It is Time to Decolonize Data

“One of the ways that there is a continuing genocide against American Indians/Alaska Natives is through data. When we are invisible in the data, we no longer exist,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, Director of the Urban Indian Health Institute, an organization committed to decolonizing data.

Decolonizing data reclaims the indigenous value of data collection, analysis, and research; prioritizes data for indigenous people, by indigenous people; and recognizes the inherent strength of indigenous people. By decolonizing data, indigenous communities determine the information they want to gather, think through why they are gathering it, and know who is interpreting the data and if the interpretation is being done in a way that serves the community. Put simply, decolonizing data is when indigenous peoples control their stories and information.

Too often, data is collected and presented in a way that perpetuates the narrative of poverty and need, painting a portrait of disparity and deficit. From health outcomes to economic indicators to educational attainment, mainstream data collection and presentation leaves little room to showcase the many strengths of indigenous people. Mainstream data collection, for example, would not have allowed Eleanor YellowRobe to reveal in 2007 that tribes in Montana contribute more than $1 billion to the state economy each year. Infrequently does data tell such a story. It is all too common for datasets to make invisible indigenous identity or to present indigenous communities as statistically insignificant because of small sample sizes, a framing that makes policy inaction or negligence a viable and acceptable option. Decolonizing data flips that script.

“Data has become a global currency, a valuable asset, and a source of power,” according to the Native Nations Institute. It defines problems, informs policy decisions, and tailors solutions. It determines where and how resources are allocated and defines who deserves to receive those resources.

The collection and presentation of data is as much political as it is anything else. Mainstream data practices maintain the status quo, or the current state of affairs; further entrench power structures that exclude indigenous peoples and nations; and perpetuate indigenous invisibility

Indigenous nations are sovereign, independent, political entities, with which the U.S. government works on a government-to-government basis. As political entities, indigenous nations are more than passive participants or common stakeholders in data ecosystems. Indigenous data sovereignty recognizes that political status. Indigenous peoples have always been data creators, users, and stewards. Indigenous data sovereignty is the right of indigenous peoples and nations to have ownership over the collection, management, and dissemination of their own data. It stems from tribal sovereignty and the right of indigenous nations to have the right to govern their peoples, lands, and resources, a right articulated through treaties and negotiations with other nations. The State of Open Data notes that right as the fundamental difference in the relationship between indigenous peoples and indigenous data and other stakeholders’ relationships with indigenous data. Examples of other stakeholders include non-tribal governments and researchers.

Indigenous data sovereignty is about self-determination, or self-governance and autonomy. When indigenous peoples and nations control what and how data and knowledge will be generated, analyzed, documented, and disseminated, indigenous peoples and nations have a say in what story is told and in how self-determination is achieved.

During the 2019 legislative session, Rep. Jade Bahr sponsored and successfully championed through the Legislature HB 632, a bill that empowers Indian Country with data. It requires the Department of Commerce to coordinate and produce a decennial report on the economic contributions of reservations in Montana. Throughout the bill’s hearings, proponents pointed to the fact that information is power and that this information in particular would help to tell a story about Indian Country that is not told enough. Moving forward, HB 632 will make it harder to deny the collective impact of Indian Country.

The legacy of colonization and harmful federal policies of assimilation have resulted in a contemporary data ecosystem that collects data about indigenous peoples and nations, but in a way that is rarely done by and for indigenous peoples and nations. Today, the all-too-common practices of exploitative research and policymaking have contributed to the problem wherein data is inconsistent, inaccurate, or irrelevant to indigenous peoples and nations.

To decolonize data and promote indigenous data sovereignty, the Native Nations Institute recommends:

  • Acknowledging indigenous data sovereignty as an objective and incorporating it into tribal, federal, and other entities’ data policies;
  • Generating resources and building support for indigenous data governance;
  • Growing tribal data capacities, including establishing data governance policies and procedures and recruiting and developing data warriors (indigenous professionals and community members who are skilled at creating, collecting, and managing data); and
  • Establishing strong relationships between tribal leaders and data warriors.

Like the Urban Indian Health Institute, MBPC is committed to decolonizing data. This means centering the voices of indigenous peoples and nations in policymaking and research, from beginning to end. It means being intentional about growing relationships with partners from Indian Country, and it means recognizing that indigenous peoples and nations are experts in their own communities.

As the Urban Indian Health Institute notes about indigenous communities, “Don’t come to us because you think we have the most problems; come to us because we have the answers.”

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