First Nations Secret/Sacred Cultural Material

   Endangered large

This entry refers broadly to digital secret and sacred cultural material and documentation of First Nations peoples’ heritage in all forms of media. This can include born-digital materials directly or indirectly produced as outputs of research, community projects, oral histories, private or personal recordings, and/or data in databases and online platforms which have not been sustained or future-proofed.

Digital Species: Community Archives

New Entry

Consensus Decision

Imminence of Action

Action is recommended within twelve months, detailed assessment is a priority.

Significance of Loss

The loss of tools, data or services within this group would impact on people and sectors around the world.

Effort to Preserve | Inevitability

Loss seems likely: by the time tools or techniques have been developed the material will likely have been lost.


Examples are wide ranging but can generally include: Born-digital material produced as an output of funded research, produced as an indirect output of community projects (e.g. funded projects to provide technology, devices and training to First Nation community members to record content); Video or oral histories depicting secret/sacred stories, traditional ceremonies, dances or sacred sites; Private, personal video or oral history recordings on personal devices; Data and content in databases and online platforms.

‘Critically Endangered’ in the Presence of Aggravating Conditions

Lack of understanding within collecting institutions about cultural restrictions and complex levels of access permissions; Distrust of "official" archives due to lack of culturally appropriate handling of restricted/sensitive material; Lack of technical infrastructure within the (remote/rural) community to preserve the content; Low internet accessibility to rural/remote regions or disadvantaged cohorts (the digital divide); Non-ideal environmental conditions for storing digital carriers (e.g. SD card, digital video device storage, mobile phone).

‘Vulnerable’ in the Presence of Good Practice

Improved internet accessibility (especially in rural/remote regions to enable cloud storage); Funding to improve technical infrastructures within communities (e.g. government or national funding); Funded programs to improve digital literacy within communities (e.g. government or national funding); Well-developed and considered outreach and awareness-raising efforts/collaborations to increase education to community members about the risks of losing digital content and possible digital preservation solutions; Education and uptake amongst archives and collecting institutions in culturally appropriate approaches for handling and preservation of secret/sacred digital material; Positive reciprocal collaboration and relationships between local First Nation community Knowledge Centres, collecting and research institutions, and Government infrastructures to empower First Nations People in the decision-making in preservation, archiving, description and determination of appropriate accessibility to the content.

2023 Review

This is a new Bit List entry added in 2023 to provide greater awareness and specificity in approaching the digital preservation of secret/sacred, sensitive and private materials. While this entry can be considered very wide-ranging, covering different kinds of digital materials, it was added to draw attention to risks and issues not fully addressed by existing entries–those relating to the significance of material created and support for preservation within and in the context of the communities. While the 2023 Council all agreed on the importance of including this entry, there was also much discussion about the need for further rescoping and presentation of the entry in a considered and appropriate way. For example, differentiating between First Nations cultural material (which can include sacred/secret material) and secret/sacred or other culturally restricted materials more broadly. The discussion touched on the challenges to assign one overall risk classification, significance and impact within the existing structure of the Bit List, and also on providing recommendations for practice in and outside of organizational contexts (taking into account creation, ownership, intervention, misappropriation, legal and ethical considerations that need to be taken when considering these cultural materials).

Additional Comments

The 2023 Council additionally recognizes that further scoping and input are needed for this entry and recommend that the next major review for the Bit List revisit and restructure the entry, in particular looking at scoping the role and importance of creators and communities. It is needing further work to tease out the issues for rural and remote as well as sacred /secret and community archives. Input and guidance from First Nations contributors is necessary.

Consultation with the relevant community knowledge holder or representative is the first consideration when dealing with traditional knowledge issues.

The content and creator are both important to assessing risks and approaches. The secret/sacred nature of the content may deem the material to be restricted to be accessed only by appropriate First Nation community members. However, in the long term, it also has an impact on the relevant nation's history and heritage. In any case, custodians should take into account permissions and authorization. There will be similarities and differences between First Nation communities and within individual continents.

There is an education piece for cultural institutions. When secret/sacred material comes in we are having to rethink workforces as an archive in how to take in and process and how to make it as safe as possible for viewing and being respectful of the content (e.g., male and female content stored separately, etc.)

Time constraints are unknown, and required actions have a lot to do with government funding

It may be better to score and structure this entry into two, with one for materials from marginalized and/or threatened communities, and another for sacred and/or other culturally restricted materials. Both of these are resistant to centralized and saviourism/colonialism approaches and benefit from community empowerment.

If considering a widening of scope to other culturally restricted materials more broadly, this should also contain any material that is dangerous for the individual to hold, such as LGBTQ+ materials in countries where it is illegal.

Case Studies or Examples:

See also:

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