Using ICTs for Indigenous Cultural Preservation: Challenges and Strategies

Author: Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2009)
Original URL:

As Indigenous communities endeavor to maintain their traditional ways of knowing, many are turning to information and communications technologies (ICTs) to sustain and stimulate their Indigenous knowledge traditions ([1],[2],[3]). They are using analog and digital video and audio recording devices, as well as a constellation of computer, mobile, and Internet-related technologies, to capture, store, and make available to future generations important aspects of their languages, arts, and understanding. The use of ICTs for Indigenous cultural preservation and revitalization can lead to several challenges. There can be disharmony between aspects of digital technology design and traditional Indigenous ways of knowing that are difficult to overcome. As well, the use of ICTs enters communities into a longitudinal relationship with the devices and media used in the service of preservation. Consequently, the communities will be stemming the tide of obsolescence by preserving machinery and media as well as aspects of their culture. This essay explores these two challenges and seeks to identify strategies that address them.


ICTs are being put to many different uses for cultural preservation – from the creation of databases and archives to organize and keep safe important understandings and artifacts to the development of iPhone apps for language learning. Challenges can arise when there is disharmony between the design of the technology and the knowledge traditions of the Indigenous communities using the technology. Indigenous knowledge is usually cast in terms not typically associated with Western knowledge:

  • local, holistic, and agrapha [4]
  • relational, conscious, animate and interactive [5]
  • non-formal, undocumented, dynamic and adaptive [6]
  • empirical rather than theoretical, negotiated, shared, distributed in fragments, situated within broader cultural traditions [7]

As a result, where Indigenous knowledge is rooted in a physical or ritual place, situated within a human community, orally and experientially shared, and subject to change, the design of preservation technology is often in opposition: “the prime strategy for conserving indigenous knowledge is ex situ conservation, i.e., isolation, documentation and storage in international, regional and national archives” [8]. The collective, oral-based knowledge systems of many Indigenous people are a poor match for technologies that “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)” [9]. The problem with ICTs is that they tend to foster individualism (i.e. computers are designed for single users), ex situ conservation, and literalism (i.e. facts stored in databases, removed from narrative or proverbial structures).

In addition, Indigenous knowledge bases are often housed in ways that are not conducive to communal sharing. The act of disconnecting knowledge from its source “will remove from that knowledge the very context which infuses it with life. Because indigenous knowledge is continuously generated and renewed in the living practices of people, archiving in isolation from practice removes its ongoing relevance” [10].

Charles Ess uses the phrase “computer-mediated colonization” to describe the process by which Western cultural values embedded within ICTs overshadow the values and communicative preferences of Indigenous people [11]. 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”[9]. Since technology is rarely designed for the Indigenous user, it is the user who must adapt to the technology.


The use of ICTs to sustain cultural identity “generates wide-ranging discussions concerning cultural values, modes of representation and teaching, and contrasts between Native and non-Native ideologies” [12]. Three efforts in Australia serve to show how the disharmony between the technology and tradition can be addressed. One, the Indigenous Knowledge and Resource Management in Northern Australia (IKRMNA) project, which ran from 2003 to 2006, tackled the issue of values head on by laying out answers to such questions as:

  • Isn’t Aboriginal knowledge in the land itself? How can knowledge be stored in the land and in databases too?
  • Aren’t ritual and ceremony important parts of Aboriginal knowledge? How can you recognise the role of ritual when knowledge is stored in databases?
  • Access to Aboriginal knowledge is controlled by elders, and only certain people can know certain things. How does databasing deal with these problems of privacy?
  • Databases are forms of Western scientific knowledge. Aren’t they incommensurable with Aboriginal knowledge? How is this overcome?
  • If young Aboriginal people are using computers, doesn’t that impair their learning of traditional knowledge, and alienate them from their culture? [13]

The answers in some cases led to more questions, but the organizers at least attempted to situate their endeavor in a light of awareness. One answer acknowledges that “Often a lot of work and much skill and patience, is required to overcome incompatibilities … Western knowledge traditions are often not very good at recognising the metaphysics and metaphoricity that is built into all knowledge” [13]. Although not connected to the questions above, this quote from Lieberman embodies the spirit of the responses provided by IKRMNA: “To get ahead in the modern world without losing their heritage, indigenous communities need to develop a biculturism that enables them to move between two cultures and to combine certain elements of each harmoniously” [14].

