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Indigenous Data Sovereignty: The legal and cultural considerations

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

By Dr Terri Janke, Clare McKenzie, and Neane Carter


10 August 2023


What is Indigenous Data Sovereignty?

Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDSov) is the right that First Nations peoples have to manage the collection, ownership and use of data about them, their Country, knowledge and resources. Indigenous Data Governance is the data management practices designed to recognise IDSov in relation to collecting, using, owning, and sharing Indigenous Data. IDSov emphasises the agency of Indigenous peoples in controlling how their knowledge, and personal or sensitive information is used and accessed.[1]

  • IDSov builds on the United Nations recognition of Indigenous Sovereignty; and

  • Article 31 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[2] (UNDRIP), which enshrines the right Indigenous peoples have to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions (collectively Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property).

IDSov challenges historical norms of assigning the ownership of data to the collector and researcher.

  • IDSov is a response to open data and open science movements, including publicly funded research that requires data sharing.

  • IDSov empowers Indigenous peoples to govern research and data that relates to them, and authenticates Indigenous knowledges.

  • IDSov calls for cultural considerations to be taken into account, such as restrictions to who can access the information. For example, gender restrictions or secret/sacred information.

IDSov centres on the CARE Principles: Collective Benefit, Authority to Control, Responsibility and Ethics. The CARE Principles are foundational to self-determination for Indigenous peoples in having ownership of their own data.[3]

The CARE Principles are designed to be used alongside the FAIR Principles: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable. The FAIR Principles are intended to set out best practice data management, in the context of reusing of data and open sharing.[4] (https://www.nature.com/articles/sdata201618)

Recognising IDSov has legal and cultural considerations. For instance, data should be collected and managed with the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples sharing information to collectors of data. IDSov must be considered in the designing of knowledge management frameworks. The legal issues for use and sharing of data must take into account copyright, privacy and information sharing laws, and acquiring free, prior and informed consent for use of data in agreements.


IDSov is used globally, and has been adapted for local implementation by country-specific data sovereignty networks in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada among others.



Maiam nayri Wingara[5]

Maiam nayri Wingara is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Data Sovereignty Collective.


Maiam nayri Wingara seeks to reconnect Indigenous peoples with their data which may have been collected for an improper purpose or without consent. Their principles which are based on IDSov challenge the norm of the over collection of data, and calls for data to accurately reflect the priorities, values, cultures, worldviews and diversity of Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should have ownership of data, in any format, that affect them collectively or individually.[6]


What is an Indigenous Data Sharing Agreement? What are some of the key terms that should be included in it?

A data sharing agreement is used when engaging with Indigenous Data, and personal or sensitive information that is captured by the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth). It should be included when:

  • working with First Nations peoples and communities

  • seeking traditional knowledge for background information/guidance

  • wanting to use traditional knowledge.

A data sharing agreement is used to formalise an Indigenous person’s or communities’ consent to share traditional knowledge or personal information and maintain their ownership of that information. Data sharing agreements are a useful way to incorporate the IDSov framework into a project or research.

Any project or research that involves consulting with, or seeking knowledge from, Indigenous peoples and communities should as a first step get consent from the Indigenous people and/or communities to share their knowledge.

Data sharing agreements can be used for many reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Recording/using language

  • Recording/adapting/reproducing stories and songs belonging to Indigenous peoples

  • Filming on Country

  • Filming Indigenous people – this includes for performances i.e., songs, dances

  • Recording intangible knowledge, such as burning techniques on Country or information about animals and plants found on Country.

The key terms in a data sharing agreement include:

  • Consent to collect, access, use and store Indigenous Data

  • Parameters on the use of the Indigenous Data provided with free, prior and informed consent

  • Any restrictions on the use and access of culturally sensitive information – secret and sacred information should not be shared

  • Ownership of Indigenous Data is with the Indigenous person or community

  • Attribution of Indigenous Data to Indigenous peoples or communities

  • Benefit sharing for the use and access to Indigenous Data.


What does this mean for Indigenous organisations?

IDSov is an important framework that Indigenous organisations can use to their benefit, to help set standards of best practice internally and for other organisations and individuals worked with.


There are ways to put IDSov into practice. Consistent use of data sharing agreements are important for getting consent and maintaining agency around Indigenous Data. A data dashboard that is accessible for Indigenous peoples and communities is a useful way to keep Indigenous Data in one place.

Making IDSov an everyday part of work:

  • Sets a standard for managing Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property

  • Ensures Indigenous knowledge and information is used respectfully

  • Maintains First Nations agency over Indigenous Data

  • Ensures proper attribution to First Nations peoples and communities supply the data.


References: [1] Stephanie Russo Carroll et al, ‘The CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance’, (2020) 19 Data Science Journal <https://datascience.codata.org/articles/10.5334/dsj-2020-043#B34>. [2] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Res 61/295, UN Doc A/RES/61/295 (2 October 2007, adopted 13 September 2007). [3] Ibid. [4] Mark D Wilkinson et al, ‘The FAIR Guiding Principles for scientific data management and stewardship’, [2016] Scientific Data <https://www.nature.com/articles/sdata201618>. [5] See: https://www.maiamnayriwingara.org/ [6] Maiam nayri Wingara, ‘Maiam nayri Wingara Indigenous Data Sovereignty Principles’, (Communique, 20 June 2018) <https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b3043afb40b9d20411f3512/t/63ed934fe861fa061ebb9202/1676514134724/Communique-Indigenous-Data-Sovereignty-Summit.pdf>.








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