Indigenous Approaches to Digital Infrastructure
A new postdoctoral fellowship explores how Indigenous perspectives are building trust in technological infrastructures
Earlier this year, Data & Society proudly welcomed Tiara Roxanne as a postdoctoral fellow. In this blog post, Roxanne introduces their approach to a vital question: Can a digital infrastructure be trustworthy from an Indigenous perspective? Throughout the course of their fellowship, Roxanne will work with the key concepts of sacredity, Indigenous cosmology, and storytelling, bringing them into conversation with an evolving literature on trust and safety in digital infrastructures. Roxanne uses a methodology that comes to define these concepts through practice, grounding their explorations of trustworthiness in the everyday and in vital practices of building Indigenous knowledge, sovereignty, and data. Their contribution will help build a networked community of Indigenous practitioners and a corpus of scholarship in Indigenous approaches to data and trust. Roxanne’s crucial work extends Data & Society’s approach to data through, as they write, “decolonial gestures” that refuse to “appropriate ritual, tradition, or cosmology” and instead center Indigenous safety in data-centric worlds.
Roxanne’s fellowship is under Data & Society’s new Trustworthy Infrastructures program, which we will share more about in September.
– Sareeta Amrute, principal researcher and program director
As an Indigenous cyberfeminist (Tarascan/Purépecha/Mestiza) working at the intersections of technology, Indigenous studies, intersectional feminism, and performance art, I seek points of arrival and departure in imagining trustworthy infrastructures. My postdoc will integrate research methodologies and anti-colonial approaches that build from Indigenous cosmology. My practice locates encounters between trust in a general sense and Indigenous aspects from South, Central, and North America.
Both offline and online, Indigenous peoples are still fighting to be acknowledged as present-day peoples. We do so amid countless instances of data and digital colonialism. My work is dedicated to shedding light on these violences while activating Indigenous assertion into the thinking, the building, and the execution of digital/technological infrastructures.
When I use the concept “Indigenous people,” I am referring to Indigenous, First Nations, Aztecas del Norte, Aboriginal, Indian, American Indian, Mestiza, Pueblo Indian, Mexican Indigenous, Indigenous Native American, Native, Native American, Tarascan, Purépecha, Mayan, Aztec, Metis, Iñupiat, Inupiaq, Inuit, and Alaskan pre-colonial peoples as well as those who have long-term ancestry within the North Canadian Arctic region, Canada, and the Americas. This is not to claim that the term Indigenous and the listed referential identities alongside are one and the same, it is to state that they are all pre-colonial peoples with present-day long-term ancestry located within these regions. By using the term “Indigenous people,” I am speaking about those who embody the pre-colonial existence belonging to these territories.
Indigenous people remain unacknowledged as present-day beings, a harm which doubles when moved online. Consider datamining extraction — the prolonging absence of Indigeneity within datasets, a kind of power-move that prevents people from receiving resources, from being acknowledged as a very alive people. This example underscores the urgency of asserting Indigenous perspectives into the understanding and development of technological infrastructures. Highlighting Indigenous voices will provide new modes of access to, and understandings of, AI — not as a move toward tech-solutionism, but as a response to and redirection of energies already entrenched within automated technologies.
The Decolonial Gesture
Decolonization is impossible, because it requires that the settler return land to Indigenous peoples — when that land bears the scars of its colonizers. Instead, I am interested in active forms of acknowledgment that lean into the more embodied or experiential — or, toward gestures of decolonization. This is what I call the decolonial gesture: a space where we inhabit active and bodily or embodied gestures or actions as moves toward decolonization. The Indigenous body is a site of colonization and therefore, resistance. Across my work, I ask readers to encounter the embodied gesture by actively acknowledging the damage of digital and data colonialism from the space of the body. One example of a decolonial gesture is acknowledging the violences of settler colonialism from the space of the body. By understanding the body as both physical and phenomenological, we are able to recognize the violence of settler colonialism beyond epistemology.
For this project, I choose to work with Indigenous studies, grounded theory, cultural theory, intersectional cyberfeminism, and design justice. These methodologies will assist in the growth of this project, but they are also inherently colonial. They are outgrowths of a Western academic system that has developed from and upholds colonial occupation. Because of this, I will utilize what is necessary from each methodology in order to generate my own decolonial gesture — to integrate Indigenous practice, situatedness, and even cosmology.
I will work with three Indigenous communities, one each from North America, Central America and South America, in order to create a community-centered digital infrastructure that takes on necessary protocols while holding space for Indigenous voice, practice, and overall assertion.
During the course of this research, I will work with the above communities, holding workshops and conducting outreach. I will also publish about my research, as well as formulate a conceptual essay that highlights my findings. I would like to imagine not only a technological infrastructure with Indigenous sacredity at its core, but one that promotes trust and safety online for Indigenous communities.
Working key concepts
How do I encounter embodied experiences in digital territory, through knowledge-making, intergenerational sharing, and cosmological weaving as a Tarascan-Mestiza, where this body is already a site of border control, quantum-making and ritual?
What gestures of decolonization and togetherness are possible in the digital — without appropriating ritual, tradition, cosmology?
Can a digital infrastructure be trustworthy from an Indigenous perspective?