IPE TIG Week: Indigenous Data Sovereignty and IP Rights: On Being Good Relatives by Nicole Bowman/Waapalaneexkwee, Michael Petillo and Andrealisa Belzer

Koolamalsi/Hello! We are Nicole Bowman/Waapalaneexkweew (Lunaape/Mohican), Ph.D., AEA Indigenous Peoples in Evaluation Co-Chair, and Associate Editor, Roots & Relations, CJPE; Michael Petillo, MSME, Principal Consultant, CES Partnership LLC; and Andrealisa Belzer, CE, Indigenous Services Canada, EvalIndigenous Network, Blue Marble Evaluation Network, CES National Board. We are committed to being good relatives in a nation-to-nation evaluation context and to supporting Indigenous nation sovereignty and self-determination.

The American Evaluation Association (AEA) townhall meeting on April 30, 2021, concerned the Speaker Agreement for Intellectual Property (IP) (a required form for 2021 conference presenters) built on “boilerplate legal language” used to protect the AEA from IP infringement. This language disregarded others’ data/content control – a familiar issue for Indigenous peoples – and sparked protest. AEA leadership responded by acknowledging the inherent issues in using language steeped in “white, predominantly male, [cisgender, heteronormative] hegemony,” revising the agreement, and extending the submission deadline by a week. During the townhall, discussion about free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) and Indigenous data sovereignty languished, yet was/is needed.

Legal “boilerplate language” tensions in Indigenous contexts are not new. Within North America, Canada’s Indian Act (1876) imposed a singular municipal form of local governance on First Nations. The United States Indian Reorganization Act (1934) also imposed a single template constitution for recognition, ignoring unique Indigenous nations’ pre-existing systems of Tribal governance. Such assimilative legal practices leveraged propaganda like the Doctrine of Discovery to supplant Tribal sovereignty/self-determination, seize land, and establish economic and political control for European, Christian colonial advantage.

Intellectual or other “property” is a colonized, individualistic, capitalist, culturally incongruent notion; yet IP rights are necessary within contemporary and academic spaces that Indigenous and other marginalized peoples inhabit. From a traditional Indigenous cultural ethic and framework, we are knowledge caretakers, not owners. The responsibility and right to teach or publish intellectually protected content is given by community and traditional leaders. This responsibility and right are earned and continue to be earned over a lifetime.  

Indigenous citizens and sovereign First Nations have legal treaty and constitutional rights possessed by no other racial/ethnic group. Dishonoring these rights through publication contracts, procured work, or other intellectual, human subject, or community cultural “property” rights is a colonialist act traumatic in and of itself. Settlers on stolen land are morally and ethically obliged to uphold First Nations data sovereignty and other legal, political, and financial rights. Any claim of absolute ownership over Indigenous IP replicates colonizer land and resource claims from which settler relatives continue to benefit today.

Lesson Learned

FPIC is both critical to Indigenous Nation self-determination and required prior to engaging any project that affects/involves Indigenous peoples’ collective rights to their resources or property, including IP. The United Nations acknowledges that Indigenous peoples’ rights and knowledge systems must be upheld to address climate change and the global extinction crisis. As a professional community we must resist “data colonialism” and refuse to impose externally generated, oppressive policies that infringe upon Indigenous data sovereignty rights. We must respect Indigenous and First Nations IP, Internal Review Board (IRB), and knowledge sharing protocols, especially within public domains, as part of our ethical commitment to the use of emerging technologies in evaluation practice. Doing so honors Indigenous data ecosystems reflecting Indigenous peoples’ understandings and relationships. Let’s go beyond doing “no harm” by insisting on nation-to-nation strategies in evaluation, policy, and governance.  In short, let’s be good relatives.

Rad Resources


The American Evaluation Association is hosting Indigenous Peoples in Evaluation (IPE) TIG week. All posts this week are contributed by members of the IPE Topical Interest Group. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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