Engagement and Experience: The Other Side of Archiving, Preserving, and Circulating Indigenous Knowledge

In 1883, then Prime Minister John A. MacDonald laid the groundwork for Canada’s residential school system when he said to the House of Commons, “the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men” (MacDonald 1883, 1108; Historica Canada 2015).


As most Canadians are aware, this is exactly what happened. Children were torn away from their families in an effort to eradicate their Indigenous languages, cultures, and values (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015, Volume 5: Legacy). Over 100 years later, the lasting effects of this plan are still felt, and the country is in a race against time to save Indigenous cultures and languages that are teetering on the brink of extinction (United Nations 2008).


Dr. Kimberly Christen, who focuses her research on how digital technology and Indigenous cultures can intersect, has come up with one solution that has garnered international attention and acclaim. That solution? Mukurto (MOOK-oo-too) CMS (Content Management System), an open source community digital archive platform that “allows indigenous communities, libraries, archives, and museums to archive, preserve, and circulate their cultural materials and knowledge in ways that reinforce their own systems of knowledge management without denying the dynamism and flux of all such systems” (Christen 2012, 2884).


But when it comes to looking at the transfer of information within Indigenous knowledge systems, we cannot simply archive, preserve, and circulate. We cannot only facilitate a way for the information to be shared appropriately; we must also ensure that this new way of transferring knowledge does not negatively impact the communities that it is meant to help.


In this essay, I will examine how while certainly admirable and groundbreaking, Mukurto CMS does not fully account for the emerging negative repercussions of excessive use of smartphones and social media; or for the importance of community engagement and experiences that must go hand in hand with digitization and documentation. While preservation is important, projects need to also find ways to incorporate revitalization strategies and traditional ways of transferring knowledge if Indigenous cultures and peoples are going to continue to thrive and grow.


Because today, in a way the first prime minister never imagined, children across the country continue to be withdrawn from their families. Just this time technology, the same technology that we hope to use to preserve and promote culture, is partly to blame. The iGen (born between 1995 and 2012) has grown up in the age of smartphones and social media; and according to an American study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens today will spend up to ten hours a week on social media sites alone, not counting their other internet usage patterns (Monitoring the Future Study 1989–2015). Canadian institute MediaSmarts reports that by Grade 4, 24% of students already have their own phone, a number which doubles by Grade 7; and of these youth with phones, 39% sleep with their device beside their bed (MediaSmarts, 2014).


Psychology Professor Jean M. Twenge wrote, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones… The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy” (Twenge 2017). In addition, increased time spent using and looking at electronic devices has also led to what some are calling screen tiredness or digital fatigue (Nowak 2017; Sweney 2017).


Teens are more connected than ever before, but feel feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness have skyrocketed since smartphones became an accessory to everyday life (Monitoring the Future Study 1989–2015). We have to be cautious that new technologies, such as Mukurto CMS, are not hurting instead of helping. We have to be cautious that these programs are an extension of culture, and not a replacement for it.


Mukurto CMS can be compared to social networking sites, as people have to create an online profile with their personal information. Then, depending on that information they are given access to specific data and history related to their gender, family, or age as it pertains to their culture. Twenge’s research shows that part of the reason for increased feelings of loneliness is because social media offers a window into others’ lives and people can observe what they are left out of. In a similar way, through Mukurto CMS, people know there are certain things they do not have access to. The dynamic is different, but the resulting emotions may be similar if the dynamic is not thoroughly explained to young people, who have grown up in an age where everything appeared to be public and free to share online.


In addition to the disconnect related to social media and smartphone use, research has also shown that Indigenous people face higher levels of suicidal thoughts and suicide rates than Canada’s non-Indigenous population (Aboriginal Peoples Survey 2012). So when introducing possible digital solutions to archive, preserve, and circulate culture to the Indigenous population, we have to be hypervigilant of the negative impacts of smartphone and social media use and make sure we are not exacerbating the lasting negative impacts the residential school system and colonialism have on Indigenous mental health and well-being (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015, Volume 5: Legacy).


Without discounting the positives that Mukurto CMS has brought forward, including archiving endangered cultures and connecting people that no longer reside in the same space, the software does not bring communities and people together physically. To encourage youth to spend even more time in online communities, such as those created by Mukurto CMS, when studies show this correlates to less time spent with friends and family may not be healthy, especially when we know how important real-life experiences are and the important role they have held for generations (Assembly of First Nations 2015). Why innovation is necessary and impactful, so to are traditional ways.


