Logo for the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

Source: https://indigenousknowledge.unimelb.edu.au

August 9 marks the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, an annual celebration of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted in 2007. It is an opportunity to highlight the significant contribution that Indigenous Peoples have made to our world and it serves as a reminder to reaffirm everyone’s commitment to advancing the rights of Indigenous Peoples and to working together to address the challenges they still face around the world.

This celebratory blog post is dedicated to Traditional Knowledge Labels (TK Labels) – a framework for preserving Indigenous knowledges in digital environments. It will outline how the system works and discuss how it can be helpful in scholarly work.

1.   What are TK Labels?

Traditional Knowledge Labels (TK Labels) is a digital tagging system developed by the Local Contexts initiative in partnership with Indigenous communities worldwide to recognize, categorize, and acknowledge traditional knowledges of Indigenous Peoples and their contexts and regulate how and by whom that intellectual property can be used. Together with other tools such as Local Context’s BC Labels, GIDA’s CARE Principles, or the Mukurtu Content Management System (CMS), they ensure the cultural sovereignty of Indigenous peoples worldwide.

2.   What can TK Labels add to existing frameworks regulating intellectual property?

TK labels appear to be akin to statutory copyright and trademark law. Yet they were developed because legal concepts of regulating intellectual property are often at odds with how traditional knowledge is passed on, shared, and exercised. Copyright laws have been exploited many times to appropriate Indigenous knowledges and traditional cultural expressions, including by the scientific community.

Instead, the concept of TK labels is loosely inspired by Creative Commons (CC) licenses. CC licenses form another labeling system, that is intended to complement copyright by offering a more general framework for sharing intellectual property. But TK labels are more elaborate than Creative Commons and designed to provide a holistic perspective on the context in which traditional knowledges and Indigenous cultural heritages live. They can, for example, show provenance and specify protocols that should be applied when using the knowledge and they can be customized to serve local contexts. TK labels also contrast with Creative Commons because the open philosophy of which these licenses are a component is not in harmony with indigenous traditions of learning, teaching, and knowing.

Although not legally binding, TK labels create a safe space for traditional manifestations of intellectual property and their contexts that existing copyright laws generally cannot capture and legislate.

3.  How do TK Labels help protect Indigenous Knowledges and promote Indigenous cultural sovereignty?

Currently 20 different TK Labels help to raise awareness of Indigenous knowledges and their interrelationships. Labeling traditional knowledges that exist in digital environments makes them more recognizable. By contextualizing them with the help of TK Labels, knowledge-keepers can decide to provide clarity, depth, and meaning to audiences outside of their communities. As a result, these labels can prevent misappropriation by making clear where the knowledge and teachings originate and in what way their usage is authorized. This can encourage future use, foster their preservation and prevent undesirable or illegitimate applications. It is the exercise and sometimes the restitution of control over their dissemination. TK Labels help to repatriate sovereignty over knowledges and cultural expressions, that have been torn from their ancestral settings. And not least, they can encourage engagement with the inherent nature of Indigenous knowledge traditions and lead to a deeper understanding of them.

An image of 12 different TK Labels and their meaning

Examples of different TK Labels and their meanings. Source: Local Contexts and https://blogs.ubc.ca/etec523/2021/10/02/traditional-knowledge-and-the-commons/

4. What role TK Labels can play in indigenizing digital scholarship

TK labels offer an opportunity to improve the social impact of digital scholarship by promoting decolonization and indigenization. As more non-Indigenous researchers turn to traditional knowledge to solve societal problems to which Western science cannot find sufficient answers, such as wildlife conservation or the life-threatening effects of the climate crisis, it is increasingly important that this knowledge be used appropriately, respectfully, and in harmony with its bearers. TK labels can provide a framework for this use. With TK Labels, global Indigenous communities have an additional tool in their hands with which they can gain recognition for knowledges and cultural practices that have been considered a common good by the scientific community for centuries and have thus been appropriated without acknowledgement of their sources. Now these communities can claim it on their own terms.

5. How students, researchers and academic institutions can implement TK Labels in their learning, teaching, research and heritage work

The labels themselves can only be applied by Indigenous communities. Researchers and educators as well as academic and heritage institutions (archives, museums, libraries) who would like to refer to traditional knowledges in their works or in collections they host can apply a TK notice to them by registering their projects or collections in the Local Contexts Hub. That will notify Indigenous communities of potential Indigenous rights and interests in their publications, data or holdings, who can then decide if and which labels to apply to those projects. 

An important application relevant to scholarly and preservation work that includes the TK Labels is the Mukurtu CMS for building digital collections that contain manifestations of Indigenous cultural practices and traditional teachings. Learn more about how TK Labels are implemented into Mukurtu here.

Further Reading on Indigenous Knowledges

A special issue of UVic’s open access journal KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies has been dedicated to Indigenous Knowledges in 2021.