April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Building Indigenous Agency Through Web-Based Exhibition: Dane-Wajich – Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land

Amber Ridington, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Kate Hennessy, University of British Columbia, Canada


In the fall of 2007 the Doig River First Nation, an Aboriginal group from northeastern British Columbia, launched its Virtual Museum of Canada-funded Web exhibit Dane-Wajich – Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land. This exhibit was produced by the First Nation in collaboration with ethnographers, linguists, and multimedia professionals. It integrates subtitled Dane-zaa and English video narratives, interpretive e-text, photographs of the production process, recordings of songs, and contemporary and archival images of traditional lands in order to showcase Dane-zaa culture and address present concerns faced by the community as they negotiate legacies of colonialism. The exhibit’s community-directed production process has contributed to the revitalization of Dane-zaa culture and language as it brought elders and youth together to document stories, songs, and their relationship to the land. The project has also provided the First Nation with control over their representation, and has become a valuable learning resource for local and global audiences. Presented by the exhibit co-curators and project coordinators, the demonstration and paper will showcase the exhibition and discuss questions, raised in the exhibit production process, which relate to the politics of cultural representation in the context of museums and the Web: How can curators and communities balance the benefits of sharing Indigenous culture with protecting Indigenous culture? Can consensus be reached over what is appropriate to show a worldwide audience versus a local audience? How is local intellectual property rights discourse constituted? And how do these emerging rights contribute to the development of protocols for meaningful consultation with Aboriginal communities?

Keywords: Dane-zaa, oral traditions, participatory production, collaboration, representation

Editor's Note: Some of the special characters in the Aboriginal language used in the text require the special font: Doulos Sil. It can be downloaded for free from:


In the fall of 2007 the Doig River First Nation, a Dane-zaa (Athapaskan) group from northeastern British Columbia, launched Dane Wajich – Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land, a Web exhibit funded by the Virtual Museum of Canada. The participatory project was produced by the First Nation in collaboration with ethnographers, linguists, and multi-media professionals, and integrates subtitled Dane-zaa and English video narratives, interpretive e-text, photographs of the production process, recordings of songs, and contemporary images of traditional lands in order to address present concerns faced by the community members as they negotiate legacies of colonialism. The exhibit’s community-directed production process facilitated the articulation of local goals for revitalizing language, recording oral traditions, and traveling to important places in their territory. It brought elders and youth together to document stories, songs, and their relationship to the land, and through reviews throughout post-production, provided the First Nation with control over their representation to local and global audiences.

The completed exhibit also represents the delicate negotiation of intellectual property rights and the careful consideration by community members of the ways in which the cultural protocols associated with sacred cultural objects and oral histories relate to their access and circulation in digital form. Through ongoing consultation and collaboration with and among Doig River First Nation community members and the team of collaborators, the exhibit raised many questions at the heart of the politics of cultural representation. How can curators and communities balance the benefits of sharing Aboriginal cultural heritage with the necessity of protecting it? Can consensus be reached over what is appropriate to show a worldwide audience versus a local audience? How is local intellectual property rights discourse constituted? In this paper, we explain how this project was realized; describe the extent of the collaboration, consultation and revision that such an exhibit required; and discuss what these questions about cultural representation on the Internet, and their resolutions, taught Dane-zaa people, curators, ethnographers, and linguists about the conduct of  meaningful consultation in northern Aboriginal communities.

The Ridington-Dane-zaa Digital Archive

The Dane Wajich virtual exhibit was preceded by a number of collaborative digital heritage projects, initiated by members of the Doig River First Nation, which had drawn on archival materials from the Ridington- Dane-zaa Archive (Doig River, 2000; 2001). Dr. Robin Ridington began documenting Dane-zaa oral traditions and hunting and gathering lifeways in 1964 as a Harvard graduate student in anthropology. In the following decades, through ongoing work with Dane-zaa communities, he, along with colleagues Antonia Mills and Howard Broomfield and his colleague and partner Jillian Ridington, amassed more than 600 hours of audio recordings, approximately 5000 photographs, and 60 hours of digital video tape (Ridington and Ridington, 2003). Over the years, in response to requests from community members, they have reproduced and distributed hundreds of photographs, genealogical charts, and sound recordings to members of the four Dane-zaa communities in northeastern British Columbia where they were collected. The Doig River First Nation is one of these four Dane-zaa communities. In 2002, embracing the opportunities provided by new media technologies, Robin and Jillian Ridington worked with daughter and folklorist Amber Ridington and newly elected Doig River First Nation Chief Garry Oker to apply for funding to preserve the material in the Ridington- Dane-zaa archive and to transfer it from slides, negatives, Uher reel-to-reel recordings, and cassette tapes to digital files. This digitization was achieved in 2003 through the award of a Digital Collections Project grant from the BC Museums Association.

