Indigenous data sovereignty



We need to learn from indigenous peoples to protect our data

What can we learn from indigenous peoples’ fight for data sovereignty? Certainly a lot. The first lesson is that the resistance of original peoples in various territories around the world has long included the defense of the data of their lands, their culture and their population as a fundamental practice for the defense of their existence and their way of life. The second lesson is a warning that the data taken from a people can be used to subjugate and exploit them, to find their weak points and break their resistance.

“Gida” is a Basque word and means guide. In July 2019, a workshop was held in the Basque country, in the city of Oñati, to discuss the rights of indigenous peoples. One of the resolutions of this meeting was the constitution of GIDA, the Global Indigenous Data Alliance, which can be translated into Portuguese as Global Indigenous Data Alliance. Seven indigenous nations were present and considered international coordination necessary to disseminate laws, regulations and collective standards for data protection and sovereignty. The articulation stands as a guide for the protection and governance of indigenous peoples' data, since Western data protection laws are focused on the individual.

One of the indigenous peoples that make up GIDA are the Māori, who live in modern-day New Zealand. For them, data is a valuable resource that “once you lose control of it, it’s difficult to get it back.”[I] Data collected by your people, about your people and about the environments in which they live are taonga, a Maori word that can be understood as collective property. Māori have a data sovereignty advocacy network. The network called Te Mana Raraunga brings together Māori researchers and one of its slogans is “Our Data, Our Sovereignty, Our Future”.

The fight for indigenous data sovereignty is not new. In a book published in 1999, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and indigenous people, indigenous researcher Linda Tuhiwai Smith wrote a critique of the colonialist way of researching and extracting information from indigenous populations. In the first part of the book, Tuhiwai Smith presents the history of imperialist, positivist and colonial investigation into indigenous populations. In the second she shows the new agenda for indigenous research to overcome colonial culture. The Māori author, at the beginning of the text, warns that the term indigenous is a difficult generalization that encompasses countless different realities, cultures and organizations that cannot be reducible to Western statistics.

Tuhiwai Smith's book had a good repercussion and, although it did not contain the expression data sovereignty in its pages, it laid out the basis for criticizing how quantified information, data, can discriminate, distort, mischaracterize the culture and worldview of people. . He also questioned whether a non-indigenous researcher would have the right to extract data from a people without consulting them and without saying the objectives and purposes of the research. This criticism by indigenous researchers of the epistemological supremacy of neocolonialism opened the way for solutions to confront and overcome the problem. “When working to decolonize data in modern times, the place to start is Indigenous Data Sovereignty” (ROBERTS; MONTOYA, 2022).

Articulations between indigenous leaders and researchers advanced in the first decade of the XNUMXst century and generated countless meetings and the formation of a thought for the sovereignty of indigenous data. The book Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an agenda, edited by Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, released in 2016, brings together reflections, cases and propositions on indigenous data sovereignty. Bringing together chapters on indigenous people from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, known by the acronym CANZUS, it illustrates the right of indigenous peoples to control and manage data about their territories and their lives.

At the beginning of the XNUMXst century, data acquired the status of fundamental input for the digital economy and fundamental technologies, such as so-called Artificial Intelligence. Creating data collection devices has been a permanent economic activity increasingly carried out by various companies and institutions, ranging from Big Techs to small application creators. The business model based on offering digital interfaces and free services has been successful and generated trillion-dollar digital oligopolies, such as the Alphabet, Amazon, Meta groups, etc.

Thus, the indigenous communities of CANZUS soon realized the importance of data sovereignty, even before the techno-economically poor or middle-income Western societies considered the problem and turned it into a political demand. Interestingly, the expression of data sovereignty appeared in Europe in the first decade of the XNUMXst century with the realization that technological advances were being driven and controlled by North American and Chinese corporations. However, the issue of data for indigenous researchers and activists followed the evolution of information technologies in their territories, as their status as an instrument of power was evident.

