientist is not one of those, so I thought (striking out in the science field) I’d pursued law. But it so happens that Arizona State University was mired in the aftermath of a very famous infamous landmark lawsuit — the Havasupai tribe versus the Arizona Board of Regents. This is an infamous lawsuit because what ended up happening was a violation of trust. The Havasupai nation participated in a research study with some ASU researchers to study Type-2 diabetes, but what ended up happening is the researcher in question started using that data to publish on other subjects that the tribe did not feel like they consented to: things like schizophrenia, looking at population migration theories that were acultural to their own. The Havasupai have their own origin story in that they actually originated from the base of the Grand Canyon, which is where their community is. That, as one would probably know, is different than the Bering Strait hypothesis that many geneticists use as a population history narrative. Then of course there were other types of questions related to things like allegations of inbreeding, that of course are negative stereotypes that are conferred upon Indigenous peoples. It took a community member attending a student’s doctoral dissertation defense to realize that her people’s samples and DNA were being used in this manner, that she didn’t feel like was something that her people knew about or even had consented to. This is a lawsuit that if the tribe had not settled could have bankrupted the Arizona Board of Regents.
At this time in the early 2000s, tribal nations around the world were similarly thinking about disengaging from genomics, because there were concerns of privatization and commercial usage of their Indigenous genetic information. As I was pursuing my master’s in bioethics, I was studying this case, as well as other genetic controversies that have occurred in particularly American Indian communities or native American communities. It made me realize that if Indigenous peoples wanted to use this technology (and that’s a huge if) then that we really needed more Indigenous scientists at the helm of doing the research in partnership with the communities.
Ramesh: There’s a growing interest in collaborating with Indigenous peoples around climate change adaptation and climate change broadly. What are some of the best practices for respectful collaboration (particularly around data management and data sharing) in ways that prioritize Indigenous sovereignty?
Krystal: In 2016, something called the FAIR principles for guiding scientific data management stewardship was published in Scientific Data. “FAIR” is an acronym for
Reuse of digital assets.
Really these are principles garnered on how to machine-read metadata and data; how to gain access and authorization in an open, free format; and how to integrate/optimize reuse of data. But it’s interesting that the FAIR principles are centered in terms of justice and equity for ease of the researchers using the data, and not necessarily the people from whom that data was derived. They asked the question, “For whose benefit is the data actually serving?” Somewhere along the recent history of my field (biomedical research and public health), data became totally separated from the human element. It became what’s called secondary data, and then is exempt from most IRB or institutional review board review processes. This is possibly the first difference between how research is regulated in academic constructs versus tribal constructs. In academic and biomedical research, we silo human subjects research versus non-human subjects research, and sometimes it’s these distinctions differ even depending on which country you’re working with. So for instance, microbiome data or data derived from your gut might be considered human subjects research in some countries, whereas in the US it’s considered non-human subjects research — even though it’s data literally from within our gut/intestines. It’s interesting how these distinctions differ in different contexts. We have to realize that tribes govern research more holistically in our RRBs or research review boards, which are more broad in type of data that they steward. They’re not just looking at human subjects research or limited to biomedical research, but they’re looking at data from all kinds of research — particularly related to cultural data. This comes from a greater sense of stewardship that we as Indigenous people must take care and safeguard everything that surrounds us, including the biodiversity environment that surrounds us.
Ultimately we are all connected. It’s important that we recognize our responsibility in that role, in that interconnectivity and relationality. Relationality is the key word here. Certainly in terms of the environment and data, we must think of stewardship beyond just how that data serves our immediate aims. That’s why the US Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network collaborated with other Indigenous groups and came up with the CARE principles for Indigenous data governance. And the CARE principles are
Authority to control,
really emphasizing inclusivity/engagement of Indigenous peoples, recognizing rights and interests relates to governance, emphasizing relationality (especially in terms of Indigenous worldviews), and really recognizing these power dynamics. So that kind of brings us a little bit full circle between the FAIR principles and how we get to CARE principles by recognizing that data cannot be siloed. There’s a data ecosystem that we as Indigenous peoples recognize and operate within, and it’s just a matter of time of hoping that other people see our viewpoints.
