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Digitization Provides Access to Native American Archives
by
Posted On November 13, 2018
In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to “address the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to Native American cultural items.” Thanks to its passage, the term “digital repatriation” arose in the field of indigenous anthropology—the return of cultural heritage items in some type of digital format to the communities from which they originated.

In the 2011 paper Digital Repatriation in the Field of Indigenous Anthropology, Timothy Powell, the American Philosophical Society’s director of Native American projects, details his organization’s digital knowledge sharing initiative: “Valuable materials that have long been isolated in archives inaccessible to tribes and First Nations are now being revived for use in language preservation and cultural revitalization programs in their communities of origin.” In January 2012, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Science Foundation sponsored the workshop After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge. The papers from this event were later published in a special double issue of Museum Anthropology Review.

The Indigenous Digital Archive

Digitization and the development of web-based primary source materials have flourished in the past 10 years. This has been especially significant in the area of Native American Studies, in which the lack of easy availability to materials and resources has made the collection and use of key documents, histories, and language materials difficult. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, and the New Mexico State Library’s Tribal Libraries Program, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the New Mexico Historical Records Advisory Board, the Knight Foundation, and the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, launched the Indigenous Digital Archive in 2017. It currently contains more than half a million pages of information, letters, and reports from 19th- and 20th-century U.S. government boarding schools in New Mexico as well as some land- and water-rights use claims.

According to an article in Pasatiempo magazine, “It’s important to understand [the Indigenous Digital Archive] as more than a socially collaborative archive. It’s best seen as the tech component of a larger social movement that has pushed for Native American families to repair and recover from the intergenerational trauma inflicted by Indian boarding schools.” Michaela Shirley, an Indigenous Digital Archive board member, says in the article that the platform was designed to be “very community-based. … In these boarding school documents, a lot of times how they describe Native communities, the view is from an Anglo person, who at that time was not respectful of their cultures. There is a lot of racism in the documents. A person engaging with this content, they can come to their own conclusions and annotate the documents and provide their own history and research as well.”

Anna Naruta-Moya, of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, notes that the Indigenous Digital Archive is really a “toolkit for an [open source] repository software to take advantage of the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) and Open Annotation standards to allow automated and community-sourced tagging of scanned documents, adding comments, and other socially-oriented functionality.” This includes online collaboration, natural language processing, annotation, and the ability to create your own collections within the system.

As further evidence of vital connections to Native American populations, the Indigenous Digital Archive has selected three fellows from the state’s 23 tribes and the Hopi Pueblo, who have been given grants to carry out their own tribal, personal, or academic research. Naruta-Moya says, “The idea of the fellows is to help start using the archives to inspire and energize others. We really think there’s something really important about the collaborative nature of knowledge production.”

A Tradition of Community-Scholar Collaboration

Digital repatriation has created many new opportunities for preserving, enhancing, and sharing information about indigenous communities across the globe. Some of the many projects that are bringing Native American perspectives and knowledge into the global information web include the following:

