Indigenous histories on Wikipedia

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wikipedia screenshot

Screenshot of a Wikipedia article worked on by students.

Madeline Knickerbocker [1]

My earliest memories of Wikipedia in an academic context relate to being told not to use it. Profs and peers viewed Wikipedia as problematic, and certainly not a legitimate source for academic work. While these critiques still endure amongst some academics today, things have also changed: a few semesters ago, I had my students write contributions to Wikipedia as the major assignment for a 300-level Indigenous history survey.

This post focuses on using Wikipedia in the postsecondary classroom; I briefly discuss Wikipedia and pedagogy in general, and then explain my own experience of having students contribute to Wikipedia for their major class project. I’ll also talk about student responses and share some of their feedback, as well as the assignment description I used for the class, and my own reflections on what could make the process go more smoothly in the future.[2]

Wikipedia and Pedagogy

While I certainly agree with most that Wikipedia absolutely should not be the only source students consult while doing academic work, I think we do have to recognize its usefulness. Most of us use it frequently as a reference source (“what year did that happen in again?”), and so we should allow our students the similar convenience of using it as a jumping off point for deeper engagement with their own academic work.  As Andrea Eidinger commented to me when we were talking about the idea for this post, there is a double standard, where some scholars use Wikipedia “behind the scenes” but don’t recognize its role as a site for publicizing and disseminating academic knowledge.

Certainly, Wikipedia does not practice academic peer review, and it is by definition not original scholarly work. That said, Wikipedia entries do have their own community-based review process, and they are consistently assessed by Wikipedia users. Moreover, writing a new entry or contributing to an existing one can require significant intellectual lifting, and should be recognized as such. A strong entry can lay bare the scholarship done on any given topic in accessible language and provide an overview of information most often locked up behind journal paywalls.

This type of work is especially important when it centers the knowledges and experiences of marginalized communities. Indeed, the other main critique of Wikipedia is that it emphasizes the voices of the most privileged, both in terms of its content and authorship. Any Wikipedia user would do well to learn more about Wikipedia’s issues such as gender bias and systemic racism. Given that Wikipedia clearly needs to add more diversity to both its entries and its editors, it seems to me that contributing to Wikipedia from a social justice standpoint, as Art+Feminism does, for example, can challenge the online encyclopedia’s whiteness and maleness. The popularity of Wikipedia editathons speaks to the growing awareness that the platform’s content and contributors need to be more inclusive.

These two concerns about Wikipedia – of legitimacy and of representation – can both be addressed through a better understanding of the platform’s pedagogical and political potential. We can use Wikipedia to teach students important skills such as critical assessment of written work, translation of academic discourse into more accessible language, and the step-by-step work of using online publishing tools. Doing this work can feel more significant for students than writing (yet another) primary source analysis, and can certainly hold more real-world value, by enhancing public awareness of scholarly knowledge. When that information also challenges top-down narratives and provides digital space for the histories of marginalized peoples, historical education can also act as a form of online social justice.  

Regardless of scholarly reluctance to take Wikipedia seriously, the idea of having students contribute to Wikipedia has robust supports. University instructors have been participating in the Wikipedia Education Program since 2010, and Wiki Education has existed as a spin-off of the Wikimedia Foundation since 2013. The first example of it I had direct awareness of was from a class taught by Jeremy Brown, an associate professor in History at Simon Fraser University. Brown teaches about Modern China, and he assigns students a Wikipedia project in his class on Tiananmen Square. He and one of those students, Benedicte Melanie Olsen, wrote about the assignment for the American History Association. When I was planning this assignment for my course, Jeremy was kind enough to discuss his process and share his materials with me (as a side note, this kind of generosity is so helpful to early career scholars, and I’d advocate for this kind of openness around sharing our teaching materials in general).

Another extremely useful element of thinking through the assignment came from the educational branch of Wikipedia which I already mentioned above, Wiki Education, or WikiEdu for short. Now that Wikipedia assignments are quite common for university courses, WikiEdu has created a really comprehensive training process that instructors can adapt for use in their courses. It helps you set up weekly modules for students that walk them through the step-by-step process of creating or contributing to a Wikipedia page. There are also built-in assessment and tracking tools on a useful main dashboard for the course. This setup was great for someone like me, a frequent Wikipedia user, but only a novice contributor. It worked for students, too: though some commented that certain modules weren’t as illuminating as others, in general this training allowed them to explore Wikipedia’s functionality prior to and as they were doing the research for their work. By having them complete short weekly exercises aimed at teaching them specific skills on the Wikipedia platform, the WikiEdu training modules set them up for success. We did not run into many technical issues as a result; most students found the process of adding their content to their Wikipedia page to go smoothly, which was great because this was the part of the process they had been most worried about. 