Jacquelyn: That makes me wonder about what even constitutes data in the first place, and how our conception (or our treatment) of data might differ across cultures or communities. As just one example, I’m wondering whether Western and Indigenous data management practices are ever at odds with one another?
Krystal: It’s actually really interesting. I taught elementary statistics and I just went back to our textbook that we use. From the very beginning, we teach how to describe and categorize data — like, for instance, qualitative versus quantitative or discrete versus continuous. But other than saying that data is everywhere, I’m not really satisfied with any one definition of data, or singular datum. For many in many uses, a datum is just a bit of information that’s collected through observation. I’m not sure if that particular definition changes across cultures, but what does change is what we value and how we value it.
For instance, I attended a data conference in North Dakota and this was the first time that I heard of winter counts being referred to as a form of data. Now I’m not a Lakota person (I’m an Indigenous person from the Southwest) so I was not until I moved or worked in the Dakotas region very familiar with winter counts. A winter count is essentially a timeline or calendar in which the most significant event of the year is recorded. The Lone Dog Winter Count was drawn on a buffalo hide and is probably the most famous example of a winter count. Thus being the keeper of the winter count is actually an important role as an oral historian and also for stewarding that data. So to me, this is a perfect example for exemplifying how, within a culture or cultures, how data can be valued differently and how the person that’s in charge of stewarding that data might be given a celebrated or exalted role within the society, just for being the steward of that data.
In terms of other types of research (for instance, climate and environmental data), there’s also this notion of relationality again; because we don’t think in terms when we’re talking about Indigenous construct, we are not just talking about the data from humans but also everything that we’re connected to. Thinking in terms of plant knowledge (and again going back to cancer biology), there’s actually a history of extracting Indigenous knowledge related to our medicinal knowledge. Aspirin is a great example. Aspirin derived from the willow trees, and knowledge that this particular bioderivative could be used for treating a variety of ailments is a form of Indigenous knowledge that has been extracted from us. I can’t imagine how much the pharmaceutical industry owes us now [laughs] for that type of knowledge.
And yet that type of extractivism still exists in pharmaceutical research. There’s a lot of interest in, for instance, going into the rainforest and trying to see if there are any untapped resources that could provide some sort of medicinal benefit that originates from Indigenous people’s knowledge. Let’s see . . . the white sage is another example. White sage is something and other types of sage are something that Indigenous people have used for sacred purposes (for cleansing our environments and just in a ceremonial fashion) and it’s something that’s been co-opted by the white dominant culture. You see it now in hand lotions. There’s an article that was written about a woman that wanted to go and harvest sage for her own smudging purposes, and year after year found it more difficult to find the sage, just because other bio-prospectors would come and just raze the areas that they would use for picking the sage. They would just come with garbage bags full, picking up bushels of sage just so that they could sell it for these mass-marketed uses. That’s a form of appropriation.
Actually, it’s a form of exploitation. It’s kind of a mini rant of mine that I think we overuse the term cultural appropriation when we really should be using the stronger cultural exploitation, especially when it relates to monetary gain from Indigenous peoples’ knowledges and wisdom.
Jacquelyn: As there’s this growing interest in these kinds of partnerships and this co-production of knowledge, what are some of the biggest knowledge gaps that you find in non-native researchers as you’ve engaged in this work? What do you think people should know before they begin to engage with tribal communities?
Krystal: A huge issue for me (particularly in my field) is that non-Indigenous researchers consider genomic and health data to be separate from human subjects data, or they consider a form of justice to share it with other researchers without consulting communities. I can’t tell you how annoyed I am (especially considering all the racial unrest that occurred last year that finally brought some of these racial tensions to public eye that we as Indigenous peoples know to occur in everyday life) that nowadays academics view justice, but their terms of justice and their form of increasing inclusion means (at least in genomics) sticking more of Indigenous people’s DNA on a plate, on an array to be able to include us in studies. It doesn’t address the reason why we as Indigenous people don’t partake in research. It’s just a new means of extractivism. It’s a new means of exploitation, but under the guise of justice and inclusion.
Inclusion doesn’t mean anything without equity, and equity entails us having a seat at the table; not just like a token seat at the table, but a seat where our viewpoints and what we have to say is actually taken seriously. In terms of an example, I’ve heard of researchers who misuse and don’t understand the boundaries between stewardship and ownership of data. Because they think of data as being devoid of the human element, they just think of data as like a spreadsheet — a series of rows and columns on which data is just collected that they can use for their own purposes. I’ve heard of examples of researchers who share their data with their graduate students, for their graduate students to be able to pursue their own career advancement in terms of creating like a master’s or doctoral a dissertation using tribal data — but without going back to the tribes who are asking for permission. That’s actually . . . like this whole notion of permission and consent is really important. I think that researchers (and I’ve heard researchers state) that they think it’s too burdensome to re-consent participants or tribes to ask them for permission for their data. So if we think about the last, again, twenty years in genomics research, we first started off with broad consent in which individuals were asked at the point of which their sample is collected, “Do you agree to have your sample being used for the betterment of humankind?” It was really cloaked in such vague broad terms, and researchers within use this very broad language to justify the work that occurred with the Havasupai tribe versus the Arizona board of Regents lawsuit. That’s the pitfalls related to broad consenting.
Because of these issues and challenges and ethical questions about broad consenting, for instance, are we granted too much agency and authority to researchers who are maybe self-interested in doing research for their own means and not necessarily the communities. We started switching to like study-specific informed consent in which any time the study changed (the study design altered or there was a change in the protocol), researchers would have to go and re-consent participants. Problem is that community engagement is not really well-funded in research. It wasn’t then; it still isn’t now. So researchers who don’t know how to engage with anything outside of a petri dish were then tasked with going out into communities (particularly in geographically isolated or highly mobile populations) to try to track down participants to re-consent them for their data. And now that we’re in this big data era, in which data is harmonized across multiple streams, that really necessary step (of just asking participants, “Do you consent to have your data used for this new thing?”), that entire step has just been removed. Now you’ve removed the human element. It’s called secondary data now Now we’re going back to this broad-consenting model that was so problematic in the past without, again, addressing the equity behind these data decisions.
Jacquelyn: That makes me wonder about the open science revolution — this idea that science should be shared and accessible. I wonder, do you feel like there’s any conflict here between open science and Indigenous data sovereignty, or is there a way forward?
Krystal: If we think about open data, again it’s always talked about, “It’s gonna democratize research,” a term that I hate because . . . what instance of “democracy” are we referring to? It’s probably the American democracy; we really shouldn’t be modeling anything after the American system of democracy after we just saw what happened with the last election. And it’s not our Indigenous form of democracy either. This is a democracy that we’re referring to in which it’s supposedly going to benefit the most, right? Well, as long as that is the system that’s being overvalued here, then small populations like Indigenous communities will always be de-emphasized in this system of democracy. I always hate this phrase of “open data’s gonna democratize”, as if it’s supposed to be the same as equity. Because it’s not. Open data, again, is always couched in terms of creating fewer barriers for researchers. It benefits the researchers completely and does not benefit the communities or the people if the people don’t have a say in what happens to their data.
I don’t want to say that Indigenous data sovereignty cannot coexist with the open data movement, because there are mechanisms and I feel like the Native Bio-Data Consortium (which is the Indigenous led research nonprofit that I helped co-found) is a potential solution. For instance, our nonprofit exists for tribes that perhaps want to engage in research, but don’t believe that their data should be deposited in a federal database like the dbGaP — the database of genotypes and phenotypes. Many US tribes do not want to participate in federally-funded research because of this requirement to deposit their data in a repository that they have no control over. But if tribes could deposit their data in a tribally-managed repository, that story could be different.
