Memory Technologies: Indigenous Knowledge and ICT Design

Author: Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2010)
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As Indigenous communities endeavor to maintain their traditional ways of knowing, many are turning to information and communication technologies (ICTs) to sustain and stimulate their Indigenous knowledge. They are using analog and digital video and audio recording devices as well as a constellation of computer and Internet-related technologies, to capture, store, and make available to future generations important aspects of their languages, arts and understanding. Throughout this essay, I refer to these as memory technologies to distinguish their use in this manner from, say, plain recreation. The use of ICTs as memory technologies presents a contentious socio-technical problem. In many ways, the nature of digital technology is antithetical to Indigenous ways of knowing. This essay argues that the use of present ICTs to meet the needs of Indigenous communities will create persistent forms of “computer-mediated colonialism” and that a new way of approaching the design of memory technologies is necessary to avoid that outcome – one that explores traditional Indigenous memory technologies as starting points for ICT design.

Defining the Problem

Western culture has its ways of remembering. Among them, we use books, film, and audio recordings to help us store information. We construct libraries, databases, and collections that house this information for future generations. Our schools and universities draw on these resources for teaching and research. When faced with preserving Indigenous ways of knowing, it seems logical to use similar techniques. And this is where the problems begin. Pacey considers technology “not only as comprising machines, techniques and crisply precise knowledge, but also as involving characteristic patterns of organization and imprecise values” (4). Memory technologies, like any cultural artifact, are imbued with the memes of the society that creates them. They are laden with cultural assumptions about what information is, what knowledge is, how they are transferred, and so on.

In general, the design of ICTs does not accommodate Indigenous knowledge, the nature of which is cast in terms not typically associated with Western knowledge: local, holistic, and agrapha (Kincheloe & Semali, 63); relational, conscious, animate and interactive (von Thater-Braan, 4); non-formal, undocumented, dynamic and adaptive (UNESCO, Best Practices); empirical rather than theoretical, negotiated, shared, distributed in fragments, situated within broader cultural traditions (Ellen & Harris, 5); and so on. Where Indigenous knowledge is situated within a human community, orally and experientially shared, and subject to change, the opposite is the case for preservation: “the prime strategy for conserving indigenous knowledge is ex situ conservation, i.e., isolation, documentation and storage in international, regional and national archives” (Agrawal, 4).

The use of video and audio recordings on magnetic data have been the bread and butter of efforts to “capture” forms of Indigenous knowledge for many years. Archivists have long struggled with the problems associated with storage and retrieval of this information: difficulties of cataloging data, guarding against media deterioration, protection of intellectual property rights, etc. With the advent of digital technologies, these issues persist and are compounded by other concerns resulting from the technology itself. Digital technologies at first seem to answer some of the problems such as cataloging (metadata can be attached to information in new ways), storage (a warehouse of magnetic data can fit onto a hard drive), and protection (passwords allow data to be secured for specific audiences).

While the move from analog to digital technologies seems a logical step to take, the new technologies still present opportunities for the same cultural dissonance: “new media reflect Western values of individualism, the privileging of texts and the commodification of knowledge – trends that run counter to and likely threaten many indigenous traditions (cf. Bowers et al. 2000)” (Landzelius, 294). Charles Ess calls the process by which Western cultural values embedded within the ICTs overshadow the values and communicative preferences of Indigenous peoples “computer-mediated colonialism.” The question of technology’s cultural neutrality or non-neutrality is critical: “specifically, the extent to which ICTs (and their attendant praxes and idioms) are assimilable into local values and lifeways; or conversely the extent to which dominant modes of thinking and doing are embedded in their very matrix, luring users into an inescapable ICT hegemony” (Landzelius, 294).

Specifically, we should question the assumption that technologies which serve to help Westernized people remember will do the same for Indigenous Peoples whose ways of knowing and remembering are far different from our own. This is true whether the technology is being used to record storytelling, oral histories or the nomenclature of medicinal plants. Barbara Johnstone notes, “It is easy to lose sight of how ideology enters into the process by which new media are incorporated into human life in the excitement about the potential of “global” technologies such as television and computers: the fact that a technology is available everywhere does not mean it will everywhere play the same roles” (Johnstone, 209).

Different Ways of Remembering: the Example of Storytelling

It is sensible for people who associate facts with knowledge to use memory technologies such as computers and databases. The relationship between Westernized concepts of the mind and of the computer are fairly clear: we view the computer as an extension of our individual minds. We store phone numbers, documents, videos, photos on our memory technologies so that we may have instant access to them should our human memory need reminding. We generate lists, files, folders, search functions, and so on as ways to organize and access this information. Yet, there is a difference between fact and knowledge, between information and understanding. And there is a difference between how Westernized cultures and most Indigenous cultures view these concepts. Let us use storytelling and oral tradition as a framework for exploration.