Developing An Indigenous History Wikipedia Assignment

While of course any history class could potentially employ the idea of Wikipedia assignments, I was both looking forward to and wary about what it would mean to add Indigenous history content to the encyclopedia. This is especially the case as I am a white settler educator, and the majority of my students are non-Indigenous. In a great piece from 2018, Krista McCracken and Danielle Robichaud discuss the ways that we can use Wikipedia for reconciliation. McCracken and Robichaud explain the rationale for including Wikipedia in discussion and action around reconciliation, and provide a concise list of actionable items for interested authors. Adding Indigenous content to Wikipedia is important because it makes that information about Indigenous histories and cultures more accessible. Enhancing public awareness of Indigenous histories could also assist in eroding stereotypes about Indigenous Peoples that at best tokenize and generalize, and at worst denigrate and insult.

This work of publicizing information about Indigenous Peoples is a political project that is not simply reconciliatory in nature: it is about representing Indigenous knowledges and experiences publicly and in digital spaces, something that can and should be done on its own right, unrelated to reconciliation processes. There is also a crucial need for this when it comes to Wikipedia, where there are many terms relating to Indigenous Peoples that need entries. Moreover, when I asked #NativeTwitter about what kinds of topics they would like to see, the response from folks replying to my tweet was overwhelming – it was my best read tweet of the year, and garnered over 1500 retweets and comments (and counting). It is clear that this kind of project could have significant buy-in from Indigenous people eager to see more information about their own communities online, and from settlers and non-Indigenous people looking to better educate themselves on Indigenous topics.

At the same time, it was absolutely necessary to make sure that we did this work as ethically as possible. In particular, I wanted to make sure that students would only share material that was appropriate to be presented to public audiences; in Indigenous Storywork, Q’um Q’um Xiiem / Joanne Archibald writes that when sharing Indigenous stories, non-Indigenous people must exercise “basic cultural sensitivity” to avoid “appropriation and disrespectful use of stories.” [3] For example, in some nations, certain stories are only shared at specific times of year, so those should not be accessible year round. Moreover, some ceremonial information should not be available beyond members of a specific community or family. Especially given the colonial legacy of academic research, it is important to be very careful to err on the side of respectful caution when disseminating academic information about Indigenous Peoples. My class and I discussed this at length, and students chose sources with these ethical principles in mind. 

To provide a clear sense of the project, I’m sharing the assignment description here. You’ll see I broke it up into discrete chunks, but that the Wikipedia project was the major part of their work for the whole semester, save a 20% participation mark.

Initial Student Responses and Reactions

Making the case for this concept – a Wikipedia assignment on Indigenous histories – in the classroom was a bit more difficult than I anticipated. There were three self-identified Indigenous students, and about 30 non-Indigenous students of diverse backgrounds. The students were generally, it seemed to me, eager to dive into the content because they felt that their earlier education on Indigenous history had been sparse, and they knew it was an increasingly vital issue to be informed on. 

So while they were interested in the topic, their initial responses to the Wikipedia project were mostly of bewilderment and concern, worrying that the technical aspects would be overwhelming. Some students were concerned about their privacy, which is certainly legitimate, so for students who wanted that option I allowed them to submit their work to me in hard copy; they still learned about the aspects of using Wikipedia but did not have to publicize their page.  Once students had become familiar with the Wikipedia platform, and after they had chosen their topics, their main concern shifted to the way Wikipedia presents information. While they had been taught to write argumentative essays, Wikipedia entries have to present information in as neutral a way as possible. This was not as easy as many expected, and some objected to the lack of a critical analysis they felt their work had as a result. I acknowledged that while this may be a difference between Wikipedia assignments and undergraduate essays, it definitely is in line with historiographic reviews which are common in the field. I also explained to students that having an opportunity to learn how to write in many different formats is good experience, and especially emphasized that by making academic information accessible on Wikipedia, the contributions would be providing a valuable public service that is not possible when writing a conventional history essay.

Another major concern for my students, especially considering that many of them were taking their first Indigenous history course, was how their work might come across to readers. As students began uploading draft material to their Sandboxes (a pre-publication area for each article on Wikipedia), we did weekly check-ins in class to see how that was going. For example, many students expressed discomfort with not really knowing what the appropriate language was for discussions of Indigenous issues, so for that we looked to Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style. All of us were also motivated by a desire to provide accurate representations of Indigenous Peoples and their pasts, and this was addressed on a more case-by-case basis between me and each individual student. 

Working with Wikipedia Editors

As students put their work on Wikipedia, readers of that platform began responding to the contributions students had made. Most of the time, these were small corrections, but in one case there was a fairly significant back-and-forth with a Wikipedia user and one of my students.

In the article’s Talk page (a metadata page associated with an article, where users can discuss its contents and suggest changes), the Wikipedian objected to my student’s edits to a specific page for two reasons: the student’s additions focused on historical content, which in the user’s opinion relegated the practice in question to the past, as opposed to presenting it as part of an ongoing tradition; and the student had deleted some existing material on the page, including an image and a reference to an Indigenous spiritual leader discussing the issue in question (which certainly should not have happened). 

My student explained to the user that they were adding information from historical scholarship because their class was an Indigenous history class, and that this did not negate the contemporary information, but that these expansions supplemented it. They (rightly) said they would revert the deletion of the source and image. The exchange continued further, and the Wikipedian pointed out that the page did not exist to serve our class project (true, and fair), and then explained how some of the scholarship was useful but there were still some tone issues that also needed to be corrected, and reminded my student that Wikipedia was a place for collaboration, including with Indigenous editors. All of these are valid points, and while it’s clear both my student and the Wikipedian had different outlooks on the topic, neither of them were wrong. Ultimately, the page ended up incorporating both that user’s knowledge and sources as well as the research my student had done, edited by both of them to their satisfaction. The page is definitely stronger as a result. 

