For twenty years, memory institutions (libraries, museums, and archives) have been actively addressing the right of Indigenous knowledge holders to have access to, be consulted about, and determine wider access to, reproduction of, and circulation of their cultural heritage material. A key strategy has been to enhance community access by repatriating significant materials, including some whose existence may be unknown to the community.
In recent times, the provision of digital access to heritage materials has been in the spotlight: Council of Cultural Ministers 2008 - Building a Creative Innovation Economy; Collections Council of Australia 2009. That strategy is bolstered by the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Intangible cultural heritage is defined by UNESCO as:
the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. (UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage)
In the Australian social science research context datasets can include genealogies, stories, songs, oral histories, expressions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and ritual. Such information constitutes cultural capital, the major resource within a local economy of knowledge. In many communities it has normally been orally transmitted in accordance with cultural protocols but it sometimes needs to be reclaimed from earlier records.
Mindful of this, ATSIDA seeks to ensure the return of Indigenous knowledge that is documented in research projects. During the ingestion of datasets into ATSIDA, depositors are requested to identify materials from the full dataset to be hosted on the ATSIDA community website for community access. The community website will allow online access to a variety of digital media and associated contextual information. For communities that have contributed to the research this obviates the need for often repeated repatriation of hard copy materials. A common experience within communities is that repatriated sets of materials can become dispersed as individuals take possession of materials that relate specifically to themselves and their families. The ATSIDA process offers ongoing and timely access to materials.
Repatriation through ATSIDA will occur through a recognised cultural centre or community organisation (such as a language or knowledge centre) that has a computer terminal available for approved users. Responsibility to monitor access to the materials by individuals will devolve to the community organisation. Having said this, ATSIDA in consultation with the depositor will tag content as belonging to the separate social spheres as appropriate, for example gender, age, family, country to the extent that available information and resources permit.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people contribute to research in a number of spheres: their traditional knowledge is utilised in, for example, environmental resource management and health research (traditional or bush medicines). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge can also be recovered or regenerated during research projects that incorporate historical materials: materials from a library of archive may be used for memory triggers when used in interviews with elderly people. Archival material documenting aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge often perform an instrumental function when used to bolster claims in the context of Native Title claims. Among the numerous benefits that arise for communities from repatriation is the usefulness of compiled datasets for community planning and applications for government funding.
In effect, the repatriation of material through ATSIDA is a service provided to depositors. It is an extremely important function as it solves the ongoing ethical obligation faced by researchers of getting the research material back to informants. Even the most well-meaning researcher can find it difficult or take a long time to provide copies of interviews, photographs and other material. Use of this ATSIDA function will improve trust between researchers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. ATSIDA requires depositors to seek a licence from their Indigenous research associates to allow us to repatriate material via the web.