Oral historian, William Schneider, tells us that, “Storytelling is a key to relationships, values, and memory” (Schneider, 63). The telling of a story not only suggests the physical presence of a storyteller and an audience, but the relationship that exists between the two, the relationships between members of the audience, the relationship between humans and the land on which they live and in which the action of the story transpires, etc. It is these relationships that are important in the construct of knowledge. Whereas the writer writes for a hypothetical future audience disassociated from physical place, “the world evidenced by the audible text, considered in its entirety, includes not only the world projected by the story proper but the world of the performer and audience” (Tedlock 1983, 10). The Western information bias that sees story as text would dictate that an audio and video recording device would be sufficient to capture the telling of a story. That recording, once digitized, could easily be indexed and catalogued for use in an aural database. But in doing so, the essential components of relationship are stripped from the process.

This manner of recording runs against a fundamental aspect of Indigenous tradition – that of repetition. As a performance, the telling of a story interacts with prior tellings remembered by the audience and is infused with embellishments and improvisations that are in tune with the relationships established during the performance. Tellings of a story are not rendered identically. Unlike texts, which are identified by versions and variations of an original copy, stories are dynamic. There is no “original” story – only the tellings which have come before and those which will be told after. As a product of memory, shared orally, the first telling of a story is simply a shadow – an indicator of form and content, not a guide set in stone:

“Thus, memories are created by repeated reenactments or re-visitations of events, tales, histories, or occurrences. Repetitive storytelling of the past re-creates, solidifies, and even creates the veracity of events and individuals. Continual retelling allows individuals to emphasize certain elements of a history and to magnify and sometimes distort certain passages of one’s life, causing the narratives to become integral components of the teller’s and audience’s life and determining factors in the negotiation of identity” (Green, 30).

Without the tapestry of memory woven through retellings, any recording of an oral performance will be lacking its most salient aspects. The recording will be an empty shell which may do more harm than good as a memory piece: “taking a story so far from its initial or native context that the meaning the original teller and primary audience intended is lost or its portrayal in a new setting embarrasses or exposes them in an uncomfortable way” (Schneider, 137). To fully understand the meaning of a story, “we must hear it many times and place it within the context of other stories and other types of information” (Schneider, 25).

Storytelling and oral tradition are not simply about the transfer of knowledge. They involve the negotiation of knowledge. This process entails not only the art of constructing meaning, but also the subtle art of forgetting. Schneider points out that, “Over time, oral tradition provides a key to what and how people remember, forget, and form new understandings” (54). As storytellers choose the words which will create a backdrop for meaning, they are also choosing which words not to use:

“As a politically charged medium, retelling memories is not a simple chronological recounting of all that transpired, but is the result of a very specific, agenda-based series of choices made by the teller, who manipulates the raw material to create a narrative to serve his or her own purpose. To this end, what is left unsaid is as important as that said. Forgetting or leaving out is just as important” (Green, 51).

Capturing the performance of a story then is not as simple as pressing record on a video camera. How does one use technology to translate the socially negotiated meanings brought to life through relationships and repetition, shaped by both recalling and forgetting? This question calls attention to the shortcomings of present day ICTs in serving as memory technologies for Indigenous peoples. Instead of throwing ICTs out completely, however, we might approach the problem from a different angle. Instead of attempting to bend ICTs to accommodate Indigenous knowledge, we will explore how Indigenous knowledge might dictate new modes of technology. This next section considers how the implementation and design of ICTs might be inspired by past and existing Indigenous memory technologies.

Proverbializing the Computer System?

In considering how ICTs can be used in regard to processing Indigenous knowledge, Barbara Schoenhoff poses this question: “Still, how do you incorporate this on a computer system? By computerizing the proverbs or proverbializing the computer system” (99)? As the past conversation has illustrated, the first suggestion – computerizing the proverbs – is not effective. The second suggestion, however, if not taken rhetorically, leads us to a strange place. To imagine technology that operates in a manner that responds to the nature of Indigenous knowledge is to imagine a new mode of technological practice. This requires us to adopt a new paradigm, one that acknowledges that, “indigenization means not just enlisting ICTs to do things with tradition, but enlisting tradition to do things with ICTs. In keeping with the general tenet of human-machine relations, indigenous ICT users may tend to cognize and manipulate these tools differently based upon and in accordance with indigenous idioms” (Landzelius, 296). Let us next explore how such Indigenous idioms might inform the design of ICTs.

