What we typically call an “archive” is a distinctly Western concept. Many of the ways humans organize information occur within culturally-specific modes, and the archive is no exception. Previously the tools of absolute monarchies, historians often trace the lineage of the archive to the French Revolution, which enshrined government transparency and the citizen’s "right to know" into law. Other benchmarks in archival history similarly occur elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. As such, today the archive is primarily the product of Euro-American cultural ways of thinking and organizing information. These histories also mean that the archive is tightly bound up within the colonial project in the Americas. For example, settlers have leveraged archives and archival science many times to dominate, control, or erase Indigenous peoples and their cultures, histories, lifeways, and identities. The emphasis and legal requirement of having documentation in written form is one way settlers have disadvantaged Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous cultures in the Americas historically, traditionally, and contemporarily prioritize oral media--speeches, oral histories, narratives, stories, legends--over written media. The settler legal requirement that people from oral cultures prioritize written media makes it harder for Indigenous peoples to address land rights, recognition, and other legal topics simply because they do not have the documentation. In essence, settler law is based on the archive (see Miller).
Some Indigenous communities think and organize information in ways that they describe as an Indigenous archival practice. In the Tvlwv Pvlvcekolv Muskogee-Creek community, for example, participation in the songs and dances of the annual ritual cycle functions as an archive. The dances and songs each tell a portion of the Creation Story, within which all stories can and do exist. Dancing the Turtle Dance is the metaphoric equivalent of reading a document in an archival collection. Additionally, Pvlvcekolv elders consider that each person’s body functions as an archive, storing and making accessible information as emotion, memory, and patterns of tension and release. The land itself--a person in Pvlvcekolv’s worldview--also functions as an archive, storing information in growth patterns, development scars, flood marks, and one hundred and one other data points that trained observers are able to access. Combining these and other forms of Indigenous archives serves to broaden the definition of what an archive is or can be, and demonstrates more clearly the need to decolonize the archive.
Decolonization, as famously defined by Eve Tuck (Unangax - Aleut) and K. Wayne Yang, "brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life." They note that decolonization is not a metaphor for other ways to improve societies. However, in addition to other processes, decolonization involves the recognition and practice of “always already different” relations between Indigenous peoples and “nonhuman kin.” These kin include objects and records in archival collections. Indigenous peoples and communities maintaining or developing relationships with their cultural heritage items who live in archival collections constitutes one step along a path to decolonization.
Shannon R. Kopelva's thesis, “Redefining and ‘Re-presenting’ Native American Collections and Curatorial Practice,” does a good job of explaining how tribal collecting institutions incorporating traditional care methods. Her "study results suggested that tribal museum practitioners employed best practices that incorporated both Western frameworks and Native American cultural values, sought to foster connection to their home communities and provided spaces that maintained tribal culture and history." These values and practices, as well as sharing curatorial authority and collaborating with communities of origin, are also being considered and implemented at non-tribal repositories, as they are adapting to be more culturally sensitive.
Efforts are being made to shift archival practices to be more culturally responsive and professionally ethical.
Some ways that issues of stewardship, such as ownership, access, preservation and description, are being addressed include collaborating with communities of origin; centering indigenous voices; limiting access to culturally sensitive items; allowing for the practice of traditional and cultural beliefs, such as permitting little offerings in the collection; more conservative preservation treatments; focusing on preserving the relationship between materials and communities; avoiding outdated and offensive terminology and providing more context in finding aids about terminology and to be transparent about how things were originally described and acquired.
Important guidance for archivists include:
Tools and Projects:
Archival Initiatives for the Indigenous Collections at the American Philosophical Society
by BRIAN CARPENTER
Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library and the Protocols
by JONATHAN PRINGLE
Access Policies for Native American Archival Materials in the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution
by DIANA E. MARSH, ROBERT LEOPOLD, KATHERINE CROWE, and KATHERINE S. MADISON
Our Sustained Commitment to Native Communities: Adoption of the Protocolsas Ongoing Collection Management Process
by BRAVE HEART SANCHEZ, ELIZABETH DUNHAM, RENEE D. JAMES, JOYCE MARTIN, LORRIE McALLISTER, ALLINSTON SAULSBERRY, ALEXANDER SOTO, and ALANA VARNER
Listed below are some selected materials to get you started in learning more. This list is not exhaustive! For more articles, books, and theses/dissertations, search here at the Library homepage.
Select Theses & Dissertations