However, both in class and online, when my student discussed this interaction, they were clearly upset and stressed by it. It was a hard learning experience for this student, and for everyone else in the class, including myself. As a group we talked about how important it is to develop skills to respond resiliently to feedback, and to understand that critique of the work can be separated from personal ego. A related issue is that students in writing-based disciplines, like History and Indigenous Studies, are used to having their work critiqued privately and only by the instructor; having it happen so publicly, and by a stranger, was clearly challenging for this student. As a class we also touched on how it can be very easy for online conversations to escalate quickly and upset all contributors, especially when issues of racialization, Indigeneity, and settler fragility are involved. After our class discussion, I also followed up with the student individually, to ensure they were not unduly negatively affected by those feelings, and also to help them process their emotions and perhaps try to see the experience in a new light. When I first envisioned the Wikipedia contributions project, I had not fully considered that it would produce a different kind of learning than my initial assignment goals. This intervention in particular, and student anxieties about the project in general, meant a lot more emotional labour went into supervising this project than might be considered the norm for undergraduate assignments.We all learned a bit about how to manage our responses to critical feedback, especially when working on Indigenous topics in a public forum. 

I am not the first instructor to talk openly about this kind of issue in doing Wikipedia projects: in May 2014, Meghan Duffy, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, detailed what happened when one of her students was editing a page that got caught up in “edit wars” and online hostility. Duffy also wrote a follow up listing suggestions for how to avoid this kind of thing happening with Wikipedia projects, which has great advice for anyone who’s interested in adopting this for their own teaching. 


Experiences like those of my student and Duffy’s show that Wikipedia projects can be challenging – but I want to stress these issues seem to be outside of the norm. The rest of my class ended up feeling like the Wikipedia project was interesting and engaged them in a different way than their other academic work; despite their early anxieties and this one instance, students seemed to enjoy the project. Lily Whitlock, who contributed to the page on the Haudenosaunee, wrote the following reflection (and agreed to let me share it): 

For me, the Wikipedia project was an eye opening experience. Not only was I in charge of the subject I got to choose, but I also got to learn a history (and present) that I didn’t know about before. This history course was the first time I had really learned about Indigenous history. What I mean by that is that I had heard colonial Indigenous history, the abuse and oppression of residential schools and the Indian Act, but I had never learned Indigenous history outside of the colonial context. It was a really liberating experience to read about the history of the Haudenosaunee with limited influences from the mainstream European narrative. I was so thankful to learn this history and critically analyze my sources for racial bias. I feel as though this experience made me become a better historian because I had to come to the realization of my own biases and really deconstruct the subtle racism that I had been taught, such as writing in the past tense when I refer to Haudenosaunee Peoples. Overall, although writing for Wikipedia was difficult in that I had to remain neutral, I think I became a better critical reader for it, for which I am thankful.

While I continue to have reservations about representation on Wikipedia, those concerns mean would still do this assignment again in the future. The process also made me more confident that Wikipedia can be a good place for university assignments; the process teaches important skills and enhances the significance of the work for students. While things did not go entirely as expected, and in that way introduced an element of discomfort into the learning experience, students did produce high quality results because they were motivated to put more care into their work. Later, their hard work and investment was applauded by WikiEdu, which featured my students’ work on their blog after the conclusion of the class.

Certainly, when creating Wikipedia pages on issues relating to Indigenous Peoples (and, I imagine, other marginalized communities), a lot of care needs to be undertaken and more emotional labour likely required of instructors and all users collaborating on Wikipedia pages. That said, drawing on the significant political and pedagogical potential of Wikipedia can help students produce stronger work, which can be useful to people both in and outside of academia, especially in the context of enhancing public knowledge about Indigenous histories. 

Maddie Knickerbocker (she/her) is a white settler with heritage from England, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scotland. She holds a PhD in History from Simon Fraser University, and her research focuses on Indigenous politics, settler colonialism, and gender in 20th century Canada. She currently teaches in Indigenous Studies at SFU; this fall, she will be taking up a faculty position in History at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

This post is part of the ongoing Beyond the Lecture: Pandemic Edition series edited by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken. Inquiries, proposals, and submissions can be sent to the editors via unwrittenhistories [at]gmail[dot]com.

[1] I am grateful to Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken for their help throughout the writing process, and to Sarah Nickel for her reflections on a close-to-final draft. I also want to thank Jeremy Brown for sharing with me his own experiences using Wikipedia for student assignments, and to especially extend my gratitude and appreciation to the students who bravely took on this challenging task with me.

[2] I have tried my best to maintain student consent and anonymity in writing this post. The semester after our course, I wrote to my students about my plan to write this post, and asked for their feedback. In this post, I’ve anonymized everything I did not have explicit consent to share.

[3] Q’um Q’um Xiiem / Jo-ann Archibald, Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008), 143, 150.

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