Indigenous Memory Technologies: Lukasa, Wiigwaasabak, and Wampum

Indigenous peoples not only employ stories and oral tradition to remember, but many have used physical memory technologies as well. This section will present three such technologies as we prepare to explore their implications for ICT design: The lukasa of the Luba, the wiigwaasabak of the Ojibwa, and the wampum of the Haudenosaunee.

Lukasa, or memory boards are hand-held wooden objects covered with beads, pins, cowrie shells and carvings, “that present a conceptual map of fundamental aspects of Luba culture. They are at once illustrations of the Luba political system, historical chronicles of the Luba state, and territorial diagrams of local chiefdoms” (Nooter, 58). They were traditionally interpreted and read by members of the Mbudye, a kinship society rigorously trained in the secret knowledge passed on through the lukasa. The boards served as evocative mnemonics – far from being stable texts, they served to assist the Mbudye in their performances by providing a coded interpretative framework for embellishment. These people – these keepers of memory – advance “through a series of stages within the society as they master successive levels of arcane knowledge. Only those at the apex of the association can decipher and interpret the lukasa’s intricate designs and motifs” (Memory Board, 1).

Like the lukasa, the wiigwaasabakoon of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) – and also the Abenaki, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc peoples, among others – were used as memory technologies. Instead of wood, beads, and shells, these items were scrolls made of birch bark etched with pictographs. A wiigwaasabak was used by members of the Medewiwin (Grand Medicine Society) to recall songs and stories. Quoting Colonel Garrick Mallery’s paper “Recently Discovered Algonkian Pictographs” written in 1888, Walter Hoffman writes:

“The devices are not only mnemonic, but are also ideographic and descriptive. They are not merely invented to express or memorize the subject, but are evolved therefrom. To persons acquainted with secret societies a good comparison for the charts or rolls would be what is called the tressel board of the Masonic order, which is printed and published and publicly exposed without exhibiting any of the secrets of the order, yet is not only significant, but useful to the esoteric in assistance to their memory as to degrees and details of ceremony” (288).

Note that even though an individual might gaze upon one of the scrolls, unless they were initiated into the mysteries of the Medewiwin, they would not be able to interpret the meaning. As in the case of the Lukasa, the meaning is negotiated in performative interpretation by people trained in the art.

Lastly, let us consider some aspects of the wampum belts of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). These belts were constructed with beads made from quahog shells, “in which the various designs of beads denoted different ideas according to a definitely accepted system, which could be read by anyone acquainted with wampum language, irrespective of what the spoken language was” (Sidis). The belts were used for treaties, commemorative purposes, tribute, ransom, marriage proposals, burials, and other important occasions. Unlike the Luba and the Ojibwa, the Haudenosaunee did not keep secret the language of the wampum, although with every law that was passed by the Iroquois Council, “the treaty or law that went with the wampum was memorized by certain trained individuals” (Tehanetorens, 12). Because of their central location within the Six Nations, the Onondaga Nation is recognized as the official keepers of the wampum belts.

Reflections on Indigenous Memory Technologies and Implications for ICT Design

From lukasa, wiigwaasabakoon, and wampum belts, we can begin to extrapolate certain characteristics of Indigenous knowledge germane to the design of ICTs used as memory technologies. The Indigenous technologies are coupled with a practice that is often sacred or protected, ritualized, negotiated through social relationships. They are flexible and symbolic, rather than static and literal, involving active interpretation which has as much to do with remembering as it does re-creating and forgetting. As such, “there is no one-to-one correlation of sign to signified; readings may change, depending on the setting, the participants, and the text’s purpose. And the secrets themselves are always changing, for they depend on their social context” (Nooter, citing Barth 1975). They are situated within other cultural traditions such as oral performance and require special custodial care from people trained in special practices. They are also works of art, crafted from local materials tied to the land and history of the people to which they belong.

These characteristics stand in stark contrast to the ICTs presently used in cultural conservation efforts. Many modern ICTs used as memory technologies tend to foster individualism (i.e. computers are designed for single users), ex situ conservation, literalism (i.e. facts stored in databases, removed from narrative or proverbial structures), and are housed in ways that are not conducive to communal sharing. They are mass-produced from materials that hold no special value as cultural artifacts, and often maintained by people who may not have a direct cultural stake in their maintenance. Because of the desire in Westernized cultures for precision in storing information, ICTs are ill-equipped to handle vague, associative, purposefully obfuscated, context-dependent cultural knowledge.

