Building Community Into How Local Contexts Does Its Work


James Francis, Sr.
Chair, Local Contexts: Director, Department of Cultural and Historic Preservation, Penobscot Nation.

The Local Contexts project grew from the needs of Indigenous and local organizations who wanted a practical method to deal with the range of intellectual property issues that arise in relation to managing Indigenous cultural heritage materials.  

Penobscot Nation was an early adopter of Local Contexts Traditional Knowledge (TK) Labels, which allow us to get at the table and have a voice inside institutions that hold our cultural heritage items, about how our items should be used and by whom.  The collections happened when it was thought our communities would disappear.  But we are still here!  And our items are sitting on shelves, unused and in some cases unknown to us.

TK Labels bring peace of mind to our community.  They help bring a reunion between our community and our cultural heritage.  The Labels are an excellent tool for undoing colonial practices that built the institutions that house our items.  

Penobscot Nation has been working with Local Contexts for several years to develop the Labels and their application by our community.  I have seen the initiative blossom as it has been taken up by Indigenous communities around the world, and as the Labels were expanded to include Biocultural components, as well as Notices to enable collections and repositories to signal their intent to collaborate on cultural and genomic heritage management.

As its adoption grew, it became clear that Local Contexts needed to build its own governance structure, to ensure the Labels were managed by the communities they serve. Its governance should reflect and extend ongoing work to build inclusive frameworks for managing Indigenous cultural and intellectual property and that support Indigenous data sovereignty.   

Over the last year, the Local Contexts team has been working to develop such an organizational infrastructure.  We have researched existing Indigenous governance structures and consulted with community leaders.  Our Director team has discussed approaches and formalized our operational values, vision, mission, and core principles. 

I am happy to share that, following community guidance, Local Contexts has incorporated as a non-profit organization in Navajo Nation.  We have adopted bylaws that create a governing Council and enshrine Indigenous community sovereignty, leadership, and authority over the organization as Members of Local Contexts, with the right to nominate representatives to serve on the Council. 

Our goal in the next year is to transform Local Contexts from a group of grant-supported activities to an organization with a coordinated operational and services plan.  Our plan is to support the ongoing work of the organization through a Subscription model for participating museums, repositories, and other organizations holding Indigenous cultural and genomic heritage items.

During this initial transition period the project co-Directors – myself, Jane Anderson, Kim Christen, and Maui Hudson – are serving as Founding Councilors. When we roll out the agreements, we will start onboarding Indigenous Community Members, and look forward to our first elections.  In alignment with our values of accountability and transparency, our bylaws, articles of incorporation, Council membership, and other governance documents are available on our new Governance webpage.

We thank everyone who has helped us get to this point, and look forward to welcoming more Indigenous communities and supporters of Indigenous data sovereignty to the work of Local Contexts.