The approach IKRMNA took in trying to reconcile some of the concerns they faced is echoed in a similar but unconnected project, Ara Irititja (which means “stories from a long time ago” in the language of the Anangu people of Central Australia). From its inception in 1994, Ara Irititja has gathered hundreds of thousands of cultural and historical items significant to the Anangu people for preservation in their growing digital database. Patterned after the ways knowledge is shared in their community, the archive “is interactive and participatory at the community and personal level. People of all ages are able to work together at the Ara Irititja workstations. It is a family and community group activity that draws together people of several generations” [15]. The database allows for the interconnecting of items and the inclusion of personal narrative, creating a living community exchange. Evidence of the archive’s participatory engagement is found in pictures from the project website that show several generations of people seated around a computer terminal together.

The third endeavor, Mukurtu, began with the creation of the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive designed for the Warumungu Aboriginal community who “wanted a system to archive and organize their digital cultural materials in line with their cultural protocols” [16]. The word mukurtu means “dilly bag” in Warumungu: “Dilly bags hold sacred items and are accessible by acting responsibly within the community and gaining the permission of knowledgeable community leaders. Like the dilly bag, the archive is a ‘safe keeping place,’ a community repository for cultural materials and knowledge” [16]. The project is currently receiving a facelift and will be re-released as a “free and open source community archive platform that provides international standards-based content management tools adaptable to the local cultural protocols and intellectual property systems of indigenous communities, libraries, archives, and museums” [16].

As an open source platform, some of the unique features that respond to Indigenous cultural practices include adaptable cultural protocols (communities can set their own protocols to match user access levels), extensible metadata fields that support traditional knowledge concepts, custom keyboards for data input in indigenous languages, and on-the-fly audio recording for comments, translations and traditional knowledge [16]. The last item takes the functionality that Ara Irititja has in terms of a user’s ability to add narrative elements to archived entries, but extends it through mobile technology. Mukurtu is partnering with a “citizen archivist” group called Smallbean to create a mobile application which combines audio, video, and camera capabilities to allow interested individuals “to record and archive oral history interviews and related cultural footage and newsworthy events” [16].

The Mukurtu project is significant in its use of mobile technology for cultural preservation. Unlike databases and digital archives – which depend on PCs, servers, and wired equipment – versatile and robust applications for mobile and handheld devices are just starting to enter the cultural preservation scene. Three notable examples include Language Pal for the Nintendo DSi (a popular hand-held gaming device), Cherokee Basic for the iPod Touch and iPhone (both applications by Thornton Media, Inc.), and the FirstVoices Mobile applications which can be run on the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad.
Language Pal can “program audio recordings in multiple dialects from multiple speakers” giving users the ability to “program electronic flashcards, archived recordings, multiple-choice games, and tens of thousands of audio files with a searchable database for use on the Nintendo DSi” [17]. The company acknowledges that “technology competes with traditional culture” but figures that adaptability in embracing technology is one of the keys to cultural survival. They also offer an endangered language app through the iTunes Store, Cherokee Basic, which “consists of 467 audio files, including words, common phrases and 84 syllabary sounds, and a ‘zoom-able’ Cherokee syllabary chart” [17].

Two FirstVoices Mobile applications for learning First Nations languages were released at the tail end of 2010. Developed as a “mobile extension of language collections archived by First Nations communities at, the first two prototype apps feature the SENĆOŦEN language of Southern Vancouver Island and the Halq’eméylem language of the Sto:lo Nation in the Fraser Valley” [18]. These applications provide media-rich First Nations dictionaries and phrase collections with audio recordings, images and videos. FirstVoices is also developing touch-screen keyboards that use the unique characters of First Nations languages, as well as an English keyboard. This work is built upon the “web-based tools and services designed to support Aboriginal people engaged in language archiving, language teaching & culture revitalization” that can be found online at the FirstVoices website [18].


Whether one considers digital databases and archives or mobile applications, a looming challenge of using ICTs for cultural preservation and revitalization is the reality of obsolescence: “Preservation of digitized knowledge can become a problem simply because of obsolescence. Think of the billions of floppy disks manufactured and encoded during the years between 1980 and 2000: few of us still have working computers capable of retrieving the data on those disks” [19]. Over the last few years, digitization has become the buzzword for cultural preservation. A salient feature of digital formats is that we are no longer tied to a particular technology for access. Whereas a record album could only be played on a turntable, a song saved in the mp3 format can be played on a variety of machines (computers, mp3 players, some DVD players, etc.). Although this would suggest that information now has a greater likelihood of avoiding obsolescence, we must recognize that “the digital information on which we all rely is actually remarkably fragile. Society needs to ensure that digitally encoded information can still be understood and used in the future when the software, systems and everyday knowledge will have changed” [20].