What then must ICT design be like to reflect the nature of Indigenous knowledge? That question was the focus of a 2007 workshop convened by the Native Science Academy. During the workshop, a group member who was a 5th generation carver created a Pukea – a spirit caller, a long trumpet-like instrument. The participants perceived an “animate” quality about the Pukea, something intangible that separated it from other mundane objects such as a laptop or cell phone. They recognized that Indigenous technologies, such as the Pukea “have intrinsic value because we know their ancestry, where they came from, we know their place in our world and we know they will transform and return to the realms of the energies.” In other words, the Pukea “will not find itself discarded in a landfill, replaced by something sleeker and faster” (von Thater-Braan, 7).

Implicit in the realization the participants had is the connection between the human and the creation of the technology. This is not to suggest that Indigenous peoples must build their own modern ICTs by hand out of natural materials, but their participation in the development of new technologies is important to consider. Von Thater-Braan notes that “an Indigenous Information Technology is one in which the tools are in proper relationship with the community, the tools function correctly in the community ecology, and support the community’s future. Design, management and use of technology is a conscious relationship” (15). That conscious relationship should not start at the introduction of a computer terminal into a learning center, but in the design phase of the ICT. Indigenous technologies serve specific functions within the community. Those functions could serve to steer the kinds of interactions a particular technology offers. Instead of creating a database on a computer system in an attempt to meet the needs of a particular culture, the people of a particular culture should be informing the process of system design as a whole from conception.

This idea runs counter to the methods by which technology is created in Westernized cultures. We expect that, say, a cell phone will serve a mass audience – and its design is meant to have the broadest appeal and offer the widest functionality possible. We don’t build a cell phone to meet only the specific needs of a 300-member Indigenous tribal group in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We might tailor a database in an attempt to to meet a group’s needs, but we don’t design a special computer just for them. Yet, this kind of localized development would begin to field some of the concerns addressed above. By placing the emphasis of the human computer interaction on the human first, the development of memory technologies stands a greater chance at minimizing the implicit cultural hegemony addressed at the beginning of this essay. On one level, the idea of a sacred computer seems odd – yet consider the potential for true cultural conservation efficacy if such a system were created: an ICT memory technology that is not concerned with Western ways of knowing, that is responsive to layered social relationships, one imbued with the animate nature of a Pukea.

This new direction for design is necessarily speculative. So many factors weigh against it: cost, present design practices, shortcomings of human cultural understanding, etc. And yet, with the advent of semantic web technologies, universal Internet and mobile network access, virtual technologies, and Indigenous familiarity with modern ICTs, it is possible to begin seeing the creation of memory technologies that are responsive to and designed according to Indigenous knowledge – and which move away from computer-mediated colonialism toward computer-mediated liberation for people working to sustain and stimulate their culture.

Works cited:

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Hoffman, Walter James. The Mide’wiwin or “Grand Medicine Society” of the Ojibwa. Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1885-1886. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891.

Kincheloe, Joe L. and Semali, Landislaus. What is indigenous knowledge?: voices from the academy. Ed. by Ladislaus M. Semali and Joe L. Kincheloe. New York : Garland Pub., 1999.

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Memory Board (Lukasa) [Democratic Republic of Congo; Luba] (1977.467.3). In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Accessed at on 1 December 2009.

Nooter, Mary H. Secrecy, African Art That Conceals and Reveals. The Visual Language of Secrecy. New York: Museum for African Art, 1993.

Pacey, Arnold. The Culture of Technology. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983.

Sidis, William James. The Tribes and the States. Unpublished manuscript. Accessed at on 2 December 2009.

Tehanetorens, Ray Fadden. Wampum Belts of the Iroquois. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company, 1999.

Verran, Helen, Christie, Michael, Anbins-King, Bryce, Van Weeren, Trevor and Yunupingu, Wulumdhuna , (2007) ‘Designing digital knowledge management tools with Aboriginal Australians’, Digital Creativity, 18:3, 129 – 142

von Thater-Braan, Rose. Is it possible to have Information Technology that reflects Indigenous Consciousness? Native Science Academy: 2007.

The Ethnos Project was a research initiative (2008-2018) that explored the intersection of Indigeneity and information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as:

  • open source databases for Indigenous Knowledge management
  • information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) initiatives
  • new and emerging technologies for intangible cultural heritage
  • social media used by Indigenous communities for social change
  • mobile technologies used for language preservation

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