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PNW Tribal Nation Goes Digital to Preserve Culture, Heritage

For the Samish Indian Nation, the process of digitizing documents has helped to increase the resilience of some of the nation’s important records, helping preserve both language and culture.

Image shows black graphic of file folder with black arrows on each side pointing to it over light blue background.
For the Samish Indian Nation of the Pacific Northwest, digitizing physical documents goes beyond resilience and efficiency; it is also a matter of preserving culture.

The nation started working with Laserfiche about eight years ago with the goal of making it easier to find and use essential documents in a meaningful way, explained IT Executive Director JR Walters.

With many tribal records in a paper form, it made it difficult to find and use them, especially when one document may amend or supersede another, Walters explained. The initial priority for digitization was the resolutions that are passed by the Tribal Council. Now, not only are these records accessible in a digital format, but also, the system enables full-text search to cross-reference different documents and understand relationships between records.

“So, it really made the government operate more efficiently,” Walters said.

That was the initial priority, and digitizing things like business cards helped provide quick wins for the government. Currently, the focus is on designing a contract workflow, from the approval process to execution and contract renewals or terminations as necessary, which will enable more effective contract management.

Efficiency is not the only value added through digitization, though. It also makes records more resilient in the case of natural disasters such as fires. Previously, fire safes and other precautions acted as safeguards for these important records. Now, the records — and the culture they represent — will be protected.

“The tribe exists because of the people and the culture and the history of the tribe,” said Walters, underlining that language is intrinsically connected to culture.

As such, the Samish Indian Nation has invested time and energy in building up its language program and digitizing the language with online dictionaries and trainings. This is intended to keep alive the Samish Indian Nation's language and culture, a dialect of Coast Salish known as “Straits Salish.”

And as Walters noted, audio files can also be stored digitally using the Laserfiche technology.

Noel Loughrin, Laserfiche’s strategic solutions manager, added that the digital connection is especially important for this community. Members of the Samish Indian Nation do not have to physically live in the area and can still use the solution's forms to connect to online resources for cultural preservation.

“But what it's doing is really giving people access to their culture that they might not have because it's not something that's in their backyard right now,” Loughrin said.

The partnership between Laserfiche and government entities is one that is flexible and can adapt to meet each community’s needs, she explained. Loughrin underlined that for many tribal nations, there are a lot of historical documents that can be sensitive to climate and weather that can be preserved while offering digital access to those with permissions.

The Laserfiche repository also allows the option for documents to be stored in the cloud or on-prem. Metadata can also be added to improve clarity around what a document contains or relates to, which can be searched by users.

The digitization of documents and processes is not unique to the Samish Indian Nation. Last year, Santa Monica CIO Joseph Cevetello talked to Government Technology about his city’s experience bringing documents and services online.

Cevetello told Government Technology that when he joined the city as CIO in 2016, everything was on paper. The city made a road map to digitization and began the work, ultimately saving the city both time and money.

“We estimate we’ve saved something like 250,000 staff hours already and maybe even more, [and] millions of dollars of staff time no longer having to walk contracts around,” he previously told Government Technology.

And in terms of resilience, he underlined the value of digitization through the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling continuity of work as a result of the flexibility digitization provided.

Digitization helped enable access to Santa Monica workflow processes from anywhere in a time period of remote work, mirroring the benefit for Samish Indian Nation members who live in other parts of the country — or even the world, as Walters noted some members live in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

“So, the only way to really connect with them is via the online platforms that we have,” Walters said.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.