The Westbank First Nation Archaeology Office have teamed up with Dr. Neha Gupta (UBCO) to develop a unique digital archaeology project that celebrates syilx heritage and strengthens Indigenous data governance.
The project brings together audio and video recordings of syilx knowledge-keepers, photographs of cultural heritage, and location information to create an interactive web map that will be publicly available later this year. By showcasing syilx heritage on their own terms, the Westbank First Nation archaeologists are hoping to invite the syilx community to reconnect with their history and culture, and, secondarily, share these understandings with Canadians more broadly.
“This project seeks to re-centre WFN archaeologists, and syilx scholars as active stewards of their heritage data and support these efforts through building capacity in digital methods, and training opportunities in heritage research and Indigenous data governance.”— Dr. Neha Gupta, Community, Culture and Global Studies, UBC Okanagan
The project, which lasted for 19 months, was co-led by Nancy Bonneau of the Westbank First Nation Archaeology Office and Dr. Gupta from UBCO’s Community, Culture, and Global Studies department. It is an inspiring example of a reciprocal community-university partnership. The Westbank First Nation provided expertise on heritage sites, preservation techniques, and the community’s views on sharing digital heritage with the public, while UBCO contributed its experience, training opportunities, and a strong commitment to research and documentation methods.
Building on established principles of Indigenous data governance, the partnership drew on existing syilx cultural protocols and built capacity in heritage research and data literacy for the Westbank First Nation. Additionally, the project is creating opportunities for further research and the development of innovative digital tools and technologies that facilitate public engagement with syilx heritage.
This partnership was supported by the Community-University Engagement Support Fund.
See below for project details and a Q&A with project co-leads Dr. Gupta and Bonneau.
Title: Needs Assessment of Digital Archaeological Information Governance Tools at Westbank First Nation Archaeology Office
Co-leads: Nancy Bonneau (she, her, hers), Westbank First Nation Archaeology Office, and Dr. Neha Gupta (she, her, hers), Community, Culture and Global Studies, UBC Okanagan
Duration: May 2021 to November 2022
- Read their research paper: Connecting Past to Present: Enacting Indigenous Data Governance Principles in Westbank First Nation’s Archaeology and Digital Heritage
- Visit the Westbank First Nation website
Click here to read the full project description
The University of British Columbia – Okanagan (UBCO) and Westbank First Nation are collaborating on a public humanities project to create an interactive web map showcasing syilx digital heritage. The project aims to expand Indigenous data governance protocols and build capacity in heritage research and digital methods for the Westbank First Nation. This supports the Province of British Columbia’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and First Nations’ transition to self-governance.
Building on the principles of Indigenous data governance established by organizations such as the Global Indigenous Data Alliance (GIDA) and the First Nations Information Governance Centre’s OCAP® principles, the research team will survey syilx archives for digital heritage and develop protocols for appropriate access and sharing. Once developed, they will implement them and make publicly available digital media such as audio recordings, photographs, and place-based information on syilx cultural heritage for the Okanagan community. Syilx heritage is community-owned and we work on materials managed by the Title and Rights Department of the Westbank First Nation.
The project combines audio and video recordings of syilx knowledge-keepers, photographs of cultural heritage, and location information to create a web map that encourages engagement with the digital media and promotes understanding of syilx history, culture, and heritage. The project opens opportunities for further research and capacity building in Indigenous governance of digital archaeological collections and the development of digital tools for public engagement with syilx heritage.
Q&A with project co-leads Dr. Neha Gupta and Nancy Bonneau
Why is this project important and how does it support Westbank First Nation (WFN) goals?
Gupta: Amplifying WFN’s digital heritage is an important step in connecting the syilx community’s past with its present and reactivating community interest in syilx history, culture and heritage for syilx futures. Yet there are well-founded concerns about sharing syilx heritage on the internet, because once digital images, video or other content is on the Web, anyone can use, modify and redistribute them. In so doing, they may bring harm to the community to whom the heritage relates. Indigenous Nations and communities across the globe have experienced harm when non-Indigenous scholars take ownership and authority over Indigenous knowledges, cultural heritage and narratives. This is an on-going problem in which university researchers and heritage professionals are actors. We often claim authoritative voice on an Indigenous Nation and community, are in positions of power to influence others, and often secure vast and varied material resources to support their research programs and train their students. All the while, Indigenous Nations and communities are decentered and marginalized in benefitting from research in their communities. This project seeks to re-centre WFN archaeologists, and syilx scholars as active stewards of their heritage data and support these efforts through building capacity in digital methods, and training opportunities in heritage research and Indigenous data governance. This is one path that university researchers might take toward equitable benefits for Indigenous Nations and communities that we work with.
