A color photograph of the Peabody's library and a window looking out onto a red-colored tree outside.

Learning about and from the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials

I’ve been thinking about archives and recordkeeping in relation to Native American communities since our Collections Assistant Samantha returned from the International Conference of Indigenous Archives, Libraries and Museums, and shared some resources she learned about there. One of these resources was the 2006 Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, a series of recommendations for non-tribal institutions holding Native American archival material. While we don’t really have Native American archival material at the Peabody, our institutional and archaeological records, mostly created by non-Native American individuals, do document excavations of Native American sites and more recently, repatriations.

The Protocols were created by a group of 19 Native American and non-Native American librarians, archivists (including the then President of the Society of American Archivists), museum curators, historians and anthropologists, and address how institutions can be culturally responsive stewards of these materials and provide culturally appropriate services to the communities with which they are affiliated. Essentially, the protocols speak to the fact that Native American archival records (textual, photographic, audio-visual, etc.) should be treated with as much sensitivity as other cultural objects in a museum’s collection, and may require rethinking a non-Native institution’s policies about access, description and control. Consulting with affiliated tribes to let them know these materials exist, inquiring about any access restrictions or changes in the way materials should be preserved, and not artificially extending the life cycle of a documentary record upon request are examples of recommendations in the Protocols. While archival materials do not currently fall under the jurisdiction of NAGPRA, apparently some institutions, in the spirit of the law, have repatriated them.

A fundamental question to ask about archives and current recordkeeping practices in general is what records get kept, and by whom: historically, it’s been a question of control. The Protocols essentially advocate for non-Native institutions to let go of some of the control they have over Native American archival material, even if this might go against the usual policies of their institution. A contemporary example in the news resonates with this practice: the recent Canadian court ruling allowing First Nations people to destroy testimonies of the abuse they endured at boarding schools: read an article about this here. The destruction of these testimonies means that they will not survive in the form of documentary evidence, accessible to the general public, even at a center that is committed to social justice. However, the victims of this abuse now control their stories, rather than, as quoted in the article, the government “which caused or contributed to the horrible harms to those survivors in the first place.”

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