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Creating Space for Indigenous Knowledges in Truth and Reconciliation

collaboration indigenous knowledges knowledge translation Nov 18, 2021
Image of responses from participants after the Hikma Office Hours with Camille Callison: powerful words, secrets to knowing, decolonizing, quyana, ask, language, relationships, connection, respect, awesome, knowledgeable, spending time, decolonize-indigenize, thank you, good ways, eye opening, community, renaming, interconnected, take time.
Erica Machulak reflects on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action and on how to build relationships with Indigenous communities. 


As I take the last seat in the University of British Columbia Hospital’s cramped emergency room, Camille Callison strains to fire off one last email. The hand that she’s typing with peeks out from a brace—she’s been waiting for her X-ray results for at least an hour. We trade pleasantries, and I scramble for my notebook as she launches into an exposition on the expertise of Indigenous elders, the complexities of First Nations policies toward intellectual property, and her years of experience as a broker between communities and cultural institutions. My blueprint of neatly typed interview questions is tucked away, and the moment to have pulled out my recorder has long passed. This, I will come to realize, is the first principle of Indigenous scholarship—forget your plans, and listen.

In the summer of 2021, hundreds of mass graves have been identified at Canadian Indian Residential Schools, and these sites likely represent only a fraction of the thousands of Indigenous people who were killed. Callison has been working to change the system since long before this new media attention. Ever since leading the release of the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA-FCAB)’s Truth and Reconciliation Report and Recommendations in 2017, she has worked with libraries and universities across North America to unravel the colonial biases embedded in their practices. 

The report seeks answers to one of the most challenging, anxiety-producing questions facing scholars, curators, and politicians across Canada: now that the testimony of survivors is available and the government has acknowledged that the burial sites exist, where do we go from here? 

In 2006, the Canadian government settled the largest class-action lawsuit in its history with thousands of survivors of the Indian Residential Schools system. The Indian Residential School system had been designed to dislocate thousands of Indigenous children from their cultures. These children were removed from their families and, in many cases, punished for speaking their first languages. The system was in place from the 19th Century through the 1990’s, and thousands of witnesses have made clear that physical and sexual violence against children were commonplace within it. The identification of so many mass graves this summer aligns with the accounts that survivors have been providing for many years.

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which collected testimony from over 6,000 witnesses. One of the goals of the TRC was to create a safe place to store and provide access to this testimony—a significant step forward for a population whose voices and traditions have been actively silenced. Another was to develop a strategic plan that directs Canadian individuals and organizations, from chief coroners to universities and the Canada Council for the Arts, to take specific steps to shed light on troubling truths and build toward equal opportunities for Indigenous people.  For example, Article 70 calls for “a national review of archival policies and best practices.”

Under Callison’s leadership, the CFLA’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee identified 72 of the 94 Calls to Action where Canada’s libraries can make a difference. The CFLA Truth and Reconciliation Report and Recommendations is a rigorous and holistic synthesis of some of the greatest challenges facing practitioners in the field today, ranging from insights into misunderstood knowledge systems to specific instructions for how to get Canada’s incarcerated population—a disproportionate number of whom are Indigenous—easier access to libraries. 

The United Nations has made clear in its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that transparent communication and more ethical management of cultural heritage are not nation-specific, but rather global priorities. Among Indigenous communities, scholars, and specialists in museums, archives, and other cultural institutions, people are paying attention to what works elsewhere and applying it in their own political contexts. The Society of American Archivists, for instance, cites Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives, and Information Services as a source of inspiration for its own framework. The SAA released its own “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials” in 2018 after more than a decade of consultations between practitioners, scholars, and 15 Indigenous communities. The Steering Committee is expected to release its Response to the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Taskforce in the very near future.  

The challenges facing museums, archives, libraries, and other cultural institutions extend beyond questions about the management of human remains and cultural objects. The language and systems used to describe and categorize Indigenous materials can themselves cause fresh harm. The use of colonial names for tribes, nations, and communities instead of self-identified ones in the Library of Congress’s subject headings, for instance, causes degrees of pain with which many outsiders struggle to empathize. In the context of European political dominance, there is a long history of explorers, missionaries, and scientists extracting information from Indigenous communities and using it in damaging ways. Too often, even well-intentioned visitors have interpreted Indigenous belongings—from spiritual garments to blood samples and census data—in ways that distort what Indigenous people know about their own peoples. Indigenous communities are rarely consulted when these interpretations lead to new policies and protocols.

