Indigenous Writers Edit-a-Thon creates online change through Wikipedia edits

As an open-access tool that has helped catapult obscure and obvious topics to the forefront of public imagination, Wikipedia — while the scourge of some professors — is an important way of sharing information. Like any human endeavour, though, it is susceptible to erasure and homogeneity.

This is a flaw that the Indigenous Writers Edit-a-Thon seeks to correct via bolstering the profiles and available information on emerging and established Indigenous authors.

“It’s creating conversation and making us think differently about how Wikipedia can respond to Indigenous issues,” said First Nations and Indigenous Studies instructor David Gaertner, whose focus is on Indigeneity in relation to cyberspace and new media.

Visibility and community-building as an antidote to injustice is a fundamental tenet of Indigenous Writers Edit-a-Thon and its inspiration, the Art+Feminism Edit-a-Thon. In addition to training volunteers on how to edit Wikipedia pages, the Indigenous Writers Edit-a-Thon acted as a gathering space, involving catered food, readings from poet Sam Knock and filmmaker Jules Koostachin, book sales by Iron Dog Books and music from RPMfm’s Indigenous Futurisms mixtape to create a supportive place to grow and learn, which Gaertner said sparked passion.

This Edit-a-Thon is the first of its size at UBC, though not the first overall — Gaertner has facilitated smaller versions of it in his classes. The event that happened on March 4, however, was a collaboration between Gaertner and his fellow facilitator Erin Fields, who he thanked as having done “the heavy lifting” of the event. Also involved was the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program, UBC Library, the Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology for Open Education Week 2019 and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture Daniel Heath Justice.

Justice started a hashtag, #HonouringIndigenousWriters, in December 2015. Justice used the hashtag, which was named by writer Leanne Simpson, to spotlight one Indigenous writer every day for a year. This list was later added as an appendix to Justice’s book Why Indigenous Literatures Matter and is what this Edit-a-Thon used as a blueprint.

“It’s important that [the list] opens up those conversations and not be seen as a frozen canon, just a gesture to the expansive range of voices in the world,” said Justice.

Gaertner agreed, highlighting how things as seemingly minor as changing ‘indigenous’ to ‘Indigenous’ as one student did created a “feedback loop” in the Wikipedia community that allowed for productive dialogue.

“It’s not just about the thing, but about how we come together to make [it], and I think that's what we’re trying to emphasize.”