Subaltern Digital Archives: Collecting and Curating Native American Literature on the Web

Curator's Note

This week the Digital Public Library of America is holding its “DPLA Fest” in Boston. It’s a heady moment, with libraries and archives across the country racing to digitize their collections, in the spirit of democratizing access to materials that may have been previously available only to specialists, or languishing on dusty shelves.

For indigenous communities, digitization presents at least two challenges. On the one hand, not all information actually “wants to be free.” This is an argument powerfully made by anthropologist Kimberly Christen, who—with a team of tribal elders, legal scholars, and web experts--has developed a special content management system for indigenous digital archives. Mukurtu offers a system of “traditional knowledge licenses” and flexible cultural protocols to let elders and communities determine who gets access to texts or images that may be culturally sensitive or sacred. Like Omeka, the public-history platform developed out of George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, it is built to empower communities to make their own archives, on their own terms.

On the other hand, the uptake of such tools has been relatively slow among “everyday” communities, indigenous or otherwise. This is the second challenge for Native people: while they do have information they want to protect, they also have much they want to share--especially, for instance, with tribal members living off-reservation, or disabled elders who cannot always travel to tribal community centers. Many of those centers and elders have been steadfastly curating significant materials for decades, even centuries, often without the help of professional archivists or major funding sources.

These invaluable collections are being further marginalized in today’s digital gold rush. So far, the highest-profile “Native” digital archives are not, in fact, Native. They come from colonial institutions, like Yale, UPenn, and even Christen’s own Washington State University, which are doing important, scrupulous work, in close consultation with Native people. But these projects are usually “digitally repatriating” material that was taken from Native people in the first place--not quite the same thing as empowering indigenous DIY archiving.

Writing of Indigenous New England aspires to train and support tribal museums, cultural centers, and individuals across the region to scan, upload, and curate materials in their own possession, under their own stewardship, in their own ways. We hope to flip the Academic PI/Native consultant model, realizing the promise suggested by the projects noted above.


Thank you so much for a thought-provoking post. I still have to think about this more, but I find it interesting that access to material and specifically digital archives are generally perceived as democratic and therefore inherently good. This ignores the practices of selection (not every available text or artifact is archived) by those agents that are in charge of archives, and the resulting processes of foregrounding and canonization resulting from this.

Great post Siobhan! These challenges regarding the control of information are so interesting. Bettina, I think you also make a great point about the discourse surrounding the archive ("democratic"). I think an additional challenge is legibility, I am sure these communities are keenly aware of how archives impose order and narrative on even massive collections. While this can be incredibly helpful for researchers, the neat and orderly structure of an archive may erase the complex and unwieldy nature of cultural artifacts.

This post really got me thinking about the nexus of power that the Archive traditionally has represented and its impact on marginalized communities. While my post on the Library of Congress revealed the positioning of archives (even really big ones!) as always threatened by inevitable loss, this post points to how the Eurocentric construction of the archive, which has historically supported the apparatuses of colonial rule, can be subverted through the development of new technologies and archival approaches. It is great to think of indigenous peoples constructing their own archives from the ground up, and leveraging technology to produce archival forms that will complement their existing memory practices. Indeed, the Western push for 'total knowledge,' may be anathema to certain forms of indigenous knowledge that are only meant to be viewed within the community, or only by certain designated members within the community, so having complete control over the content and form of the collection seems to be critical. It seems to be a very fine line to walk for institutions working with these communities: How to make them historically legible, without making them subjected to the traditional archival structures of dominant powers? The project, Writing of Indigenous New England, seems like an excellent step in the right direction. It also seems to be in keeping with Terry Cook's conception of the 'community' paradigm of archiving (as articulated in the recent June 2013 issue of Archival Science), in which archivists become more like activists, working collaboratively with communities to help them preserve their memories through methods determined by, rather than for, the community.

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