Dr. Christopher Lalonde found that the risk of Indigenous suicidal ideations and suicide is “mitigated when a community has strong ‘cultural health’” (Lalonde 2005).  So perhaps even more importantly than concerning ourselves with digital preservation, online communities, and constant connection; we should be connecting youth with Elders so that the teachings can be passed on as they were for thousands of years: through oral storytelling and through on the land experiences. We can develop videos, post photos, and write detailed instructions to ensure that stories and skills at risk of extinction are preserved in some form, but practical skills, such as how to tan a moose hide, tell which wild berries are edible, or properly pronounce the glottal stop (ʔ) or the bar “l” (Ł) in the Dene languages are best learned in person from Elders.


The NWT On The Land Collaborative 2017 Report discussed how engaging youth is key to developing skills which will increase capacity and resiliency in both the youth and their communities. “On the land programming is valued because it produces interdependent outcomes across economic, social, and environmental spectrum,” the organization stated (NWT On The Land Collaborative Report 2017).


Meanwhile, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Wellness Foundational Model explored how the land is the source of Indigenous identity upon which culture, language, and spirituality are based; and how the land is the “backdrop for intergenerational knowledge transmission (education)” (Assembly of First Nations 2015). AFN noted that having “Access to culture, teachings, Elders, the land, medicines, and cultural self-esteem profoundly impact individual and community health.” Mukirto CMS offers a different kind of landscape, but it will never replace the land.


The oft-touted “walk in two worlds” mantra teaches that It is possible for Indigenous people to walk in two worlds, meaning both their traditional world and the Westernized world. There is a way to combine traditional teachings with modern technological advances, but there must be a balance.


“I agree social media is NOT an effective way to build the communities we build in physical space, but it’s an extension of our communities. Our goal should be to create the healthiest spaces possible, wherever we meet/talk,” says Ryan McMahon, a vocal Anishinaabe comedian, regarding the ways communities come together to talk, grow, and support each other (@RMComedy, September 21, 2017).


As publishers, we have to be aware that while emerging technologies may appear to be perfect solutions, often we are unable to gauge unintended and negative consequences until the damage has already been done. We need to be aware that while technology has great power to connect and preserve, it also has the power to disconnect and distance communities from what truly matters. It has the power to blind us and make us believe that it is the way forward; and while innovation will always be important, sometimes the best way to archive, preserve, and circulate knowledge is through traditional ways that have not only proven successful but have also shown to increase wellness and resiliency (NWT On The Land Collaborative Report 2017).


If Indigenous traditions and languages are to flourish and grow—so that they are not only spoken in classrooms and posted on websites; but so that stories are written, the languages are fully integrated throughout the communities, and the skills are kept safe within the minds of members—than any initiative that aims to revitalize culture must do so not only through a lens of preservation, but also through a lens of understanding the importance of true engagement and experience.


Just as the Indigenous community walks in two worlds, so to must publishers. We need to learn how to balance the tangible and intangible; and know both how to help preserve, circulate, and archive culture in a respectful and ethical way, and also know when it is time to take a step back.



Assembly of First Nations: Safe, Secure, Sustainable Communities Unit. 2015. “Wellness Foundational Model.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://health.afn.ca/uploads/files/health_foundational_model_-2015-final.pdf

Christen, Kimberly. 2012. “Does Information Really Want to be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness.” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 2870-2893. Accessed September 16, 2017. http://www.kimchristen.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/christen6.2012.pdf

Christen, Kimberly, Alex Merrill, and Michael Wynne. 2017. “A Community of Relations: Mukurtu Hubs and Spokes.” The Magazine of Digital Library Research 23, no. 5/6 (May/June). Accessed September 15, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1045/may2017-christen

Greenwood, Shannon, Andrew Perrin, Maeve Duggan. 2016. “Social Media Update 2016.” Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/

Historica Canada. 2015. “Residential Schools in Canada: Education Guide.” Accessed September 21, 2017. http://education.historicacanada.ca/files/103/ResidentialSchools_Printable_Pages.pdf.

