Indigenous Digital Sovereignty Defined

Headshot Traci Morris

Dr. Traci Morris

Executive Director/American Indian Policy Institute

Since at least the early 1990s, Tribal nations have been actively working to have a seat at the policy table as this new utility (for lack of a better word, though it will never be classified as such), now known as broadband, was developed. Simultaneously, Tribal allies have advocated for the same alongside Tribal Nations.  Additionally, Indigenous and other researchers have been advocating for more research in this area in order to quantify the vastness of the ‘digital divide,’ a term coined in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. Indian Country didn’t need data to demonstrate just how disconnected Tribal Lands were (and still are). But data was and is a necessity to demonstrate the need to lawmakers and federal agencies the extent of the divide.  

Fast forward to 2023, and now the ‘digital divide’ is framed as a digital equity issue, and rightly so. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a light on the issue in Indian Country in a way that all the data in the world couldn't (and there is still very little data).  There are more allies and advocates now and more academics (a few, hopefully, more to come).  And, because of the pandemic, legislative investments are infusing massive amounts of money into infrastructure–a Digital New Deal. 

Tribes are no exception, as upwards of at least three billion dollars has been invested. Arguably, Native Nations are actively exercising sovereignty by using the monies for building networks, taking care of data, protecting cultural attributes, and any other digital participatory events–that is, Indigenous digital sovereignty in an active sense.  The digital equity space is vast and growing, encompassing everything from policy to research, infrastructure to data, and beyond.  However, the space requires some definitions.

Previously undefined, the following definitions of Indigenous or Indigenous Digital Sovereignty in relation to Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Indigenous Network Sovereignty have emerged from a significant literature review in preparation for publication in a forthcoming article and book chapter. Think of Indigenous Digital Sovereignty as an overarching umbrella term encompassing all facets of digital equity on reservation lands in the US. Please refer to the graphic and definitions below.

Umbrella graphic describing Indigenous Digital Sovereignty as overarching Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Indigenous Network Sovereignty

Indigenous Digital Sovereignty is the umbrella term that overarches both Indigenous Network Sovereignty and Indigenous Data Sovereignty.  Indigenous Digital Sovereignty is both the information and the physical means by which that information transfers, governed by a community's policies and codes that control the data, infrastructure, and networks. 

Indigenous Data Sovereignty is a subset of Indigenous Digital Sovereignty, and the terms should not be conflated. Data Sovereignty refers to what flows through the network; it is intangible information. Data Sovereignty refers to control over the data transmitted on the network. 

Network sovereignty is the physical infrastructure. Network Sovereignty refers to the act of building and deploying networks, which is the process of implementing Tribal self-determination policies.

While there is little literature on Indigenous or Tribal Digital Sovereignty, the term Indigenous Data Sovereignty is widely written and spoken about (primarily by academics). However, in existing literature, there is much conflation of the terms Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Indigenous Digital Sovereignty.  Some articles use The terms interchangeably but they do not mean the same thing and should not be confused.  

There is much literature on digital sovereignty. It's evolving as the internet evolves. Older literature talks about digital sovereignty in terms of a legal sense, an older understanding. But the definition has changed in the last twenty years. It has worldwide geopolitical implications.  

Most of the literature points to the definition changing greatly as governments react to and seek to control issues such as privacy, cyber attacks, disinformation, deep fakes, and other such issues on behalf of their citizens. Indigenous Digital Sovereignty has a more holistic meaning than emerging worldwide definitions, similar to some African countries and their application of the term.  

This preliminary blog post will be expanded on in a forthcoming journal article and a book chapter. As the concept evolves, more will be included under this umbrella term. Watch for the journal article by fall and the book in 2025.