Grants:Impact/Cultural Heritage/Atikamekw

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Impact of Grants
Atikamekw Nehirowisiw & Wikimedia Canada
ManawanOct2016 14.jpg
Language:  This case study is also available in french
Location:  Canada
Grantee:  Wikimedia Canada
Grant information
  • Program: Project & Event Grants, Simple Annual Plan Grants, Rapid Grants
  • Fiscal year: 2015 to present

Heritage in its simplest definition is something handed down from the past. As such, heritage is also a process of selection: what traditions, values, or words will “survive” and be passed on, and which ones will not? Every society engages in this process, but for some communities, political, economic, and social dynamics have usurped, interrupted, or inhibited this process of selection.

As with many indigenous communities, this is the case for the Canadian First Nations.

Years of colonization - along with the aftermath of colonization policies - have placed Canadian First Nations at the margins of society, creating conditions in which the transmission of intergenerational knowledge has been stunted. One reason for this was the Canadian residential school system: from the 1960s to the 1980s, the Canadian government sent a generation of children to residential schools far away from their home, where cultural practices were forbidden, such as speaking in their native language.[2] [3]

One of the communities affected is the Atikamekw Nehirowisiw, located in central Quebec. Unlike other communities, about 95% of the Atikamekw still speaks their language today despite the structural barriers created by colonization. But preservation and transmission of their heritage has been challenging in the rapidly changing age of information, where priority is given to speaking French or English, and to the written word. For a community who has an oral tradition of knowledge, our rapidly changing world isn’t inclusive of their community or their knowledge. This is especially true when it comes to working online, where the option to search or read in Atikamekw is practically non-existent.

Capteur de rêve

One way the Atikamekw have sought to bridge the generational divide is through a collaboration with Wikimedia Canada. Launched in 2013 (and later funded in 2016 by Wikimedia Foundation), this program has brought Elders and young people together to document their heritage. They have been taking pictures, making audio recordings (through Lingua Libre), and writing down their knowledge.

In 2017, this work culminated in the launch of their own Wikipedia: Atikamekw Wikipedia.

Throughout this program, the Atikamekw Elders have been empowered to make decisions about their culture and language. For instance, Elders had to create new, meaningful words for concepts like “category” or “upload” that are common across Wikipedia and other websites, but didn’t exist in Atikamekw. Jeannette Coocoo, an Elder from the Wemontaci village, spent countless hours on this creative process and now, from this work, there is the word "Natcipata masinahikan" or “upload”.

À la rencontre de deux générations

The Elders have also been empowered to decide what knowledge would be freely shared with the outside world, and what would be kept sacred. This was an incredibly important element in the program, and a dramatic shift away from a history where indigenous knowledge has been forcefully taken away, exploited, denied, or shamed.

By respecting the Elders decision, the community has been able to retain their “collective intimacy” with certain knowledge. Some knowledge is “common knowledge” and can be shared widely, but some things are “sacred” or “specific”, and should be known only to a certain family or community (e.g. crafts, medicinal properties of plants, spirituality, and rituals). In empowering the Elders to make these decisions, this program - and thus Atikamekw Wikipedia - has fostered a respectful, indigenous-centered kind of knowledge sharing.

All of this work is ultimately in service of the Atikamekw Manawan Council’s strategic priorities for 2020. Work on Wikipedia and with Wikimedia Canada is just one piece of the Council’s larger efforts toward goals such as the “consolidation of pride: positive image reinforcement, within and outside the community; promotion of Atikamekw identity, language and culture.”

But barriers still exist. Most information online about the Atikamekw is not written or curated by the Atikamekw. Tourists take photos of garbage, and that’s the image the world sees of the community. The spectre of the residential school system remains: schools have not been a historically safe place to learn, connect with, and pass on cultural heritage.

Gagnants de la chasse photographique, École Otapi, Manawan, Nitaskinan

Despite these barriers, through the education program at Manawan's Otapi High School, there are early signs of a restoration of pride in the Atikamekw youth. Overseen by Luc Patin (User:Bilbo40, the computer science teacher) and Jean-Paul Echaquan (language keeper of the community), students have been learning to add information to Atikamekw Wikipedia in Atikamekw. The very act of writing online in their language, writing about their community, and adding to their community’s encyclopedia have all been baby steps to a restoration of pride.

The journey to the “sum of all human knowledge” will not be one size fits all. It will take the time to build trust with marginalized communities, acknowledging historical oppression and its far reaching effects. It will take respecting and honoring their ways of sharing knowledge. And it will take sustained effort. The collaboration between Wikimedia Canada and the Atikamekw Nehirowisiw is progress, but more needs to be done globally in order for Wikimedia to achieve its vision.

Now that you've read this case study, consider...

Wikimedia is founded on the vision of “the “sum of all human knowledge”. How will Wikimedia reconcile with communities who hold some knowledge “sacred”, or “not to be shared”?


  1. Poirier, Sylvie. 2004. "The Atikamekw: Reflections on Their Changing World." In Native peoples : the Canadian experience, edited by R. Bruce Morrison and C. Roderick Wilson., 129-150. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
  2. Poirier, Sylvie. 2010. "Change, Resistance, Accommodation and Engagement in Indigenous Contexts: A Comparative (Canada–Australia) Perspective." Anthropological Forum 20 (1):41-60.
  3. Jérôme, Laurent. 2010. "Jeunesse, musique et rituels chez les Atikamekw (Haute-Mauricie, Québec): ethnographie d'un processus d'affirmations identitaire et culturelle en milieu autochtone." Thèse doctorale, Université Laval.
  4. Primary Source:Residential Schools. National Archives of Canada, Record Group 10, vol 6810, file 470-2-3, vol 7, pp. 55 (L-3) and 63 (N-3). Retrieved September 23,2015.