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The Role of Technology in Indigenous Communities

Group of aboriginal peopleThe Mukurtu CMS was originally developed by project leads Kim Christen and Craig Dietrich alongside members of the Warumungu community.

As of 2017, however, Mukurtu is employed by a diverse array of communities around the world, all joined by a shared desire to chronicle and share their cultural heritage in the digital realm.

The Warumungu are indigenous Australians who primarily inhabit the Northern Territories of the country, as well as various towns in the south.

Their long history in their native lands turned to grave struggles with famine and displacement in the 20th century. Gold mining forced the community away from their homelands, which they were unable to reclaim until 1993 after a protracted legal battle.

Many other indigenous communities around the world have adopted Mukurtu over the last ten years. The Plateau People’s Web Portal is a particularly intriguing example of the archive in action. It is primarily organized around ‘Tribal Paths’ – each one dedicated to a different plateau tribe. With cultural sensitivity in mind, each path follows the protocols of the individual tribe. Materials posted on the platform are carefully curated and searchable via categories and media type (images, text, etc).

Scholars have long understood the importance or preserving and sharing global social heritage but the rights and needs of indigenous communities have been swept aside repeatedly through history by the aggressive interests of expanding empires and aggressive corporate interests.

Although inroads have been made to connect communities, the way of life of native peoples has been changed irreparably by the recent settlement of individuals in the ‘new world.’

The relative isolation of these communities leads them to exist on the periphery of mainstream society. Living conditions in American reservations are dramatically worse on average than the national average, with almost 30% below the federal poverty line. Meanwhile, life expectancies remain five years lower than the national average.

The dilemma faced by many tribal leaders is one of increased integration vs. ongoing efforts at cultural preservation. These interests are regarded by many to be incompatible with one another, but technology can help communities to document remarkable artifacts unique to their tribe.

Here are some more inspiring examples of how communities around the world are preserving and exchanging their cultural heritage online:

Utah American Indian Digital Archive

The Utah American Indian Digital Archive is a remarkably detailed resource featuring a large number of articles, books, photos, and maps from each of Utah’s tribes. The team behind the archive are involved in ongoing digitization efforts to bring more and more valuable historical and cultural treasures to a wider digital platform

Researchers from the University of Utah’s American West Center pioneered this resource on behalf of Utah’s Indians and approximately 40 years of research have gone into its creation and collection of artifacts.

The website also employs a powerful advanced search feature making it relatively easy to dig up information on particular specialized areas of interest.

Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages

The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages is a digital archive dedicated to works of literature in languages of Indigenous Australians of the Northern Territories.

It is noteworthy for it’s intuitive map feature, allowing users to search around the coastal and vast inland expanses of the Australian Northern Territory to find aboriginal language books lovingly digitized.

Uploads are also carefully categorized by author and each indivdual tribal language. Meanwhile, users can browse for particular kinds of literature to identify, for example, narrative fiction works only.

Iroquois Indian Museum

The Iroquois Indian Museum is located around 50km west of Albany in upstate New York. The team behind the museum stage an annual festival which features demonstrations, traditional dancing and market stalls.

The Iroquois confederacy was a powerful force in the northeast region and consisted of multiple tribes including the Mohawk peoples.

The museum is noteworthy for not just focusing on historical artifacts, but for featuring the work of modern Iroquois artists from the 1960s to the present day. In addition, however, the museum is home to a number of significant archaeological exhibits of substantial historical interest.

For more information, see the museum’s current collections for photos and detailed descriptions of the materials on display. The museum Facebook page is also well worth following.

3 Best CMS & Digital Archives For Communities

In the modern age, preservation of cultural artifacts by indigenous communities is increasingly moving online. Whether we like it or not, cultural hegemony is a real phenomenon in linguistic artistic and wider social spheres.

The new digital terrain we all operate in may speed up the spread of dominant culture, but it can also be a safe-keeping space for the cultural artifacts of small communities.

As Aboriginal communities adopt modern technology, they are seeking ways to balance the competing influences of integration and preservation.

In this article, we look at the best options for CMS & Digital archives that are socially responsible and culturally sensitive to the needs of these users.

WordPress

This will not come as a surprise, but the world’s most popular CMS is also one with great global potential. In particular:

    • The ability for users to set their administration language independent of the site’s front-end language. This gives great flexibility for people from wide-ranging parts of the world to interact with WordPress as an administrator and not just a reader. Language settings can be done on a user-by-user basis. (See: WPML.org)
    • Social features like BuddyPress facilitate sharing and community organization. Users can establish groups, make friendships and even privately message each other. This helps to make online preservation a collaborative experience – be it stories, folklore, photographs, or otherwise.
    • WordPress is very well geared toward security and best practice backup protocols. VaultPress is itself developed by Automattic (the firm of WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg). This means preservation efforts, whether they’re published online or offline, can be reliably secured and protected against any possible data loss. This is, after all, one of the core requirements of a reliable digital archive!

Get WordPress.

Mukurtu Archive

Mukurtu is an open-source CMS with the distinction of being developed alongside indigenous communities themselves. This gives the platform an unparalleled degree of specialization in the use case of small, culturally diverse communities.

Mukurtu is mobile-ready, and the development ethos is to be responsive to the needs of its core base of users. The key tenet of Mukurtu is to facilitate the management, sharing, and exchange of digital heritage to empower and connect communities.

Get Mukurtu. See Demos.

Drupal

Another great option to round out our picks is Drupal. Also open source, the Drupal community is underpinned by the collaboration of many thousands of talented developers and designers around the world.

Its userbase is impressive – from media behemoths like the BBC and NBC to none other than the digital presence of the US government.

Like WordPress, what makes Drupal well-suited to the needs of niche communities is its responsive to the needs of its userbase. As a popular and much-loved CMS, it also has a secure developmental strategy and clear future prominence, making it a less risky choice than other newer platforms. The last thing you want as a digital archive administrator or website operator is to end up running on redundant software.

These risks are all low with Drupal. You also get to enjoy a suite of features that includes:

  • Blogging and forum capabilities.
  • Advanced search (useful for digging up material from archives)
  • Very frequent security updates
  • Content creation and editing by multiple users for collaborative initiatives.

Get Drupal.

Conclusion

There are many other content management systems (CMS) we could have included in this list for their impressive features or ambitious goals.

However, a digital archive tailored to a small and potentially non-tech savvy community needs several things to be truly well suited:

  1. User-friendliness and linguistic flexibility – it’s essential that the platform can be adapted for use by people with little to no technical expertise. Multiple language settings and/or simple English instructions can also make-or-break accessibility efforts.
  2. Security – as bugs and vulnerabilities emerge, it’s important that an open-source team is ready behind a CMS to patch and protect the integrity of the software. Newer startup CMS offerings tend to be leaner and with a smaller user base comes slower responsiveness.
  3. A Clear Future – once a digital archive has been established to store heritage materials from the community, it’s necessary that the underlying CMS stays relevant over time. Aboriginal communities are unlikely to be able to switch their CMS of choice with any great ease, and so this ensures time proofing of their efforts and ensures their ability to continue sharing and managing their materials.

Other options like Joomla! did not make the list because their declining popularity has seen many members of the open source development community jump ship to those CMS’s that are prospering in 2017, like WordPress and Drupal. This makes these two popular platforms, alongside the highly tailored Mukurtu, great picks for any small community seeking to connect, share and manage their heritage in the digital realm.

Whether it’s photography, video, speech, or text, you can find a safe haven with WordPress, Drupal, or Mukurtu.