Swarthmore College

In late October we hosted a conversation with Tao Leigh Goffe and Krystal Tsosie that was moderated by James Fenelon. We brought these scholars together to discuss their respective involvement in founding and sustaining two para-academic entities, Dark Laboratory and IndigiData. Dark Laboratory centers the study of race and ecology by foregrounding multi-modal methods of storytelling, while IndigiData focuses on educating tribal students on data science methods. The particular aims of these organizations are distinct, but they nevertheless invoke a series of related topics including, the sovereignty of data and storytelling; the limits of Western distinctions between science and culture; and foregrounding ways of sharing and making knowledge beyond the parameters set by the institutions of academia.


Below are several highlights from the event.


Tao Leigh Goffe on founding Dark Laboratory and her thinking on university geographies:

Universities, especially land grant universities, are spaces haunted by questions of race. It is no accident that it is always Indigenous people and Black people who have been pushed to the margins of this history. This became urgent for me as a professor at Cornell University where I began to interrogate the land-grant there, the Morrill Act, and the history of this Ivy League institution that considers itself exempt from the history of slavery because it was founded in this Civil War/post-Civil War moment. It has been really fascinating me to understand what it has meant for the university to start teaching Cayuga and celebrate itself for that in the year 2020 when it is definitely too late for them to be acknowledging this.

What does it mean to acknowledge theft and how is it that so much of this unresolved?

I think often of the land and waters where I live, near Wall Street, as a similar kind of space and monument to the question of stolen land and stolen life. For me this is a hemispheric question with roots in the Caribbean, in terms of my heritage, but also as an immigrant—I’m actually from the UK originally—I’ve come to think about these questions of the nation state. For me, Dark Laboratory felt urgent to bring Black and Indigenous scholars, coders, lawyers, and poets together to exist outside of traditional institutions in order to think about how can the university and spaces beyond it be a kind of engine against settler colonialism.

It was the thinker Fred Moten who posed the idea that we need to understand the university as an engine for settler colonialism and how that’s ongoing. As professors, we are very much training the next generation of settlers who come to gentrify the surrounding neighborhoods, so I’ve tried to think about what it could mean to gather together against those aims.


Krystal Tsosie on the tendency to delegitimize Indigenous science:

Science is a process by which we take repeated observation and experience and generate hypotheses. These hypotheses are continually tested against new data and this frames our knowledge system. What we have done is overly dichotomized this process in that supposedly only science exists within Western frameworks and academic institutions. This is false.

Indigenous peoples have always been scientists. They have always taken what they have learned from their surroundings and have built their own sophisticated systems that continue to rival those of Western science.

The power dynamic at play is that somebody has decided to put Western and Indigenous science in opposition to each other, resulting in a house of cards where Western science is defined by deeming all of its challengers as anti-science.


Tao Leigh Goffe on archives and ephemerality especially in terms of online projects:

Digital archives and archiving are very important in terms of how we are recording the histories of our own organizations. I’m very attuned to a meta-process for how that should take place and the question of server space is an interesting one. Where are we even located in terms of the real estate of the Internet? Where does that data go? How is it encrypted? Is there space for being ephemeral?

This is a question that I’ve had to take up. As I see it, Dark Lab is a platform for people researching and studying these questions. I had an event planned with Tiffany Lethabo King, author of The Black Shoals, and she really wanted to be in conversation with Black, Native community activists, Melanin Mvskoke and Holiday Simmons. It was great to learn from people who are from African and Indigenous heritage about the questions of the archive and should this live online in perpetuity or for just a limited amount of time. What does it mean to embrace ephemerality?

These are continuing questions as we think about the life of digital projects. They don’t need to go on forever. We should go into it thinking about who is going to maintain this website. These are complicated questions, but I like to put them up front so we can grapple with the archive we are creating of ourselves and who the future inheritors of that archive will be.


Krystal Tsosie on sovereignty and the tendency toward the extractive use of Indigenous data:

Not even twenty years ago, there was broad consent applied to data. That is, Indigenous people were asked once to consent to the infinite use of their information for whatever purposes researchers deemed as contributing to the global good of science.

Indigenous people found this extractive because they weren’t deriving benefits from that. This has borne true. There is a huge commercial interest in procuring Indigenous genomic information through 23andMe and AncestryDNA, the latter of which has profited billions over the last few years off of their estimations of Native American ancestry. These estimations used unethically procured biomarkers from groups in Central and South America.

The distinctions that have been created around what constitutes non-human DNA versus human DNA and how they are regulated accordingly all are means for usurping the rights of communities to determine these rules for themselves. These rights—over what constitutes data, how it should be regulated and used, etc.—should be retained more locally to the communities.


Thank you to all of those who attended and registered.

About the Author

Andy Hines is the Senior Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He is the author of Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University .

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November 1, 2021