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AI and Indigenous Knowledge


This week's Teaching's Tuesday is being offered by Culturally Committed Member, Kathy Davidson. Kathy, I am so grateful to you for your willingness to stand in your unknowing, with the recognition that the pursuit of cultural safety is an imperfect practice. Thank you for being such a beautiful part of our Community.




At a recent Culturally Committed community call, I experienced a lightning bolt of insight, which led to a ripple of understanding about many other things. I’ve been encouraged to share this learning in this week’s Teachings Tuesday, despite not feeling at all equipped to do so this early in my learning journey. But I also know that this journey means constantly challenging myself and stepping out of the comfort zone and so I share this bolt of lightning thoughtfully.


The discussion was related to AI and its response to questions about the significance of the four directions in Coast Salish culture. A (settler) member of our group had posed a question to AI and then challenged the response in a way that appeared to cause the model to learn from the questions posed. The Mentors and Elders on the call were asked how they felt about using AI for this purpose. The thoughts they carefully and respectfully shared resulted in several key learnings for me.


One aspect of AI that is important to recognize is that most developers of the technology perpetuate colonial-settler culture. I am not alone in recognizing that the perspectives of under-represented communities are absent from any answers that AI generates because those perspectives are not widely available for AI to draw from on the internet. However, my colonial worldview led me to see the potential – the opportunity - to “teach” AI without recognizing the inherent harm in “feeding” AI with Indigenous knowledge so as to ensure the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in its answers in the future. As is often the case, my intent came from a good place, but I now recognize the impact would have been harmful.


Indigenous knowledge and systems of knowledge –and Indigenous inheritance of knowledge, as described by Mentor Rocky James - belong to Indigenous communities. It is carefully protected to avoid the “commodification, commercialization and consumption of Indigenous knowledge by non-Indigenous people” as has occurred since contact. It is not for others, including AI, to presume to share it on their behalf.

This new understanding led me to turn my focus to the collection and governance of Indigenous data, which is something that many organizations do. But now I recognize that I hadn’t fully understood the importance of Indigenous data sovereignty to ensure that Indigenous communities control their own Indigenous knowledge. Mentor Rocky James pointed those of us on the call to the work of Indigenous Australian lawyer Terri Janke in Managing Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property[1]:


When Indigenous knowledge is removed from an Indigenous community, the community loses control over the way in which it is represented and used. These systems of knowledge may have evolved over many years and are uniquely bound up with Indigenous peoples' customs, beliefs, traditions, land and resources. Hence, Indigenous people worldwide have called for greater protection. Indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights include the right to:
• own and control Indigenous cultural and intellectual property
• ensure that a means of protecting Indigenous cultural and intellectual property is based on the principle of self-determination
• be recognised as the primary guardians and interpreters of their cultures
• maintain the secrecy of Indigenous knowledge and other cultural practices
• ensure full and proper attribution, and
• control the recording of cultural customs and expressions, and the particular language, which may be intrinsic to cultural identity, knowledge, skill, and teaching of culture.

In Canada, the First Nations Information Governance Centre[2] provides tools and resources to support the application of principles of ownership, control, access, and possession – more commonly known as OCAP®


The final piece of my learning from the call was something that came through reflection later in the evening and the next day. I was puzzling over my deepening understanding that Indigenous knowledge is sacred and secret and not for others to share on behalf of Indigenous communities, while trying to align that truth with something else I know to be true – that I, as a settler, must not expect Indigenous people to teach me what I want and need to learn. It is not their duty or responsibility to educate me. How, then, can I continue my learning journey if I can only learn these things from those who hold that knowledge?


The importance of relationships and relationality then became clear. It is only through honest and authentic relationships with Indigenous communities that I as a settler can hope to be trusted enough to be offered an opportunity to hear of some of these stories and cultural practices so as to support me towards reconciliation. Culturally Committed is one such community; I am so grateful to be part of it and I join every session with my heart open ready to listen.

[1] Janke, T. (2005). Managing Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property. Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 36, 95-107. [2] https://fnigc.ca/ocap-training/

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