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How Wikipedia can help preserve indigenous knowledge from Far North

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic

 I read in The Economist (Nov. 5-11) about a new project Wikipedia is undertaking to encourage greater production of articles in other countries by people within those countries.

The company is partnering with three universities in Pune, India, offering course credit to students in exchange for their writing articles on a certain theme. So far, students have written on topics both large and small, from ideas in economics to obscure committee meetings on Indian monetary policy.

The goal, as The Economist puts it, is to "encourage the indigenous creation of information and to lessen reliance on imports from outside." Now, by "indigenous," I don't think the article is specifically referring to what we think of as indigenous peoples, but the sentence still gave me an idea.

Asking indigenous peoples in the Arctic to contribute to Wikipedia could be a great way to increase the flow of information between Aboriginal and Western traditions.

A lot of research groups, policy documents and multilateral organizations in the Arctic encourage gathering and applying indigenous knowledge, using it in conjunction with scientific research. Indigenous peoples have inhabited the Arctic since at least 2500 B.C. and are naturally familiar with the environment, climate, and animals. Stories and information are often passed down through oral tradition.

Highlighting Arctic voices

Researchers and policymakers in the Arctic sometimes meet with tribal elders and talk to locals to understand their perspectives on rising sea levels and melting sea ice, for instance. Yet the perspectives of people like the Sami, Inupiat, or Chukchi are not widely communicated to the public at large. To rectify that, having indigenous peoples transcribe their knowledge online, on a site like Wikipedia, would make it more accessible to everyone.

Of course, this creates the issue of what actual "knowledge" is. I'd venture to say that Wikipedia is firmly situated within the Western intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment. Objectivity and rationality are prized over subjectivity and mythicism, and written knowledge wins out over oral knowledge.

Opening up Wikipedia to include indigenous knowledge in its articles would likely be frowned upon by many, including the company and its thousands of contributors and editors worldwide. But if Wikipedia were to accept knowledge from different traditions, then perhaps it could partner with organizations like the University of the Arctic or Aurora College, in the Northwest Territories, to have students there contribute to the world's largest encyclopedia.

Further reading

"Inuit Indigenous Knowledge and Science in the Arctic," Ellen Bielawski

"Wikipedia and the Politics of Open Knowledge," Institute of Network Cultures

Mia Bennett graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2010 with degrees in Political Science and European Studies and minors in Geospatial Information Systems & Technology, Scandinavian, and French. She focuses on the politics of Arctic resource management and Canadian infrastructure, and is interested in the application of GIS technology to Arctic dilemmas. She speaks French, Swedish, and is learning Russian. She freelances for the magazine ReNew Canada and currently lives in New York City.

The preceding commentary is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.

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