Data Sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples: Current Practice and Future Needs

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  • Data Sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples: Current Practice and Future Needs

The workshop will consider implications of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) for the collection, ownership and application of statistics pertaining to Indigenous peoples. It aims to stimulate new thinking and practice in the generation of demographic and wellbeing information in ways that better respond to the governance and development aspirations of Indigenous peoples. It will be the first international gathering of researchers working in this field and most participants will be Indigenous scholars. Government and Indigenous community participation will assist in developing policy recommendations. Proceedings will be published by ANU E Press.

The United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) has convened a series of workshops on the collection of disaggregated data on Indigenous peoples and their wellbeing. At these events Indigenous representatives have raised concerns regarding the relevance of existing frameworks in reflecting their worldviews and they have highlighted their lack of participation in data collection processes and governance. As a result, most efforts around the collection of data on Indigenous peoples is viewed as servicing government reporting frameworks rather than supporting Indigenous peoples’ development agendas.

There are approximately 400 million Indigenous peoples around the world comprising thousands of distinct cultural groups encapsulated by some 70 nation-states. The UNDRIP, establishes a new set of standards for group relations with these nation-states and relevant clauses raise interesting questions about the proper role of State machinery in gathering statistics on Indigenous peoples. Whereas in the past, governments have been content to generate social binaries (Indigenous/non-Indigenous) as input to public policy, the legal and moral framework for simple attribution of complex Indigenous social organisation has shifted and emergent Indigenous polities are asserting their own statistical identity and ownership in ways that the workshop will demonstrate.

The Declaration emphasizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their wellbeing in keeping with their own needs and aspirations. It also promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. Given this acknowledgment of wide-ranging inherent rights it is not surprising that Indigenous peoples and signatory governments have started to contemplate what exactly endorsement of the Declaration might mean for the usual practice of government business.

This questioning arises from Article 42 of the Declaration and is focussed around a so-called ‘implementation gap’ where even good intentions by States in the form of legislative and administrative changes might fail to deliver the benefits that Indigenous peoples seek. But what do we mean by enjoying the benefit of those rights, and what does this have to do with the work of statistical agencies and information in general? The particular rights in question that have implications for the collection of statistical information are contained in Articles 18, 19 and 23 of the Declaration, while the overall focus of the Declaration on rights of Indigenous ‘peoples’ as opposed to state-identified ‘populations’ adds a further dimension.- a demography of Indigenous ‘population’ may be well suited to the provision of citizen rights but it does not provide for the expression of Indigenous interests in inherent and proprietary rights as peoples. Whilst not denying a continuing role for centralised data collection, what Indigenous peoples also seek is a mechanism for capacity building in their own compilation and use of data as a means of promoting their full and effective participation in governance and development planning.

As things stand, the categories and contexts of postcolonial demography inevitably reflect social and economic institutions that frame the lives of majority populations. Because such categories are rarely inclusive of Indigenous ways of being, key aspects of Indigenous sociality are either missing or misrepresented in official statistics. The workshop will examine these limitations for social profiling of Indigenous peoples. Using case studies from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, it will describe ways in which Indigenous polities are themselves responding to these limitations by generating their own demographic profiles and social indicators as an essential form of community governance. Attention will be given to the ways in which official statistics might be ‘indigenized’ in order to better meet the needs of Indigenous communities and organisations.

Such an examination is timely. Within the discipline of demography, there is growing awareness of a need to move beyond the well-worn paradigm of demographic transition theory, to embrace a “comprehensive demography” which explicitly addresses questions of causality at the intersection of population and development (Charbit & Petit, 2011). The emergence of a critical Indigenous demography, involving both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, has highlighted the epistemological and methodological shortcomings of applied demographic research on Indigenous peoples, and generated calls for more innovative approaches (Andersen, 2008; Axelsson et al., 2011; Kukutai, 2011, Kukutai and Taylor 2012; Pool 1991; Snipp, 2003; Taylor, 2008, 2009, 2011; Taylor et. al. 2014; Walter, 2010; Wereta & Bishop, 2006). Indigenous communities and advocacy organisations have also expressed growing dissatisfaction with the ways in which they are constructed as populations within their settler states, as well as how their wellbeing is prioritised and reported on (United Nations, 2004, 2006; Wereta & Bishop, 2006; Yu, 2011).

These appraisals provide an opportune moment to critique the demography-policy nexus in disparate Indigenous contexts and to reflect on how the statistical portrayal of Indigenous societies might be transformed. To that end, the case studies presented will illustrate ways in which official statistics, the practice of demography, and conceptions of wellbeing might be ‘indigenized’ to better meet the needs of Indigenous polities. The workshop will explore how the historically fraught relationship between demography and Indigenous development can be productively reforged with;  Indigenous peoples placed at the centre, rather than on the periphery, of the research process.

The workshop opens with scene-setting papers outlining clauses in the UN Declaration that have implications for Indigenous data collection and exploring the concept of Indigenous data sovereignty. Emerging Indigenous governance arrangements and the manner in which these are creating a demand for Indigenous-specific data are then explored. Current arrangements for the collection of Indigenous data by state agencies are then critiqued with a focus on the situation in Australia, Sweden and Canada. This session is followed by case studies from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA demonstrating how Indigenous polities in these jurisdictions have sought to develop their own statistics. The experience and views of official statistical agencies are then sought as a prelude to the final session which considers Indigenous corporate capacity needs. The workshop concludes with reflections from a workshop rapporteur as a lead in to general discussion around a set of recommendations for enhancing indigenous data sovereignty.

Andersen, C. (2008). ‘From nation to population: The racialisation of Métis in the Canadian census’, Nations and Nationalism, 14 (2): 347-368.

Axelsson, P., Sköld, P., Ziker, J. & Anderson, D. G. (2011). ‘From Indigenous demographics to an Indigenous demography’, In P. Axelsson & P. Skold (Eds.), Indigenous peoples and demography: The complex relation between identity and statistics (pp. 295 – 305). Oxford: Berghan.

Charbit, Y. & Petit, V. (2011). ‘Towards a comprehensive demography: Rethinking the research agenda on change and response’, Population and Development Review, 37 (2): 219-239.

Kukutai, T. (2011). ‘Contemporary issues in Māori demography’, In T. McIntosh and M. Mullholland (Eds.), Maori and Social Issues (pp. 11-48). Wellington, N.Z.: Huia.

Pool, I. (1991). Te Iwi Maori. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

Snipp, M. (2003). ‘Racial measurement in the American Census: Past practices and implications for the future’, Annual Review of Sociology, 29: 563-88.

Taylor, J, 2011. ‘Postcolonial transformation of the Australian Indigenous population’, Geographical Research, 49 (3): 286-300.

________. (2009). ‘Indigenous demography and public policy in Australia: Population or peoples?’, Journal of Population Research, 26: 115-130.

_______. (2008). ‘Indigenous peoples and indicators of well-being: Australian perspectives on United Nations global frameworks’, Social Indicators Research, 87:, 111–126.

Taylor, J., Doran, B., Parriman, M., & Yu, E. (2012). ‘Statistics for community governance: the Yawuru Indigenous Population Survey of Broome’, International Indigenous Policy Journal, 5 (2). Retrieved from:

Walling, J., Small-Rodriguez, D., & Kukutai, T. (2009). ‘Tallying tribes: Waikato-Tainui in the census and tribal register’, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 36: 2-15.

Walter, M. (2010). ‘The politics of the data: How the Australian statistical indigene is constructed’, International Journal of Critical Indigenous Studies, 3 (2): 45-54.

Wereta, W., & Bishop, D. (2006). ‘Towards a Maori statistics framework’, In J. P. White, S. Wingert, D. Beavon, & P. Maxim (Eds.), Aboriginal Policy Research: Moving Forward Making a Difference (pp. 263-28). Toronto, Canada: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Yu, P. (2011). ‘The power of data in Aboriginal hands’, CAEPR Topical Issue, 2012/4, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, The Australian National University, Canberra. .

For more information, please contact:
Mrs Nurdan Kulluk-Rennert
Manager, Executive and Workshops
Nurdan.Kulluk-Rennert [at]
+61 .2 62491788

Event Schedule

Supporting Documents

Contact Information

Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

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