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Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Open Data

What is Indigenous Data Sovereignty?

Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) is the right of Indigenous people to own and govern data about their communities, resources, and lands. It means Indigenous people are the stewards of data collection and the research done using their data; they are in control of what and how this data is accessed and used. Perhaps most importantly, it means Indigenous people have authoritative input in the application of the knowledge that derives from their data, especially when it comes to policy making.

It seems fairly straight forward: Indigenous peoples should be in control of their data. However, the pervasiveness of colonial expansionism and morality means that Indigenous data governance is still being established and organized. The mechanism by which IDS can be enacted, Indigenous data governance (IDG) are the principles being developed to guide governments and the scientific community in the use of Indigenous data in ways that respect Indigenous sovereignty. These principles are intended to ensure that Indigenous communities and Nations regain and retain self-deterministic control of their data.

Perhaps the most well-known of these principles are the First Nations Principles of OCAP®[1] established in 1998, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) created in 2007, and the CARE Principles, established by the Indigenous Data Alliance (GIDA 2019) in 2018. The CARE Principles were meant to be considered in conjunction with the FAIR Guiding Principles for scientific data management and stewardship, and specifically looks at the practice of open data and science in relation to IDS.

[1] OCAP® is a registered trademark of the First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC). For more information, please see

Why Does Indigenous Data Sovereignty Matter?

Indigenous data collection is not new. Indigenous peoples have been collecting data for millennia. Unfortunately, as European colonization spread the control of Indigenous knowledge was shifted into the hands of settlers and their governments. Control of Indigenous data perpetuated the taking of Indigenous lands and violently enforced assimilation. This control has compounded the effects of the colonizer mindset, ensuring that the prejudiced beliefs that supported widespread genocide and war-making on Indigenous communities worldwide have continued to influence modern policy making. In turn, the lack of equity continues to remain a deep-seated issue in all aspects of society and government.

Data is power and with the growth of digital data it is only becoming more powerful. Data is now key to governments and the private market making decisions which have far reaching results in our global society. In the case of Indigenous peoples, throughout recent history they have seen their knowledge used without their input and as a tool for taking their power from them. They have not been the beneficiaries of the contributions to society and the economy made with their knowledge. And they have suffered loss and harm due to the mismanagement and misinterpretation of their data which is used to make policies about them but without them.

Tahu Kukutai writes in her essay “Reflections on Indigenous sovereignty” that “[un]derpinning ID-SOV is the desire for data to be used in ways that support and enhance the collective wellbeing and self-determination of Indigenous peoples” [4]. IDG is seen as a way of building more equitable, inclusive societies. It will allow Indigenous groups to regain some of what they have lost physically (e.g., land, resources, artifacts) but also culturally and politically. Access to data that has already been collected as well as having the tools and resources to collect data themselves will aid Indigenous leadership in making decisions that best suit the needs of their communities.


Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the 23 right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions.”

A set of resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 2007, the Articles of the UNDRIP were created in order to protect the rights of Indigenous people. Its start can be traced back to the establishment of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982 and the first draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples completed in 1994. While the UNDRIP did not introduce any new ideas, it did create an international standard for greater conversations about IDS and IDG on a much larger scale. It helped bring IDS to the more direct attention of non-Indigenous governments, the private sector, and the scientific community, providing a referential framework for recognizing the fundamental rights of Indigenous people.

Created by an Indigenous group, the First Nations Principles of OCAP® was founded in 1998 by the National Steering Committee, now the First Nations Information Governance Committee. OCAP® stands for ownership, control, access and possession, and is intended to be a tool for exercising First Nation data governance.

While founded specifically for First Nation communities, OCAP® has become a source of guidance for Indigenous groups, as well as non-indigenous policy makers and the scientific community, in developing ethical practices and policies for establishing and respecting Indigenous data sovereignty. What is more, OCAP® is not intended as a blanket approach for how to handle First Nation, or Indigenous, data. Instead, it follows its own principle of respect for self-governance and is meant to be a set of standards which individual First Nation communities can adapt and apply to their specific needs.

