Indigenous Communities are Using an Empowering Tool to Reclaim Their Histories in the Digital Space

four individuals seated and standing around a table with archival material as one points to details of an image in a stereograph viewer Valerie Switzler (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) and Roberta Conner (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation) reevaluate archival materials with Guha Shankar and Melissa Lindberg at the Library of Congress. Photo: Kimberly Christen.

Dr. Kimberly Christen talks about Mukurtu, a grassroots, open-source community access platform that allows for respectful sharing of cultural heritage.

Sharing may be the currency of our open-source digital age, but in some cultures, not everything is meant to be made public. For Indigenous communities, viewing a ritual object, even in reproduction on a website, might be strictly reserved for tribal elders who fully understand its meaning. And because of sacred beliefs, some objects may simply not be available for non-Indigenous people to access at all. A grassroots effort to create a tool to address those concerns resulted in Mukurtu, a community access platform now used by more than 600 communities globally. 

“All of Mukurtu’s features and functions come directly from the communities who use it,” says Kimberly Christen, professor of digital technology and culture at Washington State University in Pullman. In 2007, Christen helped create Mukurtu, and she now leads the team that maintains the platform at WSU’s Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation. Mukurtu is a practical tool, but also “a social tool,” says Christen, and “a place where respectful use of traditional knowledge begins through people.”

We spoke with Dr. Christen about how this free and open-source platform has empowered Indigenous communities to reclaim their cultural heritage and add their expert voices to the public record.

Can you explain the origins of Mukurtu and what the word means?
The platform was developed in 2007 in collaboration with the Warumungu, an Aboriginal community in Central Australia I had been working with since 1995. The Warumungu wanted to create a community archive of songs, dances, and other cultural traditions along with thousands of photographs they had received from missionaries, teachers, and researchers who had visited the community, and Mukurtu provided the infrastructure for that. The name comes from Michael Jampin Jones, a member of the Warumungu community, who told me that elders would keep sacred items in a woven dilly bag or mukurtu, which means a safekeeping place. Mukurtu CMS is meant to provide the same sense of protection.

How does Mukurtu empower Indigenous communities to manage and protect their cultural heritage?
The software has evolved since its first iteration for the Warumungu, but the heart and soul of the platform remains the locally adaptable sharing protocols that facilitate different levels of access to cultural heritage, knowledge, and information. For example, a large selection of images of tribal artifacts and documents on a website might be available to the public, while reproductions of culturally sensitive places, ancestors, or sacred objects can be accessed only by community members.

"The process of shared curation builds relationships and trust that serve as the basis for ongoing collaborations and the production of new knowledge."

The platform encourages knowledge sharing and collaboration between Indigenous communities and repositories that hold their materials. How does that process work?
Non-Indigenous repositories hold the legal rights to Indigenous materials, but their object records may contain insufficient or even incorrect information. Mukurtu’s “roundtrip” tools make it easy to share those records and all related metadata with the tribal community for enhancement or corrections; updated records are then returned to the institution and uploaded to its system. Some collection items might be previously unknown to tribal communities, who will receive a digital copy for their own archive. The process of shared curation builds relationships and trust that serve as the basis for ongoing collaborations and the production of new knowledge, materials, and resources.

Can you describe an example of successful ethical sharing between communities?
The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal is a partnership among eight tribal nations of the Inland Pacific Northwest and WSU’s Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, National Anthropological Archives, and the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. What makes the portal unique is not only the interrelated collections, but the layered descriptions, which present users with sets of interrelated knowledge that weave a rich narrative of Plateau history and culture from multiple perspectives. This combination of tribal and scholarly knowledge brings each item to life and links it to other items and histories of knowledge that have heretofore been separate. With this process, we see the expansion of the museum records and the possibilities for sharing diverse sets of knowledge.

How has the juxtaposition of data sets and co-curation of metadata expanded shared understanding of objects and histories?
A basket in the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture was called a “root gathering bag” and described as a “round, twined, cylindrical, corn husk bag” in the existing record. Through a rich co-curation process by tribal experts from the Warm Springs nation, the institutional record is shown with community-sourced knowledge. Users can toggle between the museum record tab and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs tab; there, the label describes the item as a “duck basket,” and includes added details about its construction and the meaning of its design. A short video discussing tribal cultural values, movement, and language provided additional context. Traditional knowledge, shared memories, and tribal histories expand and enrich the public historical record and link histories of collections and colonization with those of survival and adaptation.

As functionality scales up, how will you address long-term maintenance and training?
The technical foundation is maintained by the Mukurtu team at WSU. Regional hubs based at local institutions offer support, training, development, and deployment of the platform to tribal archives, libraries, and museums, who give direct feedback to our development team to ensure that the new features and functions serve community needs.

As use of the platform and the need for our support programs have grown, it became clear to the WSU Mukurtu team that workshops needed to be part of a broader training. In 2013, we created the Sustainable Heritage Network, which brings together knowledge holders in the fields of library, archives, and museum management to offer regional and national hands-on workshops in digital stewardship, all with an emphasis on tribal protocols. In 2014, in direct response to a need articulated by tribal professionals, the Center for Digital Scholarship, funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services launched the Tribal Stewardship Cohort Program, a yearlong certificate-granting program that offers comprehensive training in which Mukurtu CMS is a core component of the holistic, culturally sustainable digital heritage management plan.

Through this programming, we have created a vast network and built collaborative alliances in which education and support take precedence over the software or tools—because without the communities, the tools don’t work.