A snapshot of what this might mean to cultural preservation efforts can be seen at Project Jukebox, the digital branch of the Oral History Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Project Jukebox “was originally developed using Hypercard in 1988 … and is a way to integrate oral history recordings with associated photographs, maps, and text” [21]. As technology has advanced, the project information was translated from Hypercard  into HTML. A few of the Jukeboxes on the site rely on frames (a convention of marking up a site in separate panes). In current software standards, frames are officially deprecated and will be obsolete in with the release of HTML 5. This means that for the cultural preservation work of Project Jukebox to continue, sections of the web site will have to be upgraded. Consider also that the entire project uses mp3 format for its audio. What will become of the library when compressed “lossy” audio formats such as mp3 become obsolete?


For Indigenous communities willing to embrace ICTs, change is part of the new reality.  Change means new technologies, new formats, and new expectations. For such communities, embracing this change will be vital to maintaining tradition in the modern age. It can become a critical aspect for the reintegration of knowledge back into the community — what Fishman calls re-vernacularization: “Vernacularization is the opposite of institutionalization. Re-vernacularization requires not only inter-generational language transmission, but societal change” [22].

Cultural change is difficult to bear even when one’s traditions are not at risk of disappearing. The addition of technology to the process of change can compound the concerns of Indigenous people and raise questions that are difficult to answer. The issues explored in this essay are not exhaustive and are meant to suggest starting points by which Indigenous communities might begin to address the complex challenges they face using ICTs in their cultural revitalization efforts.


1. Singleton, G.: Saving Traditions. ICT Update. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU),

2. Michael, K., Dunn, L.: The Use of Information and Communication Technology for the Preservation of Aboriginal Culture: the Badimaya People of Western Australia. Dyson, L. (ed.) Information Technology and Indigenous People. Idea Group Publishing (2006)

3. Holland, M.P., Smith, K.R.: Using Information Technology to Preserve and Sustain Cultural Heritage: the Digital Collective. World Culture Report 2000: Cultural Diversity, Conflict and Pluralism. 1 ed., pp. 186–196. UNESCO Publishing, Paris (2000)

4. Kincheloe, J.L., Semali, L.M.: What is Indigenous Knowledge?: Voices From the Academy. Garland Publishing, New York (1999)

5. von Thater-Braan, R. Is It Possible to Have Information Technology that Reflects Indigenous Consciousness? Native Science Academy (2007)

6. Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge,

7. Ellen, R., Harris, H.: Concepts of Indigenous Environmental Knowledge in Scientific and Development Studies Literature: a Critical Assessment,

8. Agrawal, A.: Indigenous and Scientific Knowledge: Some Critical Comments. IK Monitor. 3(3), 33–41 (1995)

9. Landzelius, K.: Postscript: Vox Populi from the Margins? Landzelius, K. (ed.), Native on the Net: Indigenous and Diasporic Peoples in the Virtual Age. Routledge, London & New York (2006)

10. Barth, S.: Digitizing or Indigenizing Knowledge?

11. Ess, C.: Questioning the Obvious? Ethical and Cultural Dimensions of CMC and ICTs,

12. Moore, P., Hennessy, K.: New Technologies and Contested Ideologies: The Tagish FirstVoices Project. American Indian Quarterly. 30, 119–137 (2006)

13. Indigenous Knowledge and Resource Management in Northern Australia (IKRMNA),

14. Lieberman, A.E.: Taking Ownership: Strengthening Indigenous Cultures and Languages Through the Use of ICTs. LearnLink, U.S. Agency for International Development,

15. Ara Irititja Project,

16. Mukurtu,

17. Thorton Media, Inc.: Press Release: Cherokee Company Helps Tribes Use Nintendo DSi to Save Endangered Languages, Also Releases First Ever App at iTunes Store to Teach an Endangered Language,

18. FirstVoices: Press Release: B.C. First Nations Language Apps Now Available for the iPod, iPad and iPhone,

19. Heinberg, R.: Our Evanescent Culture And the Awesome Duty of Librarians,

20. Giaretta, D.: Digital Data – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,

21. Project Jukebox,

22. Fishman, J.: Maintaining Languages: What Works? What Doesn’t? Cantoni, G. (ed.) Stabilizing Indigenous Languages. Flagstaff: A Center for Excellence in Education Monograph, pp. 165–175. Northern Arizona University (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

RSS Ethnos Project Papers