Empowering Storytelling, the Conserving of Culture and the Building of Community with the Mukurtu CMS

Donna Bungard, Kanopi Studios, United States, Shiraz Dindar, Kanopi Studios, Canada


Stories are at the heart of culture, particularly that of indigenous peoples throughout the world. There is a soul to these traditions that cannot simply be captured in the accounting of facts or a caption of an image. It needs to be the crossroads of emotion, history, and science. Utilizing the Mukurtu CMS powered by Drupal, Kanopi Studios has had the honor of being a part of keeping these histories alive on several sites. In this session, we’ll explore three of these sites and the stories, the technologies, and the amazing voices they are bringing together. We’ll take a deep dive into the story behind the stories for The Voices of Amiskwaciy, The Ethno-ornithology World Atlas, and the Kivalina Archive. We will share the story of how Mukurtu has empowered Kanopi Studios to be a small part of the collection of these histories as they are being preserved through the voices of the people who have lived them. Come away from this session with a theoretically painted picture of how they have preserved our most cherished histories and endangered cultures through the use of dynamic tools online. Make history and science accessible across the world for communities big and small.

Keywords: Mukurtu, Community, Culture Conservation, Website Design & Development, Linguistics, Environmental Education

Storytelling & Community

“I’ll tell you a secret. Old storytellers never die. They disappear into their own story.” 

— Vera Nazarian, author

Through the art of storytelling, cultures have been preserved over centuries. With the options provided by digital means, digital archives now make contributions and access easier and more interactive than ever before. As cultures evolve and/or disappear over time, it’s critical to capture their voices and stories as completely as possible. Many indigenous groups are doing just that by using the Murkutu CMS (content management system) to create or expand their archives, and tell their stories their way.

What are Drupal and Mukurtu?

Drupal is a website framework that comprises nearly 3% of all websites that utilize CMS. Fully open source, and with a strong international community, Drupal is a leader known for its security, scalability, and customizability. Throughout the world, many museums are fully or partially powered by Drupal, including: 

An active project, Mukurtu is managed by the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation at Washington State University (WSU). On a trip to the Aborigines, WSU identified gaps in the culture’s archives; while there was a desire to preserve the cultures of indigenous peoples and share them with the world, there wasn’t an online preservation method that was as respectful to their culture as was necessary to ensure their culture wasn’t appropriated

This led to looking to another platform. Mukurtu CMS works as a layer on top of Drupal to create an experience that has been customized to the needs of Indigenous communities to manage, share, narrate, and exchange their digital heritage in culturally relevant and ethically-minded ways that address the gaps. Mukurtu has been adopted by cultures throughout the world since its debut in 2007.

Digital Community Building

Building a digital hub to preserve cultural heritage is a huge undertaking. With the ability for this process to take many shapes and forms, there needs to be a solid, repeatable process to build that foundation.

Mukurtu’s Key Features

Where Drupal’s framework allows for high levels of customization, Mukurtu’s key features provide structure that is inherently respectful while flexible. These features include: 

  • Cultural Protocols keep control of information with additional layers of roles and permissions.
  • Labels respect the items and their relevance.
  • Community Records allows for multiple records to be connected to a single item, allowing for more than one story to be shared.
  • Roundtrip enables media to be imported and exported again without loss of protocols.

Though all of these features have been of value, the cultural protocols and labels, in combination with the customizability of Drupal to better represent the cultural identity of the group, have been the most instrumental in the success of the archives discussed below. 

Cultural Protocols

Stories and the digital keeping of artifacts are sacred. Recognizing the need for full control over who has access to what information and how is a key feature and driver behind the Mukurtu CMS. The added level of permissions that have been applied to Drupal are adaptable to each group’s needs in order to make storytelling more seamless. 


Names matter. How we identify communities and the groups within those matters. This goes deeper still as there is the opportunity for nomenclature to impact how this digital history is interpreted and passed down. To remain respectful to the heritages, we used Mukurtu’s Traditional Knowledge labeling as a starting point, then customized the sites’ taxonomies to make them adaptable to each team’s needs. Technically the differences are minor, however, they are significant in terms of practically and usage.

