Alive in the Archive

Response to “Toward a Slow Archival” 

“Towards Slow Archival” by Kimberly Christen and Jane Anderson, which discussed ways to name and address the colonial and harmful approach to digitizing and documenting Native cultures, was a fascinating discussion of the digital intersection with holding Native cultural expression. Given the authors’ attention to cultural preservation, I was surprised that there was no mention of The Native American Graves Protection Act  of 1990 (NAGPRA) or The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA). The former necessitating that museums and other institutions repatriate to tribes the items stolen from their burial sites, including bones and sacred burial items and the latter protecting Native American religious and cultural practices as defined by practitioners (Yes, it is shocking that these were just passed in 1978 and 1990). Both of these acts necessarily modified the relationship between tribes and institutions focused on their documentation through a colonial lens. In many cases, the colonial mindset of the institutions required to repatriate items was undeniably exposed through their response to Native peoples empowered by the new legal landscape these acts created. 

For many years, my mother was the Director of The Department of Tribal Preservation and tribal historian of my own tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag. As part of her work, empowered by NAGPRA, she worked directly with museums, archeologists, and universities, including Harvard University and the Peabody Essex Museum, to repatriate artifacts, including the bones and burial items of our ancestors. Some of these institutions created struggles that took years. They simply would not give the items back, using every technique they could to stall or thwart the repatriation process, preferring that items remain in storage, tagged and hidden away. Most upsetting for them, I believe, was our practice of reinterment—returning the items to the Earth where our ancestors placed them. Much like Fewkes’s insistence on cataloging what he believed to be disappearing cultural practices, these museums felt that somehow simply possessing the bones and items of our ancestors, equated a kind of possession or acquisition of knowledge that provided them some true insight to our culture. The most fascinating irony of this situation is that the very stealing of the items and cutting off or gatekeeping access to them represented the exact negation of the knowledge they sought. To Christen and Anderson’s point, often times Native peoples understand history to be a living knowledge with which we interact and evolve within. This freezing in time, this pinning of our customs on a board like butterflies negates our cosmology and our expression of what it means to be human. We are living beings carrying and sharing the part of the story we hold, and our culture is a living expression of that. 

Non-indigenous digital archives, even while claiming to promos access, often just reinforce the gatekeeping of informative moments in time. Locked behind inscrutable interfaces, in unfamiliar and potentially unwelcoming settings, described through a non-indigenous lens, the true inheritors of this information are cut off from receiving the full message of the captured and cataloged moments. Packaged for the non-indigenous reception, our culture performs but it doesn’t breathe. We, by extension, become artifact not being. The conscious effort to free this knowledge from the constraints of perspectives and tools that don’t serve our customs creates added labor and struggle.

This behavior of freezing and naming our culture discussed in the essay has contributed to so many old and tired stereotypes — specifically images of the Noble Savage both revered and infantalized as naive and childlike—and gone. Most people don’t realize there are still Native peoples in New England and across the Nation outside of reservations. The assumption is that we are gone, and that referencing the original inhabitants is enough to signal some awareