“Open and shut: Digital repatriation and the circulation of indigenous knowledge”

Kimberly (“Kim”) Christer (Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies, Washington State University), an anthropologist by training, presented “Open and shut: Digital repatriation and the circulation of indigenous knowledge” on 4-14-11 at the University of Washington, Seattle campus. With the support of NEH, she is working on the development of the “Mukurtu software tool” (http://www.mukurtuarchive.org/documentation.html), a user-customizable tool for the creation of archives. Based on her experience with the development of the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-Kari Archive (http://www.mukurtuarchive.org/) and the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal (http://plateauportal.wsulibs.wsu.edu/html/ppp/index.php), she spoke about how indigenous communities’ concerns about sharing culturally sensitive material with the general public and even with certain members of the local indigenous community. For example, with the Wumpurrarni of central Australia, some archived material is restricted by groups defined by gender, kinship, cultural group, age, etc. She talked about the conflict between academics/archivists’ views that “information should be open to the public” vs. the ethical systems of indigenous peoples, which have historically restricted access to material deemed culturally sensitive.

There seemed to be two main types of people in the audience, judging from the question and answer period: those who were members of Native American communities or who had extensive experience in such communities, and those who did not. Reactions from members of the first group ranged from “this is a wonderful tool” to concerns about the politics of protocol-setting within indigenous communities. Members of the second group (archivists and librarians?) wondered about the implications of limited access for archives at institutions such as UW, and the difficulty of implementing a range of access strategies. Another point of view, that of the collector/recorder of the data, was not represented in the question period either. What did Dr. Christer do with the data she collected during her research on the Wumpurrarni? How soon did she make it available to the rest of the world in some form?

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