Indigenous observations and knowledge of the Arctic: towards self-determination and information sovereignty

Authors: Peter L. Pulsifer, Christopher McNeave

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Conference paper


Indigenous Knowledge and observations are increasingly important parts of Arctic information and data management discussions and systems. The Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic was established to provide data management and user support to facilitate collection, preservation, exchange, and use of local and Indigenous Knowledge of the Arctic. In recent years ELOKA has evolved to use a co-production approach where community members drive the development of information systems and control how their observations and knowledge are represented. Results from co-production activities carried out during 2015 and 2016 are reported, with a focus on promoting local self-determination and information sovereignty.


The polar data community is increasingly active in the area of data management and use. This includes a focus on ensuring that Indigenous people of the Arctic can share their knowledge and information in appropriate ways, and providing communities with access to the best available spatial data and information at a variety of scales. Developing an effective and inclusive distributed Arctic data and information system will require an understanding of the evolving principles, protocols and ethical guidelines for research and infrastructure development that involves Arctic Indigenous Knowledge holders.

The Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic (ELOKA) was established in 2006 and is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. ELOKA's mission is to provide data management and user support to facilitate collection, preservation, exchange, and use of local and Indigenous knowledge of the Arctic. In a co-production relationship with community partners a wide variety of information resources are made available (see for example Projects include the Yup’ik Environmental Knowledge Project led by Calista Education and Culture. Another projects stewards thousands of community-based observations of coastal Alaska (, and an online application documenting community based observing programs around the Arctic ( (Figure 1). Understanding semantics and the relationships between Indigenous, scientific and operational terminology is an important part of our work (Duerr et al. 2014)

Additional applications are constantly under development and from these efforts all partners have learned a great deal about developing effective, efficient and appropriate systems for representing Indigenous Knowledge. It is clear from these efforts that the most significant challenges are not technical but rather relate to the ethical, social and political aspects of systems development.

Figure 1: (clockwise from top left). The site provides near-realtime weather data to Baffin Island communities. The SIZONet application collects and presents Indigenous observations of the environment. The Sea Ice in the Belcher Islands project shares knowledge and observations of sea ice including complementing remote sensing data. The Yup’ik Environmental Knowledge Project shares place names, narrative and other environmental information.

Self-Determination and Information Sovereignty

In September of 2015 a group of Indigenous youth, scholars, and representatives met with non-Indigenous researchers and program managers to establish key considerations for Arctic research and data management with respect to Indigenous Knowledge. A summary of the results of this meeting were recently published as part of the Arctic Observing Summit (Participants 2016). This white paper presents considerations related to the more technical aspects of development, but also discusses ideas of how to appropriately exchange and share Indigenous Knowledge through technology.

Key statements include the recognition that Indigenous and scientific knowledge are different kinds of knowledge and should be treated as such, avoiding the establishment of western scientific knowledge and data as a privileged perspective. Currently, there is a movement by Indigenous Peoples to assert rights, land and information sovereignty, and security, while moving towards decolonization of research and self-determination. This is a major consideration when working with data based on Indigenous Knowledge and observations. Making progress on Indigenous self-determination and information sovereignty will require effort and change at many different scales ranging from the local to global. Meeting participants stated:

Indigenous communities in the Arctic are the providers of information, users of information, monitors of information, and decision-makers. The uses of data technology are changing rapidly in these communities. We need to continue to work to put control of technology in local hands and invest in improving bandwidth, access to technologies, training, and capacity building. (Participants 2016:4)

This presentation provides the results of a series of local training, data, information and technology co-production activities carried out during the summer of 2016 that builds on work started in 2015. Through this process, Alaskan Indigenous youth and other members of the community are taking control of representations of their observations and knowledge within and outside of the community. By designing and managing systems representing their local knowledge and the knowledge of ancestors, residents are connecting with their culture, present and past, while simultaneously holding multiple real world and virtual identities. We conclude by providing a series of observations and lessons that demonstrate success in promoting digital self-determination and information sovereignty in Arctic Indigenous communities.


ELOKA acknowledges the valuable contributions of all partners and particular the Indigenous Knowledge holders and community members who have generously donated their time and knowledge

This material is based in part upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers ARC 0856634, ARC 1231638.

Competing Interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


Participants 2015 ( participants of the Sharing Knowledge: Traditions, Technologies, and Taking Control of our Future Workshop) Indigenous Knowledge: Key Considerations for Arctic Research and Data Management. Published as a white paper submitted to the Arctic Observing Summit. Available at: [Last accessed 30 May 2016]