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Looking to preserve Native culture? There's an app for that

  • Author: Asaf Shalev
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 31, 2015

Next week, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak will unveil a digital archive of local oral history that uses a new application platform called Mukurtu, open source technology originally designed for aboriginal Australians.

Mukurtu (pronounced MOOK-oo-too) allows communities to cheaply construct a sort of social network that functions as a repository for documents, video and other media about their language, culture and history. The software allows the community to participate in the archives -- registered users can browse a catalog, contribute materials and suggest changes to the information in the collection.

But what makes Mukurtu suitable to the needs of Alaska Native people? April Laktonen Counceller, executive director of the Alutiiq Museum, says the program's flexibility allows indigenous communities to maintain control over their knowledge and restrict access when necessary.

With other archival software, the mechanism for permitting access is too simple, she said. While a museum might want to make its materials entirely public, Native tradition might call for "variable access."

Funeral practices are an example of what a community might consider private, said Michael Bach, an archivist who works under Counceller.

"From a museum's perspective, it's (typically) hard to keep routine material protected in a way the donor or lender sees fit," he said. "Mukurtu allows you to restrict access according to clan, gender, age" or other criteria.

After working with elders for months, the museum will hold an opening ceremony for its digital oral history archive on Nov. 3. Of the 300 recordings documenting stories of Alutiiq people, only about five will be limited.

"We are digitizing that whole interaction a museum patron might have when they walk in," Bach said. "That patron can be a researcher or a relative."

Archivists such as Bach are excited about the potential of crowdsourcing techniques among the community to improve records. One of the challenges small archival institutions face is attaching accurate information to their collections. Examples range from the name of the language being spoken in a recording to the the story behind a geographic name.

Mukurtu also comes as a mobile application and the Alutiiq Museum is considering investing in that direction. With the mobile app, a user could record a video of a sacred site and submit it for archiving.

"The mobile app has a lot of potential for involving people in documenting our current history," Counceller said.

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