Preserving Indigenous Culture in the Internet Age

Online archive provides access while maintaining traditional values

Kimberly Christen

Kimberly Christen

The energy in Kimberly Christen's comfortable, carefully organized office in Wilson-Short Hall is palpable. She is eager to talk about research, teaching, students, and her children (Jakob, 10, and Zakary, 5). Her enthusiasm is contagious.

It's no wonder this young assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies has been able to grow a New Faculty Seed Grant she received when she arrived at WSU in 2005 into a project that is already receiving international attention.

Christen is project director for the Mukurtu Wumparrarni-kari project, a browser-based digital archive that was the subject of a story on the BBC radio program "Digital Planet" in January and reported on by ABC (Australia) in February.

Mukurtu is the Warumungu word for 'dilly bag,' a traditional Australian Aboriginal bag used for many purposes. Elders of the Warumungu Aboriginal community in Australia's Northern Territory use theirs to keep sacred items safe.

Built around a growing collection of photographs, videos, and cultural artifacts returned to the Warumungu, the Mukurtu Archive is a 'safe keeping place.'

Christen describes the archive as part of a process of "virtual repatriation," where community objects, images, and materials that had been taken and housed in museums and archives are now being returned to the community, digitally. This process is significant for the Warumungu community because of their history of dispossession by miners and other white settlers in the region in the 1930s when gold was discovered near what would become the remote town of Tennant Creek.

Through the archive, Christen and her technical collaborator, user interface engineer Craig Dietrich, have developed a way for Warumungu community members to make a record of and recover the knowledge that accompanies those recently returned items.

"The Warumungu community, like many indigenous communities, was fractured to some degree by colonial enterprises," Christen said. "The archive aids in the process of restoration for many community members by allowing them to narrate their histories and life stories from their own vantage points. Through a process that is additive and interactive, community members benefit by being able to pass on stories—pass on history—and the archive acts as a catalyst for that."

Dr. Kimberly Christen with Aboriginal Australians

Christen first visited Tennant Creek—a town of about 3,000, half of whom are Aboriginal—in 1995 at the suggestion of pioneering Australian anthropologist and scholar Diane Bell. Since then Christen has returned nearly every summer. Her youngest son was born in Tennant Creek 5 years ago.

Originally Christen worked with the Warumungu writing a community history (Anyinginyi Manuku Apparr), producing digital video and audio recordings, and compiling archival data for use in the interpretive displays at the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre.

In 2002, while conducting field work for her doctoral dissertation, Christen took on the role of cultural center liaison for museum research. She accompanied Warumungu community members to Australia's national museums looking for Warumungu artifacts. Through a process of networking, photos began to arrive from unexpected places, and Christen even discovered that missionaries in the city of Darwin had 800 photographs from the late 1930s through the 1990s, already scanned.

When Christen began showing iPhoto slide shows to individuals and small groups from the Warumungu community, it was immediately clear to her that there was a problem. In order to make the digital images of families, artifacts, sacred sites, ceremonies, and other materials accessible to community members, a system had to be created that mirrored their dynamic cultural system.

That is exactly what makes the digital archive Christen developed unique: it is built around the cultural protocols of the community, taking into account the code of behavior for everyday life.

In the case of the Warumungu, men do not view women's rituals, people related to one country or specific place cannot access or view the images from other countries without prior permission, and family members do not view images of deceased relatives.

The archive contained approximately 1,200 images when Christen installed it in the community center portion of the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre in August 2007. It now holds approximately 1,400 images, and the Warumungu are managing their own cultural materials.

The Warumungu are not the only ones to benefit from Christen's research; her students here at WSU will also be able to learn from her groundbreaking work. In a model for connecting faculty research and instructional delivery, Christen is developing a new class that will be offered in the fall called "Exhibiting Culture: Museums, Media, and Indigenous Culture."

Christen says her classes are about "getting up out of one's chair." She believes that hands-on activities turn passive "intakers" into participators. "If you lead students halfway, they will go the rest of the way themselves," she said.

Perhaps for some that will even mean halfway around the world, to the Australian Outback!

Kimberly Christen holds a Ph.D. in the history of consciousness from the University of California at Santa Cruz, an M.A. in religious studies from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a B.A. in religious studies from the Arizona State University Honors College. In April she received a grant from the Northwest Academic Computing Consortium that will support using the technology developed for the Mukurtu project to build a "Plateau Peoples' Web Portal and Archive" in collaboration with the Plateau Center for American Indian Studies and WSU's Holland Library Special Collections.

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