The ethnographic material in the archive represents indigenous Dane-zaa intellectual property. Although much of the material relates to all four of the Dane-zaa bands, the Doig River First Nation offered to curate all of it in their new Band Hall and Cultural Center, then under construction, and to make it available to all Dane-zaa people from that location (Ridington and Ridington, 2003). This now digitized archival documentation is copyrighted by the collectors for their use, and shared with Dane-zaa First Nations in the north Peace region; any copying of the material must be done with the permission of the copyright holders (Ridington and Ridington, 2003). Recognizing the other Dane-zaa communities might like easier access, the Doig River First Nation collaborated with the Ridingtons to develop a password-protected interface for an object-oriented database of this newly digitized cultural heritage. It was then made available on the Web so that all Dane-zaa bands could have access to these archival heritage materials from any computer with an Internet connection. The final product was called the Ridington-Dane-zaa Digital Archive; it stands as a material representation of the desire to share ethnographic authority and to repatriate control over cultural representation back into the hands of the communities of origin.

Collaboration and Participatory Process: “Dane Wajich- Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land”

Gaining access to the photographs, audio recordings, and other cultural information made available by the digital archive, however, is not as straightforward as receiving a mailing envelope from the ethnographers containing cassette tapes and photographic prints. Without enhanced computer skills, or a dedicated band staff member to facilitate access to the archive, the repatriated digital ethnographic material could not reach its potential for community use. The Doig River First Nation therefore initiated applications for funding that would create digital media skills-building opportunities for their community members that would align with community goals for linguistic and cultural education. These program goals include connecting youth with elders so that they can learn Dane-zaa oral traditions; documenting and revitalizing Dane-zaa Záágaéʔ (the Beaver language) (; and, representing their language, culture, and history to a local and global audience. The first of these projects was a youth-produced website about moose hunting traditions called: Hadaa ka naadzet: The Dane-zaa Moose Hunt (Doig River, 2004).

Following the success of this small participatory and collaborative Web site project, and building on the community’s trust and willingness to work with Amber Ridington and Kate Hennessy who had facilitated and mentored the youths’ moose hunt production, the band welcomed the opportunity to work with them again on another Web-based exhibit. They hired Amber to apply for funding, as she had done for previous projects, and were happy to be awarded a partnership investment from the Virtual Museum of Canada for Dane Wajich- Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land ( To meet the community goals stated above, the project required extensive collaboration and partnering of  outside experts and a range of community members with diverse interests in the project’s themes and activities.

Youth participation and the generation of tangible media production skills for youth were central to their vision for the production process. Because media production training was not eligible for  funding by the Virtual Museum of Canada, we applied to the Northeast Native Advancing Society (NENAS) in neighboring Fort St. John, British Columbia, for support for the youth skills development training. We were thankful to receive their support and partnership for the project. Dr. Peter Biella, a visual anthropologist and filmmaker at San Francisco State University, along with media anthropologist Kate Hennessy and folklorist Amber Ridington, provided video production, photography, and sound recording mentoring to five youth participants. The youth ultimately did the majority of the camera and sound documentation of their elders, the work that you see on the Web site.

To address one of the community’s core concerns about language documentation and revitalization, the community also formed a partnership with linguistic anthropologist Dr. Patrick Moore (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Dagmar Jung (University of Cologne), who had recently received funding from the German Volkswagen Foundation for Beaver language documentation. Working with Dane-zaa language experts such as Billy Attachie, Madeline Oker, and Eddie Apsassin, Moore, Jung, and their colleague Julia Miller were able to use these funds for extensive translation and orthographic transcription of Dane-zaa Záágaéʔ, for use both in the virtual exhibit and in local language revitalization programs and oral history projects.

Throughout the production and consultation process, Robin and Jillian Ridington assisted the curators (A. Ridington and Hennessy) by drawing on their own wealth of knowledge and experience in Dane-zaa communities to provide important contextualizing information for the exhibit’s interpretive text, and making suggestions for the use of particular archival images, texts, and sound recordings from the repatriated digital archive.