Our aim is to allow tribes to utilize their tribal sovereignty to regulate and limit researchers’ jurisdictions over the samples and data that come from their communities. It’s not necessarily blocking open data, it’s just ensuring that all data venues toward accessing tribal data have to be governed by tribes. And what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with telling researchers that if they want to access tribal data, that they have to seek the permission of the tribes from whom that data is collected? To me, that is equity and justice, right there. Not just this free-for-all in which research is harmonized across multiple different streams and tribal members have no idea where the data is being housed or for what purposes or for whose benefit or who for whose commercial benefit.
Ramesh: Do you think that there are the particular barriers that need to be overcome in order to build successful collaborations between Indigenous communities and non-native researchers?
Krystal: A large number of the barriers that we have to overcome is training non-Indigenous researchers to respect and work within tribal research regulatory bounds. Unfortunately what happens is for a number of non-Indigenous researchers, they either do not know or find it too cumbersome to be trained to figure out who is the tribal research regulatory structure that they need to seek permissions from and how to navigate tribal RRB procedures or tribal research committee procedures. If they find it too cumbersome, then what I’ve seen happen is that non-Indigenous researchers just might recruit tribal people that live in urban or suburban areas and just decide, “Nope, I don’t want to deal with tribal research regulations. I’m just going to go recruit somebody in Phoenix.” And that’s a shame; that’s unfortunate. That’s circumventing tribal sovereignty, and that’s not something that we want to see or advocate. Which is why we’re hoping that tribes understand that their sovereignty doesn’t necessarily end at the boundaries of their tribal lands, that it can be extended to the individual. We’ve seen that for some smaller tribes where our research protection laws are centered around the tribal citizen regardless of where they live. We just haven’t seen that play out in court yet.
Jacquelyn: We know that these collaborations take a lot of work and time, and there’s also really good reasons for tribal communities to not trust non-Natives who are sort of swooping in from outside — especially because of this history of knowledge extraction and theft. Do you have any advice for folks who want to engage in this kind of research, but who might not know where to begin to build a truly ethical partnership?
Krystal: If you’re a non-Indigenous researcher, you do not get to call yourself an “ally”. Allyship is something that’s defined by the communities, not by yourself. That’s really important to say in this climate.
But there is a growing number of Indigenous scientists and academics to partner with, and I want to really emphasize the word partnership. What I have seen, unfortunately, a very recent example of has occurred to me at the beginning of this year where some non-Indigenous researchers emailed me asking me for resources on Indigenous data sovereignty for an NSF grant that they were applying for. My pushback was, “Why are you asking me for resources about Indigenous data sovereignty, rather than partnering with an Indigenous scientist or academic or community member yourself?” If you are to just take our knowledge and use it for a grant, that in itself is a form of knowledge extracted from our communities.
I see that, unfortunately, especially as “Indigenous science” and “decolonizing” and “indigenizing science” become buzzwords for non-Indigenous or white academics to use for them to expand their curricula, but without including Indigenous peoples actually doing the work. Too often I hear the question, “What can we learn from Indigenous peoples about X?” That type of phrasing is problematic, because it assumes that Indigenous knowledge is only worthwhile when it’s for the benefit of other people. So I just want to caution everybody to avoid using that phrasing and to understand that Indigenous knowledge is valuable in any context. It’s not necessarily a dynamic of Indigenous versus non-Indigenous or Western dynamics. It’s just different ways or different lenses of looking at the same question,
There are more non-Indigenous peoples doing research, then there are Indigenous peoples; that’s always going to be the case, unfortunately. But what non-Indigenous peoples can do is try to promote the work of Indigenous peoples and work with them, particularly because there’s a power dynamic that’s at play. And if they want to be on the right side of history, then they need to be able to propel those that are actually doing the work for the benefit of their own peoples.
Ramesh: Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Jo Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.
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