Indigenous knowledge on Wikipedia and Wikidata

In a presentation at WikidataCon, Érica Azzellini said something that got me thinking: “A mountain could also be an instance of a divine being”.

I was born in a town built on the slopes of a single hill standing beside the sea on the west coast of Trinidad. Though it rises less than 200 m above its surroundings, the hill is the only high point between a flat plain to the east, and the Gulf of Paria to the west. The hill is also Nabarima, the Guardian of the Waters, and the residence of one of the four Kanobos of the Warao, who are an indigenous people of the area. Knowing this, I headed to Wikidata to try to incorporate Érica’s suggestion.

And I ran into problems immediately. In Wikidata, information is modeled as part of a “triple”, where the thing being modeled (the particular hill that my home town is built on) is associated with a property that takes a specific value. In this case, the property I was interested in is called “instance of”, and it’s straightforward enough to assign that property the value “hill”: San Fernando Hill is an instance of a hill. But it’s also the residence of a Kanobo.

So what, precisely, is a Kanobo? A divine spirit, of a sort. A grandfather spirit. There’s a part of my brain that handles unstructured, nonlinear information effectively. But that doesn’t help much when you’re trying to add values to Wikidata.

And how do I model “residence of” a divine being? For guidance, I looked at Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. I tried Valhalla. I even checked out the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. None of these left me the wiser. To model the hill properly I suspect I would have to model it as an instance of a “residence of a Kanobo”, but first I would need to create an item for “residence of a Kanobo”. And to do that, I’d need to create an item for Kanobo. It’s difficult, I’m out of my depth, so I end up going with “instance of” a religious site. Whose religion? Neither Wikidata nor Wikipedia will tell you. And even if you found your way to the Warao people article on Wikipedia, you’d learn that they are an indigenous group in Venezuela, with little hint of their presence in Trinidad. Archaeologists like Arie Boomert believe that the Warao were the original inhabitants of Trinidad, but the borders drawn by the Spanish and the British left the Warao cut off, foreigners in what is by right their homeland.

Across Wikipedia, the connection between indigenous people and their lands is cut off. While land acknowledgements have become common, especially in academic settings, there’s a large gap between knowing whose land you’re on and understanding how those people relate to this land. If we’re lucky, a Wikipedia article will tell us the indigenous name of a particular geological feature, but it’s extremely rare for the article to document more than that.

The Denali article documents seven indigenous names for the mountain and group them into two categories of meaning — “the tall one” and “big mountain” — but says nothing about how indigenous Alaskans see or relate to the mountain. It’s in the category “sacred mountains”, but the article fails to explain why. Visit the Wikidata item for Denali and you’ll find nothing about sacredness or spiritual meanings.

Wikipedia and Wikidata aren’t notably bad in this regard, but I believe they should be better. Much better. It’s a problem that’s systemic — it’s hard to add content to Wikidata when the statements don’t exist to build the relationships. And it’s harder to add the statements to Wikidata when the relevant articles don’t exist on Wikipedia. But in the end, it’s hard to write about Kanobos when you don’t actually understand what they are.

Non-indigenous contributors can — and should — work to improve the coverage of Indigenous content across Wikimedia projects, but unless the movement includes more Indigenous people writing about their own communities, we will always fall short. That challenge is exacerbated by the fact that Indigenous communities aren’t interchangeable, just as manitō isn’t interchangeable with Kanobo.

Native American Heritage Month is a good time to reflect on our movement’s shortfalls in this regard. How do we work in partnership with Indigenous communities to tell their own stories? And how do we convey an invitation honestly, knowing that our sourcing policies that exclude so much knowledge?

But while we grapple with ideas, we also need action. Do you, or your colleague teach at Tribal Colleges in the US? Put them in touch with our Wikipedia Student Program. Do you know someone who can sponsor a Wiki Scholars course or a Wikidata course with a focus on Indigenous communities? Please get in touch.

Image credit: Denali National Park and Preserve, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


5 thoughts on “Indigenous knowledge on Wikipedia and Wikidata

  1. Very thoughtful critique Ian. A term introduced by members of First Nations communities is “two-eye seeing.” (No Wikipedia entry on that yet.) It seeks to complement the certainty of rational, Western descriptions of reality with Indigenous lived ways of seeing and knowing. It’s a huge challenge to fold contrasting world views piecemeal into Wikidata.

  2. This is a great conversation starter for my students and me on the topic of locating indigenous peoples on Wikipedia. We just experienced an incident this semester that’s somewhat related to what you’re writing about here. A student working on the Wikipedia article “East Australia hotspot,” a site of geological interest, wanted to add some content regarding the contribution of Aboriginal myth to geological understanding of the history of this site. Immediately her contribution was dismissed as being “mythological in nature; hence not accurate.” Yet in fact, the student cited relevant research that explored the value of Aboriginal myth. Ultimately the contributor who objected to my student’s added content ended up moving it to an article deemed a more relevant context, but the spirit of the contributor’s initial response to my student’s work seemed dismissive of the value of Aboriginal knowledge. To be fair, though, this contributor had been working on the article they moved my student’s work over to, and it seems that this contributor has more knowledge of the region than either my student or I do.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your attempts at representing the relationship of the Warao people to the Kanobos and to the hill that they reside in. In my limited experience attempting to represent Indigenous worldviews in Wikidata, I have stumbled upon the property “significant place (P7153)” and I believe can be a good means of representing Indigenous peoples’ connections to their land. In the case at hand, you could state “Warao: significant place: San Fernando Hill”, and then qualify the object as a “religious site” or a “holy place”. Of course, “religious” and “holy” are terms derived from Western religions and are therefore not ideally suited to represent aspects of Indigenous spirituality. But the beauty of Wikidata is that definitions can easily be edited to become more inclusive. And aliases can be added.

    I know it isn’t easy, but please do not give up. Wikidata needs people like you.

  4. Thank you Ian, this article is very informative and I liked your suggestions … What a meaningful project that would be, to connect Indigenous people with with wiki knowledgeable writers.

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