Linguists regularly visit Indigenous communities to gather knowledge and document the languages spoken. When they leave, however, these linguists historically take with them the knowledge they gleaned from Indigenous peoples. The appropriation of this data, and its placement in academic and reference texts, produces a painful paradox for Indigenous peoples: they often lose ownership of their own cultural assets, and end up having to buy back that knowledge to preserve it.
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council, a Canadian Crown corporation based in British Columbia (BC), sought to change that. The Council designed and launched FirstVoices, a groundbreaking online cultural initiative that archives and preserves Indigenous languages throughout the province, to support language archiving, language teaching and culture revitalization. In developing FirstVoices, the Council emphasized recognition of Indigenous peoples as experts in their languages, and stressed the importance of acknowledging the capacity of Indigenous peoples to use and develop technologies, and then to curate that information with full data sovereignty.
Upon its initial launch, FirstVoices addressed the need for a readily accessible multilingual language documentation resource to help preserve the 34 distinct Indigenous languages in BC. It immediately provided a dynamic platform for technically-savvy First Nations youth to partner with their fluent speaking elders to capture and document their languages.
This first foray into capturing Indigenous language knowledge proved successful – so much so that the Council decided to build on FirstVoices and enhance its core web-based platform. But moving to FirstVoices “2.0” presented a big challenge - how to best architect the platform.
FirstVoices needed a cloud-native platform that could be configured to meet the knowledge management needs of both the program and the communities it serves. FirstVoices also wanted an open source platform that was modern, secure, and that offered full transparency on the product development process as a way to demonstrate integrity to our member communities.
The platform the Council ultimately chose offered a flexible open source approach to knowledge management that ensures the protection of the Indigenous people’s precious cultural assets, now and into the future.
FirstVoices currently stores and manages approximately 400,000 objects within the Nuxeo platform – including text, audio, videos, photos, etc. – and that number is expected to grow. FirstVoices uses the platform’s workflow management capabilities to validate what constitutes a “minimally viable record” to be stored and managed. In addition, FirstVoices leverages the permissions management features to help restrict access to certain files and objects, and is also in the process of implementing advanced mobile integrations and artificial intelligence features.
The mentality of open source has fostered a community approach to the technology. In many ways, the FirstVoices platform is like language itself: it is part of the community, and it is owned by everyone – not just one person. And it is a long-term, sustainable technology that can be updated and continued for future generations. This reflects the Council’s commitment to reinvest in the program and ensure that the language data is secure and that it will be available going forward for years to come.
Within any community, words are important; within the First Nations communities, some words are sacred. This provides deep motivation to preserve these priceless language assets. This means not just capturing the elements of a language before it dies, but also controlling that language data, including who has access. Where these cultural assets are stored and how they’re managed is very important to the First Nations communities. This technology platform will allow the First Nations to manage their language now and in the future.
Thanks to open source technology and the FirstVoices partnership, Indigenous people within the First Nations can for generations to come practice that most fundamental of human rights: the right to speak their own language.