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GRASAC began as a question that was raised by three researchers in the spring of 2004: would it be possible to use information technology to digitally reunite Great Lakes heritage that is currently scattered across museums and archives in North America and Europe with Aboriginal community knowledge, memory and perspectives? Each researcher came from a different disciplinary background (history, law, art history & anthropology) but saw a common problem, and wondered if there could be a viable common solution.

The Great Lakes Research Alliance for the Study of Aboriginal Arts and Cultures (GRASAC) is our solution. The organization is an international collaborative research partnership of Aboriginal community researchers, museum and archival scholars and university researchers. Members contribute insights and knowledge from their own areas of understanding and in turn benefit from the insights and knowledge of others. GRASAC consists of two key components: the network of people who meet, work together on research projects, and exchange ideas; and the web-based software tools being developed to enable remote collaboration and sharing.

We believe that our research is urgently needed because the complex problems that trouble contemporary relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples cannot be solved without a thorough understanding of their deep historic contexts. There are many forces that have combined to silence and disrupt Aboriginal perspectives on the history of the Great Lakes region across the four centuries since the beginning of a sustained European presence in North America. Residential schooling and government programs of assimilation contributed to the language loss which eroded the oral transmission of traditional histories. Further fragmentation resulted from the institutional practices of archives and museums, which have by traditional practice divided and scattered heritage materials among different repositories.

GRASAC aims to address these problems through an innovative collaborative research model that brings these scattered items of historical heritage together. We use both Aboriginal and Western approaches to recover and incorporate distinctive Aboriginal traditions of thought and knowledge into our understandings. Our strategy is also to facilitate digital repatriation of heritage materials where physical repatriation is not currently possible or practical.

Additional GRASAC Benefits

We provide online access to digital materials to our research collaborators and especially, to Aboriginal community members. Staff in Aboriginal Cultural Centres and schools can begin to use the research to prepare exhibitions and education kits. Museum curators and university scholars can use the findings to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge into the interpretation of collections, exhibitions, teaching, and research. As part of this project, we also support capacity-building in both the current and future generations of researchers based in Aboriginal communities and elsewhere through training, professional networking, and access to material heritage.

Why is the site not available to everyone?

Access to the site is controlled for several reasons:

1. Some of the material housed in museums and archives is considered sacred or sensitive by Aboriginal community members. We are in the process of learning more and working out protocols to protect this material, but until that time, broader public access must be limited.

2. Some material on the site (such as digital photography) is affected by copyright laws. We have obtained permission to share this material with our members and member organizations (including our Aboriginal community centre and First Nations partners, but not with the broader public at this point)

3. Finally and most importantly, GRASAC was founded upon the principle of reciprocity. Members not only use the site for their own research, but are expected to contribute their knowledge to it.

Are there plans to allow wider access?

AS funding permits and research on the site matures, we hope to create a spin-off public access site in consultation with our partners to showcase the rich heritage of Great Lakes indigenous peoples and our research results.

For further information, see the contact us page.

History & People

GRASAC was founded in 2004 by Professor Ruth Phillips, Canada Research Chair in Modern Culture and Professor of Art History at Carleton University and Professors Heidi Bohaker of the Department of History, Univeristy of Toronto and Professor Darlene Johnston (Chippewas of Nawash First Nation) of the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto. They invited Mr. Alan Corbiere (M'Chigeeng First Nation), currently Executive Director of the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation and Professor John Borrows (Chippewas of Nawash First Nation) in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria to work with them on grant proposals to secure funding so that GRASAC could become a reality.

The project was given a firm foundation through a Canada Foundation for Innovation Infrastructure Grant Awarded to Ruth Phillips. These funds created a physical space at Carleton University and also secured the purchase of servers, workstations and other digital equipment. Since then, GRASAC researchers have successfully applied for additional funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the British Academy and other sources. We continue to seek funding to support further software development, on-site research, digital photography, graduate student training and international workshops.

The software was developed by Ideeclic of Gatineau, QC.