In 2015, the Australian Academy of Social Sciences organized a meeting on Data Sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples, which, among other ideas and propositions, included the idea of ​​forming a permanent collective to address the topic. In 2018, in Canberra, the Maiam nayri Wingara Indigenous Data Sovereignty Collective was created. In describing her story, Maiam nayri Wingara argues: “Indigenous people have always been data collectors and protectors. Indigenous groups around the world have become increasingly involved in the data space in response to historical practices and to guide good practices in the future. This included establishing country-specific networks, including the US Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network (USIDSN), to support Indigenous Data Sovereignty through data-driven research, policy advocacy, and education. The New Zealand-based Te Mana Raraunga – Māori Data Sovereignty Network (…) argues that data collected about indigenous people should be subject to the laws of the nation from which it is collected, including tribal nations.” (MAIAM NAYRI WINGARA, online)

Several networks and collectives were formed to defend the data sovereignty of their indigenous peoples and nations from the first decade of the XNUMXst century. In general, they work on data sovereignty as the right of indigenous peoples to exercise control over their people's data in the creation, collection, access, analysis, interpretation, management, dissemination and reuse of that data. Some documents use the term data ownership instead of data control. The Maiam nayri Wingara Collective considers that 'indigenous data' “refers to information or knowledge, in any format or medium, that addresses and can affect indigenous peoples, both collectively and individually” (MAIAM NAYRI WINGARA, online).

The sovereign control of data by indigenous peoples, tribes and communities is considered crucial also because statistics are a simplification of the complex world and, in general, have been used to construct homogenizations, classes and norms that exclude the right to be different, which follows the logic of Capital in search of efficiency and rankings within a limited cultural standard, a worldview. Indigenous data sovereignty is the consolidation of a demography that embodies different ways of being in the world. The philosopher Yuk Hui stated that there are different ways of thinking about the ordering of the cosmos and different cosmologies inhabit our planet. Technologies should be understood as carriers of worldviews, which is why Yuk Hui uses the term cosmotechnics. Thus, the creation of data is never natural, and is therefore an expression of worldviews and carried out by cosmotechnics.

The proposition of indigenous data sovereignty is accompanied by indigenous data governance which “refers to the right of indigenous peoples to autonomously decide what, how and why indigenous data is collected, accessed and used”. GIDA proposed a division between 'data for governance' and 'data governance'. Data for governance is about the ability of indigenous communities to access and use data for themselves. Data Governance refers to the exercise of administration of its collection and use. An article published in the magazine Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics, in May 2023, called the “Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Data: a contribution toward Indigenous Research Sovereignty” details this perspective:

Data for governance

(i) Right to self-determination: the ability to organize and control data in relation to a collective identity. (ii) Right to complain: the right to complain, retain and preserve data, data labels and data results that reflect the identities, cultures and relationships of Indigenous Peoples. (iii)

Right to possess: the ability to exercise jurisdictional control over the ways in which data flows/moves/is queried. (iv) Right of use: the ability of individuals and collectives to use data for their own purposes. (v) Right to consent: the expression of digital autonomy and the ability to assess risks and accept potential harm. (vi) Right to refuse: the right to say “no” to certain uses of data.

data governance

(1) Right to govern: the right to lead and collaborate in the development and implementation of protocols and data access decisions. (2) Right to define: the right to define ways of knowing and being, including how they are represented in data. (3) Right to privacy: the protection of collective identities and interests against undue attention, also including the possibility of requesting omission and/or erasure. (4) Right to know: the ability to track the storage, use and reuse of data and who had access to it. (5) Right of association: recognition of origin and terms of attribution. (6) Right to benefit: the opportunity to benefit from the use of data and the equitable sharing of benefits from data derivatives. (HUDSON, 2023, p. 3-5).

Announcement on Indigenous Data Sovereignty

In the Indigenous Data Sovereignty Communiqué Indigenous Data Sovereignty Summit, 20 June 2018, in Canberra, it was forcefully highlighted that Indigenous data governance requires leaders, professionals and members of Indigenous communities who “have the skills and infrastructure to defend and participate across sectors and jurisdictions. Indigenous communities retain the right to decide which datasets require active governance and retain the right not to participate in data processes inconsistent with the principles stated in this Communiqué” (MAIAM NAYRI WINGARA; AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS GOVERNANCE INSTITUTE, 2018).

Another relevant point in the Notice is the warning of the need to exercise control over the data ecosystem, as this does not only include collection, but may have a series of unknown phases and procedures. Reuse, decontextualization and uninformed aggregations often end up nullifying the initial care taken in data production. In this sense, the warning in the Report The Indigenous World 2022 is clear and unequivocal:

My great-grandmother once wrote a poem called 'Don't Trust the River'. In it, she speaks of how a 'deceptively tranquil, calmly shining' river can hide its dark currents beneath a seemingly serene surface. She warns that we must 'be careful and watch the way it flows, it may break its banks and advance uncontrollably'. As an Indigenous woman working in the field of data sovereignty, sometimes it feels like I'm being swept away by the raging current of a serene-looking river. Rivers of information, overflowing, pulling me under and spitting me back out, each time a little more disheveled, more disoriented, with less solid ground to find my feet on. (IWGIA, 2022, p. 692)

Without a doubt, traditions, rituals, sculptures, songs, plant care and other practices have always constituted information and knowledge that pass down generations from ancestors. While non-indigenous governments and capitalist companies collect and process this information converted into data, indigenous communities experience a deficit of systematized data. The elders are not consulted by non-indigenous researchers, nor are their interpretations and explanations respected, hence Carla Wilson's review of the book Decolonizing Methodologies highlighted in the epigraph: “'research' is probably one of the dirtiest words in the vocabulary of the indigenous world” (SMITH, 1999, p.1).