Cultural identity

Every Mukurtu site looks and behaves differently. Some of this may be customized, or “forked” code, but often it’s the custom visual theming of the site that creates the biggest distinction. Every group has different visual needs to complement their knowledge. Working with indigenous artists, each group has been able to identify how to better represent their group within their budget constraints.  

Case Studies

The Voices of Amiskwaciy

The Voices of Amiskwaciy has focused on cataloging and sharing the stories of indigenous peoples of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. While some of the stories are positive, many are tough yet important to share to capture the full experiences of the peoples. Led by a team from the Edmonton Public Library, this site creates a home for communities to contribute to the archive. A focal point has been to simplify the sharing process to make it easier for community members to submit their histories and materials, particularly older users whose voices are vital to the continued accounting of the past but who may struggle with using online forms. 

Key features of the site include:

  • Custom Branding: color-coding, imagery, featured homepage
  • Native Land Mapping Layer: places languages, treaties, and territory overlays onto existing maps
  • Fully Customized/Simplified Digital Heritage Form: customization to make it easier for users to share their stories, specifically targeting elder natives
  • Coconut: this is an external service to create video compression and thumbnails for a simplified UX

This site has been so successful that the province has begun an Alberta-wide project, the Voice of the Land, to capture voices from a larger geographical area. This larger project is still in development. 

Ethno-ornithology World Atlas (EWA)

Ethno-ornithology World Atlas (EWA) Screenshot

Ethno-ornithology World Atlas, based at Oxford, is comprised of an international team led by Professor Andrew Gosler of Oxford, the only professor of Ethno-ornithology internationally. This dedicated team had been slowly developing this website experience over the course of the year, finally turning to Mukurtu for the structure it needed to take it to the next phase. 

This site blends the study of birds in relationship to human cultures, and how humans have been inspired by the cultural, practical, and spiritual influence of birds. It also helps to capture the vast understanding of the naming conventions of bird species as they migrate, and the influences that those migrations have on indigenous peoples.

Surprisingly, during the Covid-19 epidemic, additional, unexpected, uses were identified by maintainers: that the information can be made more accessible to users who feel the need to return to more traditional ways of living. It will provide access to historical indigenous information by enabling the saving and offline viewing of data, which assisted groups that wanted to pull away from modern civilization. This data may include foraging and other information related to the natural environments in which the birds of that area lived. This should be available later in 2021.

Key features of the site include:

    • Anthropology Meets Ornithology: the data blends science and culture to showcase the interconnectedness
    • Language Mapping Layer: imported the anthropological Glotto database as overlays onto existing maps – languages, dialects, and language families. 
  • Imported Species: the imported IUCN red list threatened species API has been integrated into the site 

The Kivalina Archive

The Kivalina Archive Screenshot

The Kivalina people of Alaska have been seeking relocation since the government forcibly consolidated their people more than a hundred years ago. The Kivalina people are pursuing planned community relocation due to the impact of climate change on their people and are using this site as a strategic tool towards that goal. They have documented and compared the official written histories to those lived by their people.

The key features of this site surround the simplified UX that serves all mapping, data, and historical materials from a single page, to create a light, fluid browsing experience.

Where to go from here.

Creating an archive is about the empowerment of groups and communities. By taking strategic steps forward it is possible to create accessible, inclusive, culturally accurate, and respectful archives. Mukurtu has been intentionally geared towards indigenous groups and might not be the right tool for your organization. Even if that is the case, the lessons of Mukurtu can be applied to your organization’s archives to leverage the power of narrative when creating and collecting respectful stories that accurately preserve a culture. 

“Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution — more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.” 

— Lisa Cron, Wired for Story



Cite as:
Bungard, Donna and Dindar, Shiraz. "Empowering Storytelling, the Conserving of Culture and the Building of Community with the Mukurtu CMS." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 15, 2021. Consulted .