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“Doing” Anthropology Differently: Indigenous Data Sovereignty, Research Data Management and Anthropology

By Naomi Adelson, PhD, Professor and Associate Vice President, Research & Innovation – Toronto Metropolitan University

The management of research data is a particularly pressing issue for Indigenous leaders, scholars, and communities faced with a far too long history of inequity and exploitation historically characterising Indigenous/non-Indigenous research relations. Given the connection between research data, empowerment, and self-governance, the control of research materials is a vital assertion of Indigenous nations’ and communities’ rights, including rights of ownership (First Nations Centre 2005). Further, as open access and research data management are becoming necessary components of research activity (see for example, the Tri-Agency Research Data Management Policy), there is the concomitant need to ensure that historical inequities do not similarly emerge in contemporary data management practices. What role are anthropologists playing in ensuring the application and implementation of principles, protocols, and best practices in the management of research materials when working for and with Indigenous communities?  

In Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, Indigenous Data Sovereignty national networks have been formed to make recommendations on principles, protocols, and best practices for those engaging in research with Indigenous Peoples, including the FAIR and CARE principles. In Canada there are a range of data sovereignty initiatives being undertaken by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit researchers, research organisations, and governments. Best known are the OCAP® principles of ownership, control, access, and possession which were created in 1995 as a set of foundational principles to guide the standardisation of the processes for First Nations’ ownership and control over data, including its collection, access, use and storage. As a political and practical response to the use of data in reproducing colonial relations, the OCAP® principles assert Indigenous sovereign research governance and have effectively become the national standard for research conducted with Indigenous peoples (Schnarch 2004; FNIGC 2014a, b; Espey 2002; First Nations Centre 2005). 

As “principles in evolution” rather than a “set of rules” or practices, there can however be ambiguities or limitations in the application of OCAP® (First Nations Centre 2005), including some very real operational or ethical challenges. These include everything from ensuring appropriate informed consent, confidentiality, anonymization, and privacy to what constitutes the boundaries between individual and community/collective knowledge and ensuring where, how, and with what control or restrictions research data is stored, accessed and/or used. How, for example, to avoid potential discrepancies between ensuring individual confidentiality and a community’s rights to access research data? Or, whose responsibility is it to ensure the safe and proper long term storage of and/or access to research data and related costs? 

In attempting to address challenges such as these and to ensure best practices of Indigenous data sovereignty, academic institutions are being encouraged to develop Indigenous Data Asset Management Systems (IDAS). An IDAS can be an effective solution for many of the challenges as it is a step towards ensuring that Indigenous communities have control of their stored data (SSHRC 2018; Byrne 2009). The IDAS format, for example, allows Indigenous research materials to simultaneously be governed by Indigenous knowledge, ownership and ethics protocols while remaining a part of (but, as appropriate, separate from) an institution’s repository. Protocols pertaining to access could be determined jointly by Indigenous partners and the researcher (McBride 2017). Some IDASs also operate as a space for the shared ownership of data, enabling Indigenous communities to repurpose it. A model of this negotiated process is ATSIDA, Australia and Torres Strait’s national IDAS, which controls access to and depositing of datasets, intellectual property rights, and protects restricted materials (Gardiner, McDonald, Byrne, & Thorpe 2011). With provisions like these in place, Indigenous communities are less likely to encounter barriers to their own data. However, challenges also arise with IDASs.When research data in the social sciences or humanities are grouped in large sets, for example, the resulting lack of context may limit or alter interpretation (Byrne 2009). Thus, as much as a model such as ATSIDA can help communities and researchers collaboratively develop metadata to safeguard against a lack of context, isolating Indigenous data may also mean that it won’t be able to coexist with other related datasets (Gardiner, McDonald, Byrne, & Thorpe 2011). In other words, for better or for worse, while IDASs may align with qualitative ethnographic research practices, they may be less useful when considering open, shareable data management options.

Indigenous research data sovereignty is a first principle of research engagement and a foundational component of  research for and with Indigenous communities. How do we, as anthropologists, uphold Indigenous data sovereignty principles such as OCAP®? How do we apply these principles, from project inception to the post-research management and use of qualitative research findings? How will a data sovereignty plan transform research planning and funding proposals? What will the researcher’s role in knowledge translation be and how will it align with data sovereignty priorities? How are we reconsidering colonial copyright and intellectual property laws which can effectively act as barriers to data access for Indigenous research partners and communities? What, in other words, are we doing to critically transform a historically “extractive” industry (Kovach 2021)? How are we working with individuals, communities, research partners, and Elders to collectively and cooperatively manage their stories and experiences that effectively make up a researcher’s qualitative data? How do we ensure a distinction-based approach to data management while continuing to learn from existing best practices? In order to strengthen our ability to fulfil the roles and responsibilities of data sovereignty, how must we rethink how we “do” anthropology? 



I thank Dr. Christianne Stephens and Amy Desjarlais for their respective insights, work and support in the development of two virtual workshops exploring the role of social scientists in advancing Indigenous data sovereignty and acknowledge the support of a SSHRC Connection Grant. I also thank research assistants Jace Harrison, Samuel Mickelson, Shaniqua Myers, and Shaila Baran for their exceptionally talented contributions to the workshops.


Byrne, A. 2009 The Importance of Culture in Digital Ecosystems: Managing Indigenous Research Data. Proceedings of the International Conference on Management of Emergent Digital EcoSystems, 1-6.

Carroll, S.R., Garba, I., Figueroa-Rodríguez, O.L., Holbrook, J., Lovett, R., Materechera, S., Parsons, M., Raseroka, K., Rodriguez-Lonebear, D., Rowe, R., Sara, R., Walker, J.D., Anderson, J. and Hudson, M. 2020 The CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance. Data Science Journal, 19(1), p.43. DOI:

Espey, J. 2002 Stewardship and OCAP: A Discussion Paper for the First Nations Statistical Institute. First Nations Centre 2005 Ownership, Control, Access, and Possession (OCAP) or Self-Determination Applied to Research: A Critical Analysis of Contemporary First Nations Research and Some Options for First Nations Communities. Ottawa: National Aboriginal Health Organization.

First Nations Information Governance (FNIGC) Centre 2014a Barriers and Levers for the Implementation of OCAP™. The International Indigenous Policy Journal 5(2), Article 3.

First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC) 2014b Ownership, Control, Access and Possession (OCAP™): The Path to First Nations Information Governance, May 2014. Ottawa: FNIGC.

Gardiner, G., McDonald, J., Byrne, A., & Thorpe, K. 2010. Respect, Trust and Engagement: Creating an Australian Indigenous Data Archive. World Library and Information Congress: 76th IFLA General Conference and Assembly.

Kovach, M 2021 Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations and Contexts, 2nd Ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kukutai, T. & Taylor, J. Eds. 2016 Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an agenda. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

McBride, K. 2017 Data Resources and Challenges for First Nations Communities: Document Review and Position Paper. The Alberta First Nations Information Governance Centre.

Schnarch B. 2004 Ownership, control, access, and possession (OCAP) of self determination applied to research. A critical analysis of contemporary First Nations research and some options for First Nations communities. J. Aborig. Health 1:80–95.

Tri-Agency Research Data Management Policy (accessed 07/10/22).

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