What strengths did each party (UBC partner + community partner) bring to the project?
Gupta: WFN has in-depth knowledge of its area of responsibility, including the location of heritage sites and monitoring their condition is a key part of the Archaeology Office’s activities. In addition to creating opportunities for education, the Archaeology Office provides expertise to preserve and protect the sites, which are at risk of damage from events such as floods, fires, construction, mining, and deforestation. Meanwhile, UBCO brought experience, training opportunities, and a dedicated commitment to research methods and documenting the process.
During the project, what opportunities did participants have to teach, learn, or do research?
Gupta: Throughout the project, WFN archaeologists have received training to increase their research capacity and understanding of different types of data. For example, Nancy’s archaeology team recently completed training in the OCAP® Principles in Indigenous data governance, which provide an opportunity to gain skills in community-centred research design and developing research agreements that equitably benefit Indigenous Nations and communities. The certification is offered by the First Nations Information Governance Centre and enables First Nations governments in asserting their rights when collaborating with various Canadian cultural institutions and researchers.
The research paper we produced together reflects initial efforts to address the question: what does place-based digital heritage research look like when we centre syilx community rights to its heritage, including archaeological heritage? Doing so is complex, as Canadian governments have imposed colonial laws and legal frameworks that delimit syilx territories and separate the syilx community into bands. These are represented by the Okanagan Indian Band, Upper Nicola Band, Westbank First Nation, Penticton Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band and Lower and Upper Similkameen Indian Bands, as well as the Colville Confederated Tribes. At the moment, we work only with heritage in Westbank’s area of responsibility.
We recognized through early conversations that cultural protocol is necessary in any handling and sharing of digital heritage, so that we limit their misuse and harm to community. We also realized the interest in using interactive digital tools that bring together Elders and knowledge keepers with youth; this learning is key to reconnection with, and revitalization of syilx ways of knowing.
As I began initial inquiries into how the Archaeology Office could better manage and use data in its responsibility, I learned about the possibilities and limitations when it comes to digital infrastructure, softwares and the labour associated with maintaining data. To come into conversation with syilx perspectives, I received syilx cultural training with teachings from syilx Elders Pamela and Grouse Barnes. These teachings are guiding a deeper understanding of ‘heritage’ as a Western conceptualization that doesn’t reflect or adequately represent syilx knowledge systems.
Bonneau: syilx knowledge systems are rarely reflected in archaeology research. Many archaeologists and Cultural Resource Management (archaeology consulting) companies write very little about syilx people and most are so pressed for time they can’t conduct in depth research about the people that have created the archaeology. When data is collected in the field of archaeology there is a responsibility to have a really good record kept and with digitization an extra bit of caution is necessary. This extra caution is due to the fast-paced changes in technology and the need to consistently update electronic systems because there is a fear of losing data, or data being accidentally deleted or corrupted. There is also a fear that First Nations have that the information they provide will become publicized without their consent and may not always reflect the initial intent of the information.
It was made clear at the outset that the data for this research had to be made accessible for two sets of audiences, the WFN members and all others. This delineation of information has become necessary due to some concern about sharing sensitive data and intellectual property rights.
The participants from WFN had a good amount of time to research, approximately three quarters of the time was committed to research and the remainder of the time for this project was committed to data entry.
What was your favorite outcome or experience from the project?
Bonneau: I enjoyed learning about data governance and being a part of important research. This has provided WFN with some good tools to use for research.
Gupta: The entire process was my favorite outcome. It has been a good experience and WFN continues to build upon the project.
Can you share a few lessons you learned during your project?
Gupta: We learned that research must change and shift its contours as we build relationships of trust. I learned research design comes from working on the ground in conversation with Nancy and the community. Listening carefully to what WFN archaeologists would like to do with data and understanding the cultural protocols associated with that data is a path to designing risk- and harm-aware research that community collaborators can truly benefit from.
Bonneau: From a WFN perspective, I learned how important it is to collaborate on this type of research, there is always something to learn, always an opportunity to grow, there is always someone there that wants to know about our way of life, in all types of forms.
What is next for this project?
Bonneau: A policy has been developed and approved by both WFN’s legal counsel and Chief and Council, to guide the collaboration between two of WFN’s departments in protecting archaeological sites during development on WFN reserve lands. In addition, WFN plans to further digitize research and develop an interactive map for use by both WFN members and the public, through the WFN museum.