One of the cornerstone principles across existing policies toward Indigenous knowledge management, from the UN declaration to the Society of American Archivists and the Canadian Federation of Library Associations, is the acknowledgement that there is no monolithic “Indigenous” approach to cultural memory and heritage management. The histories are long, the circumstances are complex, and the more than 1,100 sovereign Indigenous nations recognized across the US and Canada have independent governments with their own policies and legal systems. If we are to address the deeply complex challenges that we’re up against, we must create and hold space for this diversity of voices and experiences. If we choose to listen, librarians and archivists such as the CFLA TRC Taskforce offer us a way to build richer and more equitable spaces for Indigenous knowledges across our networks and institutions. 


Author’s Note

This post was written by me, Erica Machulak, with generous insights from Camille Callison. All mistakes, errors, and omissions are my own.

Erica Machulak, PhD, is the Founder of Hikma Strategies. 

Erica’s work has been published in Inside Higher Ed, Intellect Ltd, the Yearbook of Langland Studies, and Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Browse her portfolio here

About Camille Callison

Camille Callison brings expert knowledge and lived experience to our conversation about Indigenous Knowledges and relationship building in library, archival and cultural memory praxis. Camille is a Tāłtān Nation member, the University Librarian at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), and a passionate cultural activist pursuing a PhD in Anthropology dedicated to the continued survival and activation of Indigenous knowledges, languages and cultures. Among many other contributions, Camille serves as the Chair of IFLA Professional Division H and a member of IEEE P2890™ Recommended Practice for Provenance of Indigenous Peoples’ Data, OCLC Reimagine Descriptive Workflows Advisory Group, NISO Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion subcommittee and the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Taskforce on Archives. She is committed to advancing matters related to Indigenous peoples and creating meaningful change related to equity, diversity, and inclusivity within cultural memory professions.

On November 22, 2021, Hikma Office Hours hosted a conversation with Camille Callison on building intentional relationships with Indigenous communities. Our blog image is the word cloud of responses from participants who were prompted to contribute a word of reflection on the discussion. 

Works Cited and Further Reading

Callison, Camille, Ann Ludbrook, Victoria Owen, and Kim Nayyer. "Engaging Respectfully with Indigenous Knowledges: Copyright, Customary Law, and Cultural Memory Institutions in Canada." KULA: Knowledge Creation, Dissemination, and Preservation Studies 5 (1), (2021): 1-15. 

Canadian Federation of Library Associations. CFLA-FCAB Truth and Reconciliation Report. Accessed November 16, 2021. 

Canadian Federation of Library Associations. Resources and Databases. Accessed November 18, 2021.

Government of Canada. Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. June 9, 2021. 

International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. Special Issue: Indigenous Librarianship. Volume 47. Issue 3. Accessed November 18, 2021.

MacDonald, Brennan. 'Canada's responsibility': Trudeau responds to report of unmarked graves at residential school site. June 24 2021. 

McCraken, Kristen, and Skylee-Storm Hogan. "Laughter filled the space: Challenging Euro-Centric Archival Spaces." The International Journal of Information, Diversity, and Inclusion 5 (1), (2021): 97-110. DOI: 

National Indigenous Knowledge and Language Alliance. Welcome. Accessed November 18, 2021. 

Native Land Digital. Native land map. Accessed November 22, 2021.

Reimagine Descriptive Workflows: Generating Lasting, Meaningful Change in Libraries and Archives. Accessed November 18, 2021.

Society of American Archivists. "Protocols for Native American Archival Materials": Information and Resources Page. Accessed November 16, 2021. 

Steering Committee on Canada's Archives. Response to the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Taskforce. Accessed November 16, 2021. 

Steering Committee on Canada's Archives. Taskforce Project Charter. Accessed November 18, 2021.

The Association of Canadian Archivists. Truth and Reconciliation. 2019. 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. "Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action." 2015. 

United Nations. n.d. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Accessed November 16, 2021. 

UTS Library. "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library and Information." November 16 2006.

University of British Columbia. Xwi7xwa Library Indigenous Knowledge Organization. Accessed November 22, 2021.

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