Developed by Dr. Kim Christen of Washington State University and Jane Anderson of New York University under a project they call Local Contexts, Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels provide a framework for indigenous groups to dictate the terms of access for their cultural ephemera. Because Western cultural memory institutions typically treat indigenous cultural heritage as part of the public domain, anyone is allowed access and remix indigenous ephemera. This structure denies marginalized groups any agency or ownership over items that originally belonged to them, which further scaffolds a problematic and colonial frame of reference.
Cited as the standard to consider when working with any cultural heritage created by marginalized communities, TK Labels allow indigenous groups to reclaim control over their ephemera by designating access through a Protocol metadata field. Through another metadata field called Cultural Narrative, indigenous groups are empowered to educate non-community users about how to incorporate their digital heritage objects in culturally sensitive and appropriate ways.
TK Labels operate similarly to Creative Commons licenses for original work. Because indigenous groups do not own digital content that contains their namesake, their cultural heritage is accessible, legally, through the public domain. “Ownership” is defined differently by Western legal standards and indigenous groups, further complicating the issue of access regarding culturally sensitive materials.
While some institutions are doing the work of returning ownership of items that sometimes were taken forcibly, or without permission, the topic has been the subject of increased debate over the past year. Given a tricky, often slow, and sometimes stagnant process of determining ownership, TK Labels give a semblance of ownership back to marginalized groups, however they are not a silver bullet for what appears to be a long, ongoing debate.
By redefining (and more important, revisioning) the All Rights Reserved copyright, TK Labels give control to indigenous groups regarding how their material is shared, circulated, and reused. Their use recognizes that indigenous groups have different levels of access in regards to their knowledge and cultural material. TK Labels designate objects with special permission and appropriate acknowledgement for reuse by non-community members.
Most important to the process is the fact that only indigenous groups are given access to the metadata fields that govern TK Labels. The outcome, then, is that non-community users are asked to understand and respect that some indigenous materials are sensitive, they may have restrictions, and they may not be free for reuse, all depending on the TK Labels assigned.
TK Labels democratize an archival process that has not always favored marginalized indigenous communities. While they certainly do not solve the larger problem of pervasive colonial attitudes towards indigenous groups, their very existence has sparked a conversation that continues to gain steam.