Mellon Foundation awards $1.5 million grant to WSU’s Mukurtu platform

Mukurtu workshop at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo.
Mukurtu workshop at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo with tribal authorities, the tribe’s language program, and elders (photo by María Montenegro).

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Washington State University $1.5 million to sustain the Mukurtu content management system established in 2009. The funding will also help extend the system’s network of trained specialists through the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation (CDSC), a collaboration between WSU Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences. The grant is the largest Mellon gift in support of Mukurtu CMS, a digital platform for Indigenous communities and their allies to manage, access, share, and protect their cultural and linguistic heritage, intellectual property, and traditional knowledge.

Closeup of Kim Christen
Kim Christen

“This support is a game changer for Mukurtu,” said Kim Christen, Mukurtu director, principal investigator, and WSU associate vice president for research advancement and partnerships. “This grant, coupled with one we received last year from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is paving the way for long-term sustainability of both the software and the human infrastructure that is crucial to serve Indigenous communities.”

Expanding the Mukurtu Hubs network will create more regional centers to serve Indigenous communities and to train more community curation specialists within Native communities, growing internal support for those using Mukurtu, Christen said. Mukurtu Hubs include locations in Alaska, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, Hawaii, and New South Wales, Australia. (To learn more about the Hubs, visit the Mukurtu website.)

“This train-the-trainer model is one we have used in the past, and it is highly successful,” she said. “These funds will grow the network of community-led support exponentially.”

Ongoing support

This latest grant marks the fourth time the Mellon Foundation has provided the necessary funding that has allowed Mukurtu to evolve organically and in collaboration with Indigenous communities globally.

“We are grateful for the Mellon Foundation’s investment in the sustainability of Mukurtu CMS, a critical tool for Indigenous communities around the world to curate their digital heritage on their terms,” said Trevor Bond, CDSC co-director and WSU Libraries’ associate dean for digital initiatives and special collections.

Amelia Wilson, Brett Dillingham, Rebekah Contreras, and Jeff Skaflestad are pictured at the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders and Youth Conference.
Amelia Wilson, Brett Dillingham, Rebekah Contreras, and Jeff Skaflestad at the First Alaskans Institute’s Elders and Youth Conference, where they presented on “Using Digital Archives to Inspire Storytelling and New Art Creation” (photo courtesy of Amelia Wilson).

Christen said the funding has allowed CDSC staff to extend the Mukurtu network by building relationships between Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous repositories that hold these communities’ cultural and linguistic records, data, and material culture.

The Mukurtu CMS software now allows for the return of materials in digital format, as well as the ability to update those repository records with communities’ traditional knowledge, cultural narratives, languages, personal names, and more.

“Significantly, it allows for community attribution so that it is clear that the knowledge being shared belongs to those communities,” Christen said. “Apart from the technical functionality, this work has grown trusted relationships between these groups through MOUs [memos of understanding] as well as other nonlegal instruments.”

Building long-term relationships

Over the last decade, the WSU Mukurtu team has provided over 300 in-person or remote workshops and one-on-one trainings to Indigenous communities, emphasizing the lifecycle of ethical digital stewardship and collaborative curation, according to Christen. Simultaneously, the Mukurtu Hubs expanded this support network by offering regional in-person workshops.

Rebekah Contreras, Jamie Katzeek, and Amelia Wilson are pictured at the Klukwan Library.
Rebekah Contreras, Jamie Katzeek, and Amelia Wilson at the Klukwan Library during a site visit to help set up their Mukurtu platform (photo courtesy of Amelia Wilson).

Amelia Wilson, director of the Huna Heritage Foundation in Alaska, discussed how her community implemented Mukurtu CMS to provide responsible access to their archival materials: “In Tlingit culture, songs have protocols for sharing. And so, much like copyrights, I can’t sing a song from another clan without having permission.”

Wilson said if her clan has something from another clan in their archives, the other clan leaders can choose to house their songs and stories there, but not allow other people or clans to access them.

“So the protocols that are available on Mukurtu make that possible,” she said. “We can make sure that the right clans and clan members have access.”

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