Indigenous protocol and artificial intelligence position paper


Lewis, J. E. and A. Abdilla and N. Arista and K. Baker and S. Benesiinaabandan and Mi. Brown and M. Cheung and M. Coleman and A. Cordes and J. Davison and K. Duncan and S. Garzon and D. F. Harrell and P.-L. Jones and K. Kealiikanakaoleohaililani and M. Kelleher and S. Kite and O. Lagon and J. Leigh and M. Levesque and K. Mahelona and Moses, C. and others. (2020). Indigenous protocol and artificial intelligence position paper. Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Working Group, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.


This position paper on Indigenous Protocol (IP) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a starting place for those who want to design and create AI from an ethical position that centers Indigenous concerns. Each Indigenous community will have its own particular approach to the questions we raise in what follows. What we have written here is not a substitute for establishing and maintaining relationships of reciprocal care and support with specific Indigenous communities. Rather, this document offers a range of ideas to take into consideration when entering into conversations which prioritize Indigenous perspectives in the development of artificial intelligence.

The position paper is an attempt to capture multiple layers of a discussion that happened over 20 months, across 20 time zones, during two workshops, and between Indigenous people (and a few non-Indigenous folks) from diverse communities in Aotearoa, Australia, North America, and the Pacific. Our aim, however, is not to provide a unified voice. Indigenous ways of knowing are rooted in distinct, sovereign territories across the planet. These extremely diverse landscapes and histories have influenced different communities and their discrete cultural protocols over time. A single ‘Indigenous perspective’ does not exist, as epistemologies are motivated and shaped by the grounding of specific communities in particular territories. Historically, scholarly traditions that homogenize diverse Indigenous cultural practices have resulted in ontological and epistemological violence, and a flattening of the rich texture and variability of Indigenous thought. Our aim is to articulate a multiplicity of Indigenous knowledge systems and technological practices that can and should be brought to bear on the ‘question of AI.’ To that end, rather than being a unified statement this position paper is a collection of heterogeneous texts that range from design guidelines to scholarly essays to artworks to descriptions of technology prototypes to poetry. We feel such a somewhat multivocal and unruly format more accurately reflects the fact that this conversation is very much in an incipient stage as well as keeps the reader aware of the range of viewpoints expressed in the workshops.

We also wish to specify that none of us are speaking for our particular communities, nor for Indigenous peoples in general. There exists a great variety of Indigenous thought, both between Nations and within Nations. We write here not to represent but to encourage discussion that embraces that multiplicity.

Most of the people involved in the IP AI workshops practice in various ways at the intersection of Indigenous culture and digital technologies. The IP AI conversation was one moment in long histories of thinking and making that fed into the participants’ contributions to the workshops, and thus many origin stories could be told. One starting point lies with Angie Abdilla’s “Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Pattern Thinking: An Expanded Analysis of the First Indigenous Robotics Prototype Workshop” coauthored paper from 2017, which examines how Aboriginal practices of articulating, remembering and disseminating cultural knowledge might inform research into pattern recognition algorithms in robotics. 4 Another starting point is the “Making Kin with the Machines” essay co-authored by Jason Edward Lewis, Dr. Noelani Arista, Archer Pechawis and Suzanne Kite in 2018, which proposes that we draw on Indigenous kinship protocols to re-imagine the epistemological and ontological foundations on which we design AI systems. 5 Other starting points are addressed in the contributions below.

Our foremost responsibility has been to be in respectful, reciprocal dialogue with each other and our own communities. We are accountable to them first, and this position paper is but one moment in a dialogue that we expect will be questioned and challenged, and, over time, modified and evolved.