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Project to address harmful language relating to Indigenous peoples receives prestigious Mellon Award 

Posted by Sonya Jampolsky on April 8, 2024 in News

Stacy Allison-Cassin, an associate professor in Dal’s Faculty of Management, and Camille Callison, university librarian at University of the Fraser Valley, have received a $1.8-million grant from the prestigious Mellon Foundation. They are pursuing the next steps in a decades long journey to remove antiquated, racist, and harmful language found in libraries, archives, museums, and data-systems worldwide.  

Dr. Allison-Cassin, a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario, and Callison, a member of the Tāłtān Nation, are co-leading the Respectful Terminologies Platform Project (RTPP) with the National Indigenous Knowledge and Language Alliance (NIKLA), in collaboration and with the support of the University of the Fraser Valley.

The RTTP is a dynamic and open online platform to create and share appropriate and respectful multilingual terminologies. That terminology will then be used in places such as libraries, museums, and other knowledge-based organizations with archival management systems.

Dr. Allison-Cassin and Callison explain the significance of the project like this.  

To be called by one’s name is a fundamental mark of respect that should be extended to everyone. However, the stark reality is that many are denied this basic human right... people are compelled to use harmful language to conduct a search for one’s own history, heritage, language, or culture.    

Change is ‘frustratingly slow’

Elaine MacInnis, associate dean of library services at Dal, is dismayed that “American Indians is still a subject heading in the library catalogue system.” Not only is the language incorrect, she says, but it also inflicts harm and continues the cycle of trauma. 

Cataloguing and descriptive work in libraries and archives uses international standards intended to ease data exchange and guide practitioners. Many of these standards were developed by colonial institutions. Some, like the U.S. Library of Congress and the Canadian government, have tried to address disrespectful, incorrect, and harmful words, but Dr. Allison-Cassin (pictured left) calls the change ‘frustratingly slow’, and such efforts are typically not led by Indigenous peoples themselves.

Drawing on years as a librarian, she says, “it’s impossible to decolonize these systems.” Changing terms within a colonial system is not enough, she adds, “because the underlying structures remain the same — it’s time to create something new.”  

A collective approach, no more working in silos

The RTPP imagines a different reality where, as Callison puts it, “when people search for information about Indigenous and other marginalized communities, they would see appropriate and correct terminology describing themselves and others, which subconsciously creates respect toward them and their identity, leaving an imprint of reverence.”   

It’s taken nine months of intense work to do the invite-only application to the Public Knowledge Program at Mellon. But as Dr. Allison-Cassin explains, the project has long roots. The RTPP was launched through NIKLA in May 2022 and follows decades of advocacy and research by Indigenous librarians, archivists, and museum professionals across North America.

The grant will be used for the design of practices, workflows, and systems to create the capacity for systematic change. Dr. Allison-Cassin says, “it’s also about Indigenous Data Sovereignty having the right to own, control, access, and steward data about their communities, lands, and culture.” 

W. Dominika Wranik, the Faculty of Management’s associate dean of research, says it’s an honour for the university to be associated with the project.

"It’s in direct alignment with Dalhousie University’s Strategic Research Direction, specifically in the area ‘Reconciliation & Indigenous Peoples’ that supports the building of inclusive and resilient communities,” she says, adding that Dr. Allison-Cassin's research "also lies at the core of our faculty’s strength in the advancement of Indigenous paradigms for management and the decolonization of knowledge.”

We want to fulfill the dreams of our elders

Camille Callison (pictured left) acknowledges the broad support the project has gathered with contributions coming from across Canada and beyond. “It is important to gather together in a concerted, overarching effort to address these historical harms enabling local adaptations rather than continue to work in silos ensuring that our efforts at creating and mobilizing efforts move forward into the future in a good way," she says.

As a scholar who has volunteered hours writing and editing material for Wikidata and Wikipedia, Dr. Allison-Cassin admits she’s passionate about documenting cultural materials that don’t fit easily into standard systems of description or are ignored entirely. She says knowing ‘how information is structured’ helps her think about ‘the power in structures.’ 

Dr. Allison-Cassin says that the work of so many people over past decades is what enabled the RTPP to come into being. Callison emphasizes, “Our desire is to acknowledge and honour the work of those who came before us who worked tirelessly at the grassroots and in community for their whole careers to advocate and create changes that is a foundation that we can build. It is critically important to elevate the voices of First Nations, Métis, Inuit peoples who have been and continue to work to create change for future generations to come.”