House of Commons. 1883. “Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada.” Commons Debates, April 20-May 25, 1883: 1108. Accessed September 21, 2017. http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_07186_1_2/370?r=0&s=1

Kanopi Studios. 2017. “A Safe Keeping Place for Sacred Materials.” Kanopi Studios Blog, June 25, 2017. Accessed September 15, 2017. https://www.kanopistudios.com/blog/safe-keeping-place-sacred-materials/

Lalonde, Christopher. 2005. “Identity Formation and Cultural Resilience in Aboriginal Communities.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://web.uvic.ca/~lalonde/manuscripts/2005Resilence.pdf

McCue, Duncan. 2016. “For For First Nations facing suicide crisis, the solution is rooted in teh community.” CBC News, April 18, 2016. Accessed September 20, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/suicide-first-nations-snuneymuxw-1.3536821

McKinnon, Melody. 2016. “Canadian Social Media Use and Online Brand Interaction (Statistics).” Accessed September 17, 2017. http://canadiansinternet.com/2016-canadian-social-media-use-online-brand-interaction-statistics/

MediaSmarts. 2014. “Life Online: Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/pdfs/publication-report/summary/YCWWIII_Life_Online_ExecutiveSummary.pdf

National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2015. “Monitoring the Future study 1989-2015.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://www.jeantwenge.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/igen-appendix.pdf

Nowak, Peter. 2017. “Digital fatigue behind the overkill in ebooks.” The National, May 4, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.thenational.ae/business/digital-fatigue-behind-the-overkill-in-ebooks-1.10550

NWT On The Land Collaborative. 2017. “NWR On The Land Collaborative 2017 Report.” Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.nwtontheland.ca/uploads/8/6/5/1/86514372/final_otl.report_2016-17.web.pdf

Sweney, Mark. 2017. “‘Screen fatigue’ sees UK ebook sales plunge 17% as readers return to print.” The Gaurdian, April 27, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/27/screen-fatigue-sees-uk-ebook-sales-plunge-17-as-readers-return-to-print

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. “Canada’s Residential Schools: Legacy.” The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 5: Accessed September 16, 2017. http://www.myrobust.com/websites/trcinstitution/File/Reports/Volume_5_Legacy_English_Web.pdf

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. “Canada’s Residential Schools: Reconciliation.” The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 6: Accessed September 16, 2017. http://www.myrobust.com/websites/trcinstitution/File/Reports/Volume_6_Reconciliation_English_Web.pdf

Twenge, Jean M. 2017. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017 Issue. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

United Nations. 2008. “United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf

Washington State University. 2013. “Powering cultural preservation: New grants expand archiving of indigenous treasures.” Washington State University News, October 10, 2013. Accessed September 15, 2017. https://news.wsu.edu/2013/10/10/powering-cultural-preservation-new-grants-expand-archiving-of-indigenous-treasures/#.VD77cRYXOVo


One Response to Engagement and Experience: The Other Side of Archiving, Preserving, and Circulating Indigenous Knowledge

  1. trentongalozo says:

    Hi Sara,
    This is a great essay with some thought provoking ideas.
    Connectivity to the screen is a big issue these days across the board, but how it intersects with indigenous culture and peoples is one aspect I have not considered before, and it’s interesting to me that this intersection has resulted in a social media type application aimed at the indigenous populations as a way to preserve their culture.
    Taking a step back, I absolutely agree that connecting in the physical space is essential to the human psyche. With continuously advancing technologies and the offerings on these technologies vying more and more for our attention, with more and more realistic simulations of reality and human interaction, the ease of access to knowledge it provides, etc, it’s very easy for people to get stuck in this digital reality where they are overstimulated in all areas except for the very important physical human contact and engagement. The problems that arise for other people are tenfold for the indigenous who are already a vulnerable group, as you stated, due to the lasting effects of the residential school on their community.
    The question your essay leaves me with is how a publisher can play a part in ensuring that people, Indigenous and otherwise, do not suffer from overexposure to the screen. In this case, should the access to information over the app be limited, deterring users from spending exorbitant amounts of time on-screen and forcing them to connect with the people around them physically? Should the app be completely removed and the knowledge and information documented in a completely different way? Should efforts be made to promote the message of disengaging from the screen and learning in a more traditional, personable way across the platform to those already engaged with it?
    How does a publisher take this cautionary idea and turn it into a viable solution?
    The problem is that these technologies and these kinds of social platforms are going to exist regardless of publishers trying to conserve indigenous culture. Perhaps instead of taking a step back, publishers should be taking a step forward in finding new and creative ways to continue to preserve and circulate the knowledge that tries to interrupt the hold of the screen and push people into more traditional, personal communal settings of passing knowledge.
    Regardless, the current model of mukurto as a social media type platform can have dangerous repercussions and, I agree, probably is not the best way to have people engage with their culture and history.

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