CARE Principles and Open Data

The intersection of the Indigenous Data Sovereignty effort and the open data movement highlights the inequities and beneficial opportunities that are occurring largescale as technological advancement causes changes on a global scale. When considering digital data, the CARE Principles are not just looking at who is collecting and owning Indigenous data, but how it is being stored and released. Access to technology is necessary for digital data stewardship. However, access to technology is reflective of economic inequity and marginalized groups, such as Indigenous communities, continue to lack access to both the resources and the educational opportunities to learn to use such tools. Furthermore, open data and science that does not take in to account historical context is at risk of perpetuating harmful and even dangerous biases in its methods and results. With the growing reliance on data for decision making, these biases can be incorporated into the practices of government agencies and the private sector.

The CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance were put together by the Global Indigenous Data Alliance (GIDA) in 2018 and intended to be used alongside the FAIR Principles of Open Science. It stresses the concern that “[e]xisting principles within the open data movement (e.g., FAIR…) primarily focus on characteristics of data that will facilitate increased data sharing among entities while ignoring power differentials and historical contexts” [2]. CARE stands for collective benefit, authority to control, responsibility, and ethics and challenges the standardization of open data meaning data is made completely open regardless of the source or purpose. By situating Indigenous people as the owners of their own data, the CARE Principles seek to shift Indigenous groups from subjects to stewards.

This is not to say the mainstream open data movement is at odds with IDS. This is creating a false binary where open data is on one side and the rights of Indigenous peoples and other marginalized people must be on the other. The advancements around the collection and analyzing of digital data and related sciences such as AI are advancing tremendously beneficial innovations in medicine, clean power, and agriculture to name just a few. Rather, it is the absence of considering how the practice of open data can overlook and sustain systemic inequities and in doing so harm Indigenous people and other similarly marginalized groups that must be confronted.

What Next?

The intention of the CARE principles and similar Indigenous digital data principles and groups is to work with the open data movement to build more equitable societies and economies. Indigenous Data Governance proponents hope to shed light on the ways in which open data must have a more nuanced approach when dealing with Indigenous data. Just as OCAP® is not meant to be a blanket approach for handling all First Nation data, no singular set of principles can be established which can be used for any and all Indigenous data.

Open access is not as simple as making all data available via online publications or databases. Access to the internet and computers, language and literacy, and technological skill are all proven barriers to accessing digital data. The issues that IDS and IDG are facing when considering open data are issues that the mainstream open data movement are grappling with at large. These are conversations that can be had in tandem, helpfully for the benefit of all.

It is a widely known fact that diversity fosters innovation, creativity, and positive change. Formally recognizing the diverse voices of Indigenous people will mean creating a more inclusive and equitable future for all.


1. “Care Principles.” Global Indigenous Data Alliance.

2. “CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance.” The Global Indigenous Data Alliance, September 2019.

3. Carroll, Stephanie, et al. “The CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance.” Data Science Journal, 2020. DOI: PDF :  

4. “FAIR Principles.” GO FAIR, January 21, 2022.

5. Kukutai, Tahu. “Reflections on Indigenous Sovereignty.” Retrieved from the Journal Of Indigenous Wellbeing: Te Mauri – Pimatisiwin, July 2019.

6. Leonard, Kelsey, et al. “CARE Statement for Indigenous Data Sovereignty.” Retrieved from Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology Website, 2023.

7. “Our History.” The First Nations Information Governance Centre, September 5, 2023.

8. Rainie, Stephanie Carroll, Tahu Kukutai, Maggie Walter, Oscar Luis Figueroa-Rodriguez, Jennifer Walker, and Per Axelsson. “Issues in Open Data.” Indigenous Data Sovereignty, 2023.

9. Stone, Paul, and Ania Calderon. “[Spotlight] CARE Principles: Unpacking Indigenous Data Governance.” Medium, November 4, 2019.

10. “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” United Nations, n.d.

11. “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” United Nations, 13 September 2007.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

Cover image credit: Evie S., Unsplash. Unsplash License.

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