Amber Ridington is an independent folklorist with a specialty in digital humanities based in Vancouver, BC. In this case study, she describes her work with First Nations communities and the many strategies she has developed to advocate for ethical approaches to fieldwork, data collection, and data sharing. www.amberridington.com
As part of my work with First Nations groups, I’ve started to advocate for the development of sustainable archives. I’ve also advocated for changing methodologies and making sure that there are methodological standards. The Cloud Lake group asked me to make a methodological guide that anyone they are working with has to comply with. Part of it says that you have to hand over any of the interviews you do and upload them into the database. You can’t just do the research and keep the raw materials inaccessible. Oral histories can be used for many, many purposes outside of that project. They’re valuable to the community, and so should be collected with later uses in mind. For language, for genealogical research, for the history of colonization and settlement in that area. There’s valuable information in almost all of those interviews.
This is not just true for the First Nations, however. It can be useful for any community. I like the idea of the community having control over the materials. They should be able to choose what public programs—radio shows, websites. exhibits. etc—can be done with them. It can be really important. It’s a matter of community-building, building people’s pride in their heritage, and an overall sense of belonging.
I’ve worked on and off for years for a First Nation in British Columbia. When I finished my Masters, they invited me to come and do grant writing. They were interested in doing virtual exhibits and community-based documentation.
I’ve also worked as a consultant for the cultural heritage part of environmental impact assessments. These assessments are meant to evaluate the impact upon aboriginal rights and cultural practices. The government’s term is “heritage values.” They need a report on which heritage values the First Nations need them to consider in the face of a proposed development. I’ll testify, giving the results of my survey and traditional use studies. I describe the heritage values, and how the proposed development would adversely affect the culture in certain ways. Quite often, they’ll ask me for ways to mitigate the effects. They want to know what effects will occur if the plan goes ahead. Then the government and First Nations negotiate to decide how they can reconcile that. Sometimes they’ll say, “you can’t build it; change the development so it’s not around these heritage sites of ours,” or, “you can build it but should compensate us for the loss in money or land,” such as a hunting location in a different area. They’re always relying on the report to see what values will be lost.
As part of that work, what I’ve started doing is advocating for the development of sustainable archives. Community archives. Every time you do a traditional study like the ones I do, you often start from scratch. The First Nations don’t have great record-keeping-their funding is quite tight and they don’t have a budget for that. So, I’ve started building that into the budgets for compliance studies. That way, when we find all these oral history interviews and things, instead of giving them back as just DVDs, we’re giving them back in the form of web-based archival database systems. We work with the community so they can manage them. They’re starting to integrate with the lands departments-each First Nation has a lands department linking the oral history materials and other archival materials to the land through a database.
So often, any databases exist in a university or museum. There’s been a lot of movement over the last 10-20 years to virtually repatriate that material and give access back to the communities, but I think that’s quite different from them actually managing the materials themselves. It’s still owned by the museum. Staff from the museum are getting paid to manage it; the communities aren’t. We want to work towards moving the infrastructure to the community itself, and ideally getting the developers to pay for that. We want to find sources of funding for indigenous-centered heritage management.
Let’s say I get one of those projects-the archive will just become part of the project. We’ll start a database and keep populating it throughout the project. At the end they get their report but also this database that they can keep adding to and then the community has access to this multimedia archive of their heritage materials. It can include PDFs of ethnographer’s reports from the 1800s (which are hard to find and often go missing from libraries.) It can include oral history audio files and videos and transcripts. There are also lots of photographs.
We created a community archive for Cloud Lake as part of a study from 2012-2013. Lawyers have begun using that database. It was for a separate project-looking at the impacts of a proposed dam in traditional territories. For related but different use cases, lawyers have been contacting us for the use of that database. The information has so many different uses. So far, we’ve kept the records open only to the community and their trusted researchers. We wanted it to be more indigenous-centered than the current model-virtually repatriating material, but keeping the funding and ownership with a museum or university. Generally speaking, the communities will make the material available to people who request it.
The Dane Wajich Virtual Museum Project had a lot of sponsors. It had the Virtual Museum of Canada, the Volkswagen Foundation (endangered language support), the school district for providing teaching resources and curriculum development. and the First Nations. Plus, we brought in a number of specialists to work on the project. A professor from San Francisco State did video production mentorship and taught the youth to do video and audio documentation. We had a linguist from UBC. So it was professionals from multiple institutions contributing. We also had multiple funding sources. so it was a big partnership grant-wise. But it was also a community-directed project. The community was really involved in choosing the exact materials that went onto the website. It was a long-term project. so the idea of the website changed, and different materials ended up being featured than were at the beginning. Community review and building in community goals of self-representation in their culture-that was important. Also skill development and engaging youth with elders. Cross-generational teaching opportunities.
I try to rely on participatory action-based methodologies for project development. You work with a community to address some type of issue, usually some type of social injustice, and help them achieve their goals. With this virtual museum project. they really wanted to present their own culture from their own perspective-not just have websites or books written about them. We talked about the text and language that’s used. They chose to use a first-person voice on the site, so it’s very clear that it’s their project. On the homepage, it says, “Our Doig River First Nations…worked to create…” This is all from their own perspective.
For the elders, oral tradition is still their primary means of communication. They much prefer it over written form. So the site was built around oral histories. The stories and songs included in the exhibit are taken from oral histories collected specifically for this project. The videos of them talking about their culture-the elders felt this was the core of the project.
The key to all this has been building it into compliance projects. The developers have to do the project. they have to do oral history-based research. So we build in a digital archive of the material we collect. plus the background research materials, and that’s been the best way to fund that. Afterwards, the First Nation has control over the documents. If you went through a university, the university would want to control the material and use it in their teaching. But this way, the First Nation gets to control the data and use it as they see fit.
The developers don’t always pick the most experienced oral historians. though, and sometimes the history suffers. I’ve started advocating for changing methodologies and making sure that there’s methodological standards. The Cloud Lake group asked me to make a methodological guide that anyone they are working with has to comply with. Part of it says that you have to hand over any of the interviews you do and upload them into the database. You can’t just do the research and keep the raw materials inaccessible. Oral histories can be used for many, many purposes outside of that project. They’re valuable to the community, and so should be collected with later uses in mind. For language, for genealogical research, for the history of colonization and settlement in that area. There’s valuable information in almost all of those interviews.
This is not just true for the First Nations, however. It can be useful for any community. I like the idea of the community having control over the materials. They should be able to choose what public programs-radio shows, websites. exhibits. etc.-can be done with them. It can be really important. It’s a matter of community-building, building people’s pride in their heritage, and an overall sense of belonging.
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