Best Practice in Managing Indigenous Knowledge

Authors: Heidi McCann, Betsy Sheffield, Chris McNeave

Conference paper


This presentation will describe best practices in managing Indigenous Knowledge by the Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic project at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.


Good data management is essential for research of all types to ensure the sustainability, sharing, and preservation of the research results and data. Data Centers skilled in data management and preservation with policies that articulate professional guidelines regarding the care of objects or electronic data it manages and archives are imperative. This holds especially true with Indigenous Knowledge, which has many diverse formats, typologies and ontologies, and often deals with highly sensitive and privileged matters raising privacy, confidentiality and intellectual property concerns. Unlike federal agencies and federally funded museums in the United States that manage Indigenous materials under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), data centers managing Indigenous data do not follow any regulatory measures. However, it is possible for data centers with Indigenous data collections to manage in a manner that balances their preservation functions of a data center within the spirit of NAGPRA. NAGPRA at its most basic level is about repatriation. The legislative act has many more purposes such as consultation with Native American tribes, Hawaiian organizations and Alaska Native villages, which has resulted in collaborative working relationships and exchange of more pertinent information, in addition to bridging the gap between science institutions and Indigenous tradition. In other words, NAGPRA serves as a bridge to establishing positive, reciprocal relationships in caring for objects adding further valuable shared information to museums’ Indigenous collections.

What NAGPRA did for museums in the US was provide an opportunity to view Indigenous collections from a new perspective and to think about the collections and all they contain. Indigenous people believe that everything is alive and has a spirit; that we’re all connected and have an interpersonal relationship and a responsibility with all living things; this also includes data. From an Indigenous perspective data is an extension of all living things and is in fact a living thing, and although they may be viewed as a lifeless objects by non-Indigenous people, the Indigenous view is that data has a consciousness and express their own character and purpose when interacting with humans and must be treated with respect. Additionally, data should be perceived as a physical sample of another living thing in which harmonized approaches for best practices must be developed in collaboration with Indigenous communities. By observing how NAGPRA works for museums, data centers can take similar approaches in the practices of managing and curating collected Indigenous data sets and samples that may accompany them.

Best Practices in Managing Indigenous Knowledge

At the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic (ELOKA) project initiated data management research and services for local and traditional knowledge (LTK) and community-based monitoring (CBM) projects during the International Polar Year, 2007-2009. Arctic Indigenous People recognized that data from some LTK and CBM projects should be restricted to community members only, while other data are appropriate to share more broadly with policy makers, scientists and the general public.

In order to get a better idea of the needs of stakeholders, meetings were held to discuss the concept and challenges of data management service. These meetings helped to clarify the mission, purpose, guiding principles and goals of ELOKA in which conceptual and organizational models were drafted. Keeping in mind that ELOKA must be responsive to multiple stakeholders an overarching philosophy was developed: ”…that local and traditional knowledge and scientific expertise are complementary and reinforcing ways of understanding the Arctic system. Collecting, documenting, preserving, and sharing knowledge is a cooperative endeavor, and ELOKA is dedicated to fostering that shared knowledge between Arctic residents, scientists, educators, policy makers, and the general public. ELOKA operates on the principle that all knowledge should be treated ethically, and intellectual property rights should be respected.”

This lighting talk will describe best practices around these issues that have been identified in the 10-year history of the Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic project at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.


The authors would like to thank Arctic Indigenous communities for their contributions in understanding the ever changing Arctic environment.

Competing Interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.