  • American Indian Histories and Cultures (Adam Matthew)—“Explore manuscripts, artwork and rare printed books dating from the earliest contact with European settlers right up to photographs and newspapers from the mid-twentieth century. Browse through a wide range of rare and original documents from treaties, speeches and diaries, to historic maps and travel journals.”
  • The American Indian Movement, 1968-1978 (AIM; Digital Public Library of America)—“Particularly in its early years, AIM … protested racism and civil rights violations against Native Americans. During the 1950s, increasing numbers of American Indians had been forced to move away from reservations and tribal culture because of federal Indian termination policies intended to assimilate them into mainstream American culture. … This primary source set uses documents, photographs, videos, and news stories to tell the story of the first decade of the American Indian Movement.”
  • American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collection (University of Washington)—“This site provides an extensive digital collection of original photographs and documents about the Northwest Coast and Plateau Indian cultures, complemented by essays written by anthropologists, historians, and teachers about both particular tribes and cross-cultural topics. These cultures have occupied, and in some cases still live in parts of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Maps are available that show traditional territories or reservation boundaries.”
  • The Duke Collection of American Indian Oral History (University of Oklahoma)—This site “provides access to typescripts of interviews (1967-1972) conducted with hundreds of Indians in Oklahoma regarding the histories and cultures of their respective nations and tribes. Related are accounts of Indian ceremonies, customs, social conditions, philosophies, and standards of living. Members of every tribe resident in Oklahoma were interviewed.”
  • Indian Peoples of the Northern Great Plains Digital Collection (Montana State University)—This database’s images “were digitized and drawn from the library collections of three of the Montana State University campuses (Billings, Bozeman and Havre), the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, and Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana.” It was created in consultation with Native Americans, educators, librarians, and historians. The overall organization of the database is by tribe, including Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Salish/Flathead, Kootenai, Chippewa/Cree, Gros Ventres, and Assiniboine. The collection consists primarily of images, but includes some text to give context. Most of the images are photographs, but there are also ledger drawings, serigraphs, paintings, and other media.
  • The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary (University of Minnesota)—A “searchable, talking Ojibwe-English dictionary that features the voices of Ojibwe speakers. It is also a gateway into the Ojibwe collections at the Minnesota Historical Society. Along with detailed Ojibwe language entries and voices, you will find beautiful cultural items, photographs, and excerpts from relevant historical documents. … Ojibwe is not a single standardized language, but a chain of linked local varieties, grouped into nearly a dozen dialects. Each dialect (and within dialects, each local variety) differs in details of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar from the others, with differences between non-adjacent dialects often being great enough to impede understanding between their speakers.”
  • Sequoyah National Research Center (SNRC; University of Arkansas–Little Rock)—They’re not particularly well-organized, but “the collections of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Sequoyah National Research Center constitute the largest assemblage of Native American expression in the world. [Its] mission, to acquire and preserve the writings and ideas of Native North Americans, is accomplished through collecting the written word and art of Native Americans and creating a research atmosphere that invites indigenous peoples to make the Center an archival home for their creative work.”
  • The Native Writers Digital Text Project (University of Arkansas–Little Rock)—This digital library “brings the works of Native poets and writers of fiction and other prose to readers [worldwide]. Featuring out-of-print literary efforts of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and First Nations people of Canada, the project seeks to broaden the definition of ‘Native Writing’ not only by focusing on writers who are not ordinarily anthologized, but also by publishing works which originally appeared in ‘ephemeral’ sources and the periodical press, especially in those publications edited and produced by Natives.”

A Hopeful Future Is Evolving

Carol Robinson-Zanartu, in a 1996 article in Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools (download required), wrote, “As a group, Native American people are perhaps the least understood and most underserved populations in schools. Native American is a collective term, representing a large variety of cultures, language groups, customs, traditions, levels of acculturation, and levels of traditional language use.”

Michael Yellow Bird, who is a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, noted in Wicazo Sa Review that “working for the interests of Indigenous Peoples is not easy, given that our colonizer is the most powerful nation in the world and, since we number more than five hundred nations, we can have very different minds on how (or whether) to pursue common strategies and tactics for decolonization.”

James Crawford, in 1995’s Endangered Native American Languages: What Is to Be Done, and Why? perhaps describes the situation best by noting that “the crisis of Native American languages can be summarized as follows: unless current trends are reversed, and soon, the number of extinctions seems certain to increase. Numerous tongues—perhaps one-third of the total—are on the verge of disappearing along with their last elderly speakers. Many others are not far behind. And even among the most vigorous 10 percent, their hold upon the young is rapidly weakening. In short, Native American languages are becoming endangered species.”

Thankfully, technology is now allowing for a potentially different era, one that empowers all voices and leads to new futures built on pasts that are yet to be fully uncovered.


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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