Learning from original peoples

Dr. Traci Morris, Executive Director of American Indian Policy Institute presents an expansion of the proposition of indigenous data sovereignty by adding other technological dimensions that are essential in the global information scenario. Morris proposes the following definitions: (a) Indigenous Digital Sovereignty is the umbrella term that encompasses both Indigenous Network Sovereignty and Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Indigenous Digital Sovereignty is both the information and the physical medium through which that information is transferred, governed by a community's policies and codes that control data, infrastructure and networks.

(b) Indigenous Data Sovereignty is a subset of Indigenous Digital Sovereignty and the terms should not be confused. Data sovereignty refers to what flows through the network; are intangible information. Data sovereignty refers to control over data transmitted on the network.

(c) Network sovereignty is the physical infrastructure. Network Sovereignty refers to the act of building and deploying networks, which is the process of implementing tribal self-determination policies. (MORRIS, 2023, online)

These definitions are articulated in the perspective of greater autonomy for indigenous peoples. The problematization they bring can be applied to the global scenario of non-indigenous cultures. Because they know the violence of historical colonialism, because they resist extermination technologies, indigenous peoples have a long tradition of fighting to protect their culture, their traditions, their land and their people.

The countless forms of resistance and strategic actions practiced by their elders and leaders were united by indigenous researchers who move between different worldviews and allow them to articulate resistance to digital technologies, sometimes refusing them in certain contexts and forms, sometimes incorporating them and reconfiguring them. Thus, they immediately realized the potential of data and the neo-colonizing role it can acquire. The fight for indigenous data sovereignty is a fight to defend cultural diversity, technodiversity, in addition to all other economic and political aspects.

Non-indigenous societies, in a scenario of digital capitalism and intense datafication, should reflect on their increasingly technological future. This analysis should not reject technology, but seek to participate in its direction. More than that, it would be necessary to break with the positivist idea of ​​techno-scientific neutrality to seek to incorporate its worldview into technologies. It is necessary to overcome this imperialist and colonial idea that only North American technology exists, as it is the only one endowed with universality. Technologies, including digital ones, carry cultural determinations and conditioning. By functioning in a certain way, they impose a way of being, a set of subjections to what a worldview considers pragmatically acceptable.

When we lose control over our data, we lose the possibility of organizing them to generate new inventions, to create technology with our way of seeing, with our needs. When Big Techs concentrate our data in their structures, they bring with them the economic benefits that the data can generate, in addition to reinforcing epistemic hegemony and reducing the possibilities of incorporating our perspectives and worldview into computational technologies.

*Sergio Amadeu da Silveira is a professor at the Federal University of ABC. Author, among other books, of Data colonialism: how the algorithmic trench operates in the neoliberal war (Literary Autonomy). []



HUDSON, Maui et al. Indigenous Peoples' Rights in Data: a contribution toward Indigenous Research Sovereignty. Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics, v. 8, p. 1173805, 2023.

HUI, Yuk. Cosmotechnics as cosmopolitics. Fragment the future. Essays on technodiversity, p. 41-64, 2020.

WGIA. The Indigenous World 2022. Edited by Dwayne Mamo. April 2022.

KUKUTA, Tahu; Taylor, John. Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an agenda. ANU Press, 2016.


MAIAM NAYRI WINGARA; AUSTRALIAN INDIGENOUS GOVERNANCE INSTITUTE. Indigenous data sovereignty communicate. 2018. Link:

MORRIS, Traci. Digital Sovereignty Defined. American Indian Policy Institute, July 14, 2023. Link:

UNITED NATIONS. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

ROBERTS, Jennafer Shae; MONTOYA, Laura N. Decolonization, Global Data Law, and Indigenous Data Sovereignty. arXiv preprint arXiv:2208.04700, 2022.

SMITH, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Eric: 1999.


WALTER, Maggie; SUINA, Michele. Indigenous data, indigenous methodologies and indigenous data sovereignty. Methodology, vol. 22, no. 3, p. 233-243, 2018.


[I] This phrase can be found on the Te Mana Raraunga website, a network of Māori researchers:

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