Daily Archives: June 25, 2008

Northwest Archivists 2008 Annual Conference: New Frontiers in Archives and Records Management

Session 10: Breaking the Ice: Protocols for Native American Archival Materials and Archivists in the Northwest.

(submitted by OSU Staff Archivist Karl McCreary)

A provocative examination of proposed protocols for Native American archival materials from three different perspectives formed the focus of this session. The protocols emerged from a 2006 meeting of 15 Native American and aboriginal information professionals and four non-native archivists. They were developed in large part to encourage dialog between Native American and non-Native American archivists regarding the best practices for the culturally responsive care and use of Native American archival material held by non-tribal organizations. The Northwest Archivists board has committed to revisiting these protocols at every annual meeting for at least five years, a process that began in 2007.

The session began with a presentation by Linda Wynne, records manager for the Sealaska Corporation, who illustrated through stories from her native Tlingit nation the importance of the repatriation of Native American artifacts to tribal cultures and identities. Telling the story of artifacts from her tribe sold to private collectors that were later returned (after years of lawsuits) to form the core of a tribal cultural heritage center, Linda emphasized that Native Americans view their historical material culture as having real value in contemporary society, and “don’t want to see our artifacts as something of the past” by being inaccessible in a distant museum.

Monique Lloyd, the second presenter in this session and a member of the Ojibwe nation and MLIS candidate in the Emporia State University program, gave a basic overview and history of the protocols that included some personal thoughts regarding what she’s learned “working in two worlds” as an archivist/librarian. Monique voiced the hope that the protocols can lead to a greater understanding of the different traditions of information access between the Native and non-native cultures, and that these differences can be respected over time. Emphasizing further communication as the key element in this process, Monique described how a tribal member might answer a question with a story rather than a linear “yes” or “no.” This presentation seemed to re-iterate the importance of historical materials to Native American culture, which was summed up by Monique’s comment: “We belong to the property; the property doesn’t belong to us.”

John Bolcer from the University of Washington offered a very different perspective on the protocols in the third and final presentation in this session. Looking at the protocols from the position of a non-tribal archives, John expressed concern that the protocols as currently written challenge the autonomy of archivists working in Non-Native American repositories and museums. According to Bolcer, one of the major problems is that the protocols define key concepts like “culturally sensitive” materials so vaguely that non-tribal institutions are forced to regard anything affiliated with Native American history or culture as culturally sensitive. Bolcer coupled this concern over the lack of guidelines for non-tribal archivists to follow with opposition to the protocols’ central assertion that Native American communities have primary rights to all materials referencing their culture, rather than just those directly generated by them. In Bolcer’s view, this basic tenet seeks to “control what is studied and written about Native American communities” and threatens “the practice of free and open inquiry upon my own institution depends.”

Despite voicing serious reservations about the protocols, John ended with several suggestions for their revision. One of the suggestions centered upon defining the concepts of “culturally affiliated” and “culturally sensitive” in much more detailed and “nuanced” way and recognition of the fact that being respectful of Native American perspectives and knowledge systems does not necessarily mean adaption of them.

The common theme throughout all three presentations seemed to be that further communication and understanding between Native American communities and non-tribal heritage professionals needs to continue and be encouraged. All the presenters agreed that the Protocols have definitely helped in starting and stimulating the discussion about tribal artifacts and archival materials.