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Visiting Special Collections

Special Collections at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery

Indigenous Archival Materials & Practices

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:

  • Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, which the Society for American Archivists recently approved. The Protocols were developed to provide best practices for culturally responsive care and use of Native American archival and documentary material held by non-tribal organizations. The Protocols build upon numerous professional ethical codes; a number of significant international declarations recognizing Indigenous rights, including several now issued by the United Nations; and the ground-breaking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives, and Information Services. The proposed standards and goals articulated in Protocols for Native American Archival Materials are meant to inspire and to foster mutual respect and reciprocity. The Protocols include recommendations for non-tribal libraries and archives as well as Native American communities. The Protocols emphasize:
    • the importance of consultation with and concurrence of tribal communities in decisions and policies
    • the need to recognize and provide special treatment for culturally sensitive materials
    • rethinking public accessibility and use of some materials
    • the role of intellectual and cultural property rights
    • the need to consider copying, sharing, and/or repatriation of certain materials
    • the recognition of community-based research protocols and contracts
    • reciprocal education and training
    • raising awareness of these issues within the profession


Tools and Projects:

  • Mukurtu:  a content management system and digital access tool for cultural heritage, built for and in ongoing dialogue with indigenous communities. Developed and maintained at the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation at Washington State University, the free and open source platform is designed to meet the particular curatorial and access needs of indigenous peoples. Mukurtu offers the ability to provide differential access to community members and the general public and to create space for traditional narratives and knowledge labels that foreground Indigenous knowledge in the metadata of digitized cultural heritage materials. Mukurtu's first priority is a platform that fosters relationships of respect and trust.
  • A4BLIP Anti-Racist Description Resource Guide: " A4BLiP affirms the importance of making history and archives accessible to folks of all races, genders, and abilities. However, we know that many archives’ catalogs and finding aids, especially those written decades ago and never updated, include outdated language that modern researchers may experience as racist, sexist, or otherwise discomfiting and/or damaging."   A4BLiP has developed guidelines for anti-racist archival description practices that will suggest methods for identifying these terms and avoiding inappropriate use in the future.
  • Plateau People's Web Portal: "The Plateau Peoples' Web Portal is a collaboration between the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes Of The Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and Native American Programs at Washington State University. This Portal is a gateway to Plateau peoples' cultural materials held in multiple repositories including WSU's Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture, the National Anthropological Archives, the Library of Congress, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. The materials in the Portal have been chosen and curated by tribal representatives. Each item has one or more records associated with it as well as added traditional knowledge and cultural narratives to enhance and enrich understanding to many audiences."
  • Passamaquoddy People:“The Passamaquoddy wax cylinder sound recordings were made in Calais, Maine in 1890. They were first returned to the Passamaquoddy community in the 1980s. David Francis, our ancestral language specialist was able to listen and transcribe 4 of these cylinders.  In 2014 we began a new project with Local Contexts and the American Folklife Society to listen again to these recordings because the sound quality had been improved. This new project became the impetus for this digital archive. We wanted to put the recordings in a Passamaquoddy controlled archive where our community can listen to them and add the Passamaquoddy transcriptions and English translations in our own time. These recordings are dear to us. They connect us across time to our ancestors. We are the cultural authorities for this material. In 1890 our ancestors spoke Passamaquoddy and French; today we speak Passamaquoddy and English. Each song is a puzzle to fully interpret as no full songs were ever recorded. There are only partial songs on the cylinders. We have very few descriptions of these recordngs from the person who visited with us for three days and made them, Jesse Walter Fewkes. In our listening we connect to people in the present and in the past." The archive is also used to share other parts of their history and culture.
  • Sípnuuk Digital Library, Archives and Museum (Sípnuuk): "The mission of the Sípnuuk Digital Library, Archives and Museum (Sípnuuk) is to manage, share and enhance understanding of Karuk history, language, traditions, natural resource management and living culture following the cultural protocols of the Karuk Tribe and in support of the missions of the Karuk Tribe, Department of Natural Resources, People’s Center and Karuk Tribal Libraries, Archives and Museums."
  • Ghost River: During the Paxton massacres of 1763, a mob of white settlers, so-called “Paxton Boys,” murdered 20 unarmed Conestoga People in a genocidal campaign that reshaped Pennsylvania settlement politics. Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga reimagines this difficult history through an educational graphic novel that introduces new interpreters and new bodies of evidence to highlight the Indigenous victims and their kin. Ghost River: The Fall and Rise of the Conestoga is part of Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America, a project of the Library Company of Philadelphia supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
  • Access Policies for Native American Archival Materials - Case Studies: "The Protocols for Native American Archival Materials establish best practices for the culturally responsive care and use of Native American archival materials, particularly materials that are housed in non-tribal institutions. This series of case studies, sponsored by the Native American Archivists Section of SAA, helps archivists, librarians, museum curators, and other professionals who work with Native American archival materials see how the Protocols have been adapted for use in a variety of institutional contexts. More broadly, these case studies highlight evolving access policies to Native American materials, whether or not these policies are based specifically on the Protocols."

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.

Selected articles:

Selected books:

Select Theses & Dissertations