The North Peace School District supported the project from its beginning. They signed on as an official potential partner during the application stage, offering the service of their staff and curriculum development expertise and acknowledging the need for local Aboriginal content in their schools. The School District’s First Nation's Education Center staff made it clear that they wanted the Doig River community to decide on the content for the exhibit, and that they would later use the content to help develop lesson plans for Teachers and Students. They wanted to leave the cultural representation to the community, and then draw on those resources vetted by the community in their curriculum material development. They worked in consultation with the project co-coordinators and Angela Wheelock, an independent educational specialist, to develop two sets of lesson plans, one geared at the Grade Four social studies students and teachers, and another geared towards high school students. These lesson plans can be found under the “Resources” section of the Web site ( 

Co-curators Amber Ridington and Kate Hennessy coordinated the initial production process, coordinated and facilitated the tasks of all the team members and partners, wrote, edited, and curated content, worked with multimedia designers on drafts of the exhibit design, and also conducted a number of community consultations and exhibit reviews at Doig River between 2004 and 2007. We also worked with two different Chiefs and their councilors during the course of the project, each with different perspectives and concerns about sharing and protecting their culture with the public and on the Internet. As we describe, these multi-year, ongoing consultations were crucial in the development of protocols for meaningful consultation related to the display of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, as the exhibit came to feature narrative and song traditions, rather than material culture, on the Web.

Setting the Theme: Gaayęą’s Drum


The virtual exhibit was initiated with agreement in the community that the project should focus on stories and songs, but the process for choosing specific content was left open to suggestion. We therefore started the production phase by asking the Doig River community to define the way in which stories and songs would be chosen and recorded, who would be recorded, and which recordings were appropriate to share over the Internet. These questions were discussed at a series of meetings attended by Band Chief and Council, elders, community members with an interest in documenting their language and culture, and youth recruited for the project.

The Chief at the time, Garry Oker, helped community members conceptualize the potential for the project by bringing an important object to one of the first of these planning meetings. It was a moose hide drum skin, now torn and separated from its frame, painted in red and black, depicting two “trails” leading to a central circle, and from that circle, a single trail leading outward. Chief Oker explained that the drum skin came into his possession after its former caretaker, his grandfather Albert Askoty, had passed away. Elders in the meeting room recognized the drum, and began to speak in their language, Dane-zaa Záágaéʔ, about it. They identified the drum as having been made by the Dreamer Gaayęą ( /dreamer.php?action=dreamer/gaayea) almost a hundred years before. The image painted on the drum skin was a representation of the trail to heaven, dreamed by Gaayęą and rendered by him on the stretched moose hide. The drum was passed on to Charlie Yahey, the last Dane-zaa Dreamer ( dreamer.php?action=dreamer/yahey), who in turn had passed it on to Albert Askoty, a respected song keeper, singer and drummer.

Dane-zaa drums are central to public ceremonial life, in which people dance to songs “brought back from heaven” by Dreamers (, also referred to as Prophets, who can be located genealogically in the Dane-zaa kinship universe (Ridington, 1988). Dreamers often drew pictures on their drums pictures of their vision of the trail to heaven. The drawings can be seen as a metonym of narrative that references the Dane-zaa creation story ( and the cycle of the world’s renewal through natural cycles of birth and death. Dane-zaa elders, youth, Chief Oker, and other community members took this opportunity to interpret the drawings on the drum and explain what it meant to them to see the drum. They initiated a process of recontextualization as the old Dreamer’s drum was connected to present experience.

Significantly, elder and song keeper Tommy Attachie used the story of this drum to publicly define the process of curating the virtual exhibit ( action=fla/tommyatcomplex). He instructed the elders present at the meeting to travel to places in the territory where the Dreamers had camped, and to tell the youth video team “the important stories.” Only a few hours after Mr. Attachie spoke at the meeting, the Doig River First Nation’s fifteen-passenger van was loaded with elders and the crew. We drove thirty minutes to Alááʔ S̱atǫ (Petersen’s Crossing) (, the former home of the Dreamer Oker, and the location of the day school that many community members had been forced to attend as children by the Indian Agent at that time. As the youth documentary team prepared the camera and set up the  shot, Tommy made sure that an old stone chimney – all that remained of the day school –  was present in the frame. Then, directed by Tommy, elders took turns sitting in front of the camera, telling “the important stories.”

In the following two weeks, the documentary team traveled in northeastern British Columbia and northern Alberta to five other locations that had been important camps and seasonal hunting and trapping areas. The impact of oil and gas industrialization was significant: traditional subsistence areas are now surrounded, and in some cases, obscured, by oil wells, highways, roads, seismic cuts, and natural gas pipelines. At each location, elders explained the origins of Dane-zaa Záágaéʔ place names and recounted stories of Dreamers who had camped there, and the songs that they brought from Heaven to those places. They told traditional stories, and talked about how the landscape and animals had been impacted by industrialization. They explained to the youth recording their stories how important it was to learn their language, and to hold on to their traditions.  In the following year, these narratives were translated and transcribed in Dane-zaa Záágaéʔ and English, line for line, by Doig River community members and the Volkswagen Foundation-funded linguistic team directed by Dr. Pat Moore. Used in subtitled video clips and as downloadable resources, these bi-lingual transcriptions, presented alongside the oral history videos, became fundamental elements of the virtual exhibit. These alternative histories of place are a challenge to normalized settler histories of northern British Columbia that tend to obscure the Aboriginal experience of colonialism.

The Dreamer Gaayęą’s drum became an aesthetic anchor for the exhibit, occupying a central position on the exhibit’s Home Page and inspiring the exhibit’s color scheme. Further, the places that it inspired travel to, and the narratives recorded at them, emerged as important organizing principles for curation and public interpretation. Within the virtual exhibit, these places are contextualized by narratives and recordings of songs that make explicit the songs’ connections to Dreamers and Prophet traditions, the seasonal movements of Dane-zaa people prior to settlement on reserves, hunting and trapping, language revitalization, and contemporary struggles for rights and political recognition. The section of the exhibit called “Dreamers” ( english/dreamers/index.php) makes these thematic connections clear with a visual representation of core concepts: Dreamers, Land, and the Dane-zaa Creation Story as part of the same circle, and interpretive text that reads:

Our stories and traditions prepare us to face the many challenges brought on by the coming of the white people, and, more recently, by the rapid industrialization of our land. We remember the songs of our Dreamers and sing them today as we defend our Aboriginal and Treaty rights. (Doig River First Nation, 2007)

The Politics of Cultural Representation – Cultural Heritage and the Internet

Exhibition As Social Action

The Dane Wajich exhibition arose out of the political context where the Doig River First Nation, like many other First Nations in Canada and around the world, are struggling to defend their Aboriginal and Treaty rights, and to protect and renew their language and cultural traditions. It is within this context that we can see the Dane Wajich exhibition as a form of social action providing voice and agency though storytelling on the Internet. Julie Cruikshank has written about Aboriginal performances at the Yukon International Storytelling Festival as an example of social agency that uses “land and kinship as attachment points for memory” (Cruikshank, 1997). The videotaped performances included on the Dane Wajich exhibit, along with the interpretive e-text, similarly highlight the importance of land, kinship and memory for the Doig River First Nation.

The exhibit was produced during a time when the Doig River community was actively working on litigation so that the Band can be compensated for land not allocated to Band members who were left off the original Band List in the early 1900s. They were aware of a need to demonstrate their people's use and knowledge of particular places, and especially to document their seasonal movements throughout their hunting and trapping territories. The Doig River First Nation is currently recognized in British Columbia, even though the Band members’ traditional hunting and trapping territories include areas in Alberta. Because of this colonial record keeping issue, the Doig River First Nation’s stories, asserting their traditional land use, have implications for the Band’s recognition as a First Nation with Aboriginal and Treaty rights in Alberta as well as British Columbia. In this political context, the demonstrations of cultural traditions and stories become social actions.

Some of the stories the community told were about their success in seeking compensation for lost Treaty lands. Gerry Attachie’s video ( action=fla/gerry) about the long court case that led to their compensation for lost mineral rights from the sale of their reserve at Gat Tah Kwą̂ (Montney) ( Danewajich/english/places/montney.php) by the Department of Indian Affairs after World War II demonstrates this success in getting recognition of their Treaty rights. Another strategic location included on the Web site is a place called Sweeney Creek ( /english/places/sweeney_creek.php) which is just over the British Columbia border into Alberta. At this place Tommy Attachie told about its sacred nature for Dane-zaa people because of its association with their Dreamer Gaayęą who received a song from heaven there ( video.php?action=fla/ weeney_chicken_dance). Margaret Attachie similarly told about the traditional use of Sweeney Creek and about visiting it seasonally with her family as she was growing up ( stories/video.php?action=fla/margaretsweeney).

These narratives demonstrate how the digital medium can be a location of indigenous social agency and self-representation. By videotaping these narratives and connections to place and people, and presenting them to a worldwide audience though the virtual exhibition, the Doig River First Nation is able to make their intangible memories and cultural knowledge tangible for local and global audiences. However, at the same time that digital media production is a location of agency in self-representation, digital media post-production became a location of emerging intellectual property rights discourse, within and between Dane-zaa communities, which, in this case, significantly changed the way that Doig River had originally chosen to represent itself to the world.

Emerging Issues In IntellectualProperty And Representation

From its inception, the Dane Wajich exhibit (Doig River, 2007) was intended as a participatory media project that would facilitate social and cultural agency and self-representation. Community consultation and approval of content and aesthetics therefore extended beyond planning and storyboarding to the post-production stage, when video, stories, and images recorded throughout production, and from the Ridington-Dane-zaa Digital Archive, were selected for inclusion in the exhibit. In the course of this highly consultative process, a new kind of conversation about the exhibit began between community members and the curators: it was both focused on particular details and broadly related to rights in digital contexts. Central to this was our realization that informed decision-making regarding the appropriate circulation of digital cultural heritage could only begin once elders and community members who had had limited interaction with on-line materials began to better understand what the Internet and the World Wide Web was, and had been able to widely discuss perceived consequences of sharing Dane-zaa narratives, songs, and images with anybody in the world with a computer and an Internet connection. As we soon became aware, this conversation was also starting in other Dane-zaa communities who were learning about Doig River’s project and other media initiatives that used images and recordings from the digital archive. Two central issues sprang up, and in retrospect we are very glad they did arise before the Web site was finalized and published on the Internet.

1. Intellectual Property Rights

The first controversial issue revolved around intellectual property rights and the realization of the complexity of clearing permission to use archival materials from the Ridington/Dane-zaa Digital Archive. Robin Ridington (1978; 1981; 1988) had published pictures of the last Dane-zaa Dreamer, Charlie Yahey, in a number of publications that the communities knew about, valued, and have access to, but it was just in the course of this virtual museum project, and in the context of discussions related to the reach of the Internet, that issues around intellectual property rights and obtaining permissions from community members to use the materials became an issue.  It became clear that permission would be required from both the copyright and the intellectual property right holders, but exactly who the intellectual property rights holders are is not always simple to determine. Some saw Dreamers’ songs and drawings as collective cultural property while others began to claim it as individual and family cultural property. 

Early on in the review process, the Doig River Community had chosen an image of the Dreamer Charlie Yahey from the Ridington/Dane-zaa Digital Archive for the Home Page. They wanted to honour him and acknowledge his importance to their community. Charlie Yahey was an important Dreamer and cultural visionary who spent a great deal of time with their community, but settled at the adjacent Blueberry River reserve in the 1950s. Most of Charlie Yahey's direct descendents live at the Blueberry Reserve, and we were told that the Yahey family was upset about the use of pictures of their grandfather without their knowledge or permission. With tensions rising, we were directed by Kelvin Davis, the new chief at Doig River, to talk to the Yahey family, explain the project and ask for their permission to use images of Charlie Yahey and his drum. We started by talking to the Chief of the Blueberry Band, who was himself a grandson of Charlie Yahey. He was supportive of the project, but also expressed that his band wanted to produce something similar themselves and wanted to save this material for use in their own exhibits. We were directed to go to meet with the eldest Yahey grandson, who expressed concern about images of his grandfather being on the Internet. He felt that other people were profiting from ethnographic documentation of his grandfather, but that his family and his community were not benefiting at all.

He also was concerned that people might be able to copy pictures of his grandfather and his drum from the Internet and that his family would not be able to control how they were used. He emphasized that Gaayęą’s drum, cared for by his grandfather, and now by him, was not an ordinary drum, that it held power and needed to be cared for according to their tradition. He said that he would need to think about it and talk it over with his other family members before he could give us permission to use the materials. After a number of phone calls and meetings in the following months, the Yahey family ultimately decided that they did not want to have images or recordings of their grandfather included in the Doig River exhibit. With this direction, as curators, we went about removing all images and sound recordings of the Dreamer Charlie Yahey that the Doig River community had chosen for the exhibit.

A direct result of these discussions about intellectual property rights clearance was the narrowing of content in the exhibit to exclude pictures and song performances, not just of Charlie Yahey, but also of individuals from Dane-zaa communities other than Doig River. It had the effect of shifting the focus of the exhibit from Dane-zaa culture in general, to the culture of the Doig River First Nation, so that the Doig River First Nation was responsible only for their own public representation.

Another outcome of the Charlie Yahey material’s removal and recognition of the Yahey family’s concerns was the emergence of the Doig River community’s own intellectual property rights discourse. Through these discussions about ownership and control it became clear that a new protocol was emerging, in which the Bands wanted the relevant families to be consulted before materials are made available to the public in any way. These discussions were tense at times. Frustration and rumors had built up within the communities about the Ridingtons’ release of materials from their archive for use in public media, such as their collaborative work with members of the Doig River community to produce two documentary videos and a number of audio CDs (Doig River First Nation 2000: 2001), as well as Doig River’s Hadaa ka naadzet Web site (2004), without this type of clearance from the stakeholder families. The new message that we received was that individual stakeholders or their descendents should be consulted about the public display of their cultural heritage, and that this decision should not be made by their elected Chiefs or councillors without their knowledge. Though contested within the community, this articulation of social protocols reflects the egalitarian Dane-zaa social structure in which personal knowledge and individual experience supercede any hierarchical social authority. 

2. Sharing and/or Protecting Culture

The second controversial issue involved a debate about Doig River’s ability, or potential inability, to protect culturally sensitive materials made available to a worldwide audience on the Internet – in essence, a debate about balancing the benefits of sharing culture with protecting culture. The examples we describe here demonstrate the significance of cultural protocols related to sacred oral and material culture for determining its access and circulation in digital form.

During the exhibit review process that we have described, it was suggested that because of the damaged condition of Gaayęą’s drum, it would be more appropriate for the exhibit to feature a photograph of another drum made by Gaayęą, one that was in good shape. This drum had been photographed in the hands of the Dreamer Charlie Yahey by Robin Ridington in 1967, and in response to consensus reached at a community meeting, this picture of an intact drum replaced the picture of the torn drum as the central image on the Home Page. It was suggested, however, that the torn drum, which was in disrepair and missing its frame, could be restored, or at least preserved by a conservationist, and displayed in a physical installation that would accompany the virtual exhibition as a symbol of the renewal of Dane-zaa traditions. As we began to look into funding for this installation project, and to discuss it with other Doig River community members, concerns about the possible inappropriateness of displaying this sacred object to the public were voiced. The first issue, voiced by elder Billy Attachie, was that sacred drums like this one, with a Dreamer’s drawing on it, should not be out in public view at all times. Traditionally, they were kept covered in fabric, and cared for by song keepers or Dreamers who only brought them out on special occasions. They usually kept them tied up high in a tree close to their house or camp and were careful to keep them away from women who were menstruating. Billy Attachie, and the other elders we consulted, agreed that it was not appropriate to put the drum on display in a museum, but that it could possibly be cared for in a museum out of the public eye and according to the traditional customs.

Thinking about the best way to protect the power of the Dreamers' drum sparked a debate about whether it was appropriate to show on the Internet a picture of either of Gaayęą’s drums with drawings on them. Many different views were expressed, and in the end, no consensus about whether to use the image or not was reached. Billy Attachie suggested that the picture of the drum has as much power as the object itself and therefore should not be on public display where it cannot be adequately cared for. Many others felt that a picture of an object like this did not carry the power of the object and was safe to show to the public. One individual felt that a picture of the broken drum on the Home Page might cause other Aboriginal people to think that Dane-zaa people don’t properly care for their sacred objects. The most adamant opponent to showing the drum on the Home Page, or anywhere else on the site for that matter, was concerned that other Native groups would see it and be able to do bad medicine with it.

As part of our community consultation, we talked to as many people as we could, from a variety of age and gender groups, and shared what we had learned from others. Some people changed their views in light of other perspectives ,but because no consensus was reached about whether to show the Dreamer’s drum, we made the decision to remove it completely from the exhibit. When we asked for suggestions for replacement images for the Home Page (, all involved agreed on replacing the picture of the Dreamer’s drum with a regular, blank, drum used by the current song keeper Tommy Attachie. The picture of the Dreamer Charlie Yahey was replaced by an image of the current group of Doig River Drummers performing for school children at the community’s annual Doig Days celebration. These changes to the Home Page allowed the community to introduce the exhibit with contemporary images and limit the stereotyping of Aboriginal culture set in an idealized past. 

The debate about respecting the cultural sensitivity of the Dreamers’ drums sparked similar concerns about the public having the ability to copy, and possibly misuse, the recordings of Dreamers songs included in the exhibit. Concerns about cultural appropriation and commodification were expressed, but the community ultimately deferred to the thoughts of Tommy Attachie, the current song keeper. Tommy was adamant that it was all right for anyone to listen to the Dreamers songs and that they should be used in the exhibit to show the connection of the Dreamers, and the Dreamers teachings, to the places the community had chosen to highlight in the virtual exhibit. Tommy explained that the Dreamers brought the songs down from heaven for the benefit of everyone, and that they were meant to be shared and celebrated in public. 

New Directions

In this paper, we have described Dane Wajich- Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land as a case study in the participatory production and curation of a virtual museum exhibit. Doig River First Nation elders and youth worked with ethnographers, linguists, and new media designers to represent their local culture and history to a worldwide wired public. As curators and applied ethnographers, we affirmed that meaningful consultation and collaboration with this egalitarian Athapascan group requires time, patience and diligence, and willingness to continue discussions outside of official meeting rooms and with a broad range of community members (ages and genders) so that a spectrum of perspectives and concerns are voiced. We were fortunate to start the project with an already strong level of trust and cultural understanding forged through the Ridington family’s history of documentation and research, Amber’s life-long connection to the Doig River community, and Kate’s introduction to them as a former student of Dr. Ridington’s. That trust had to be reaffirmed and nurtured as we met the challenges of the project and openly and effectively negotiated complicated issues about cultural representation.

The project’s breadth of collaboration and long period of review revealed many challenges to conducting adequate consultation for a public, collaborative, and participatory media exhibit, foremost among them the determination of intellectual property rights to digital cultural heritage, and the relationship between cultural protocols for care and circulation of sacred oral and material culture and the circulation of its representation in digital form. Barre Toelken’s (1998; 2004) work with the Navaho similarly demonstrates Aboriginal concerns about a community’s inability to control the proper use of sacred archival materials once they have been made available to the public in a form that is duplicable and about serious spiritual consequences for the violation of the protocols. Responses to the politics of digital cultural representation that we documented in the course of the Dane Wajich exhibit curation and review marked the emergence of local articulations of intellectual property rights, and are directly related to the mobilization of repatriated digital cultural heritage in participatory media production.

According to Faye Ginsburg (1994), the challenge for Aboriginal media producers is to create visions of culture and history that both address the realities of their communities and intervene in representations of national colonial histories. Like Aboriginal peoples around the world, the Doig River First Nation’s mass-mediated interventions are politically grounded:

 What has long been at stake is not only the right to occupy and use their homelands but also their right to control their means of communication. In this sense, freedom for indigenous peoples is premised on control over their political economy and control over capacity to tell their own stories. (Daley and James 2004:5)

The return of the Dane-zaa cultural heritage in the form of the Ridington-Dane-zaa Digital Archive, and the participatory virtual museum project that we have described in this paper, represent attempts by ethnographers, curators, and linguists to facilitate self-representation, but also to explore potential challenges for Indigenous control and authority over their cultural and linguistic representations. As a result of the process outlined in this paper, new protocols for the use of Dane-zaa cultural heritage are already afoot. In light of the issues raised about intellectual property rights, control and access to the archival materials in the Ridington-Dane-zaa Digital Archive, and in an effort to protect culturally sensitive materials, Internet access to the Ridington-Dane-zaa Digital Archive has been closed, and permission to access the materials must be directed to Robin and Jillian Ridington. It is the Ridingtons’ desire and intent to work with all the Dane-zaa communities to establish an acceptable and enforceable protocol for access, duplication, distribution, and control that involves the copyright holders and the intellectual property right holders alike.           


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Cite as:

Ridington, A., and K. Hennessy, Building Indigenous Agency Through Web-Based Exhibition:  Dane-Wajich – Dane-zaa Stories and Songs: Dreamers and the Land, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted ridington/ridington.html