Blog, DH Fellowship

Indigenizing and Decolonizing Digital Humanities

All year, the DH fellows have been looking through the aggregated content of DHNow and selecting interesting posts to discuss at our weekly meeting with Dr. Robertson. The process has been a great introduction to the variety of people, projects, and discourses that make up the field of digital humanities, and it’s enabled me to identify and track key themes and trends over the course of the year. I quickly became interested in questions of ethics in DH, gravitating especially toward posts and projects that take an Indigenizing and/or decolonizing approach.

Indigenization transforms academia and public scholarship by integrating Indigenous voices, knowledge systems, histories, and cultures and by empowering the success of Indigenous students, scholars, and communities. However, as Skylee-Storm Hogan and Krista McCracken explain in Doing the Work: The Historian’s Place in Indigenization and Decolonization, “Indigenization cannot be attempted without first making space to decolonize what types of knowledge the academy sees as legitimate, otherwise projects have the potential to become tokens used to absolve settler guilt.” Indigenization requires decolonization—identifying and challenging colonial systems in order to shift power relations and transform the structures of settler society.

So what would decolonizing and Indigenizing DH look like? What does the process demand? Is decolonizing DH even possible or are colonial systems and structures too deeply embedded in the web and digital tools? The posts below ask or attempt to answer these questions. Although they do not all directly address Indigenous histories and cultures, they are all part of a growing conversation about the need to challenge colonial power in digital humanities.

Doing the Work: The Historian’s Place in Indigenization and Decolonization by Skylee-Storm Hogan (Kanien’kehá:ka)and Krista McCracken. Although not specifically directed at DH, this is a very relevant and useful overview of what historians can do to Indigenize and decolonize their teaching and research practices.

Exploring Indigenous Data Sovereignty through Water Governance by Kelsey Leonard (Shinnecock). In this introductory post to her work at the Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, Leonard explains that, “Digital scholarship can aid Indigenous Nations in our efforts to decolonize water governance regimes and enhance coordination for the management of transboundary waters” and thather “digital scholarship aims to digitize the work of Indigenous Nations and our water protectors as they fight to (re)claim inherent sovereign rights to govern our waters.”

Why We Need to Talk About Indigenous Literature in the Digital Humanities by David Gaertner. This post makes the argument that, “Indigenous lit scholars resist DH because the concerns Indigenous communities have about the expropriation of data have not been taken seriously. Those concerns will not be taken seriously until decolonial critique is actively installed at the foundations of DH theory and methodology and settler scholars need to start taking up some of this labour.”

Remediation, Activation, and Entanglement in Performative (Digital) Archives by Jacqueline Wernimont. This post is a critical reading of Performing Archives: Edward S. Curtis and the ‘vanishing race,’a digital book project that Wernimont directed. The project features the (often staged) photographs of Native Americans taken by Curtis, an ethnologist and photographer who believed he was documenting a “vanishing race.” Wernimont concludes that the project does not do enough to “decenter” Curtis and instead “largely activated memories of oppression and settler knowledge systems.”

The Practice of Play by Tim Sherrat. This post describes how Sherrat “multiplies contexts”—hacking, breaking, and playing with data and digital resources—to challenge the power of the colonial state’s power of surveillance and reverse its gaze.

Data and Humanism Shape Library of Congress Conference by Mike Ashenfelder. This post is a summary of talks given at the Collections As Data Conference in September 2016. Some of the talks address such topics as the repatriation of digitized objects, bias in metadata practices, and the Traditional Knowledge Labels tool.

Speculative Collections by Bethany Nowviskie. In this post, Nowviskie asks, “How can we design digital libraries that admit alternate futures—that recognize that people require the freedom to construct their own, independent philosophical infrastructure, to escape time’s arrow and subvert, if they wish, the unidirectional and neoliberal temporal constructs that have so often been tools of injustice?” In another post, Nowviskie calls for design experimentation to answer this question and describes five possible axes along which we should run this experimentation.

A Life Reduced to Data by Tim Sherrat. In this post, Sherrat points out that as historians investigate questions of identity using historical datasets (the Australian census is his example), we need to remember that, “In some cases we are the beneficiaries of systems created for the surveillance and control of suspect populations.” Although he argues that we can “turn these systems on themselves,” we must “make that decision and engage accordingly.” As he asserts, “There is no neutral position.”


Originally posted on the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s Digital History Fellows blog.