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Data Sovereignty Movement for Native Populations Reaches SD

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Thursday, July 6, 2023   

Around the U.S., there are efforts among tribal nations to reclaim stolen land from colonization and preserve language history, and a South Dakota organization is part of a movement to empower communities with data.

The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation is embracing what's known as data sovereignty.

Dallas Nelson, Lakota language and education director for the group, is helping to lead efforts to develop a system to preserve key information for communities within the Pine Ridge Reservation. He said there are common barriers, such as non-Native researchers and academic entities mining language and cultural history and putting it behind a paywall, which makes it harder for youths in his area to access it.

"They should never have to buy their language, and that's not the case right now," Nelson pointed out. "Data sovereignty addresses those main issues of access, storage and stewardship."

He argued having a local database of the Lakota language is vital as they see more tribal elders pass away. Thunder Valley first developed a set of principles to guide data collection and is working with a local tribal college to store it in the school's archives. Beyond language and culture, data sovereignty also aims to close information gaps in areas such as health care and road infrastructure.

Nelson explained it is not just about figuring out the best way to collect information and safely store it. He emphasized tribal communities will need to bolster how they analyze key data in hopes of establishing a stronger sense of self-governance. He feels being able to interpret locally gathered statistics remains a challenge for tribal communities.

"For us in Indian country, we're usually at the tail end of things when it comes to accessing new technology or accessing new ways of helping our people," Nelson observed. "At Thunder Valley, that's the approach around data sovereignty, to try to jump ahead."

Organizers with similar efforts, such as one involving the University of Arizona Native Nations Institute, said a lot of tribal data is held by state governments and federal agencies, which means research on quality-of-life issues for Indigenous populations often contains viewpoints from those entities and not the tribes themselves.

Some national survey institutions, such as the Census Bureau, are investing resources to get a more accurate reflection of key data concerning Native populations.

Disclosure: The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation contributes to our fund for reporting on Housing/Homelessness, Human Rights/Racial Justice, Native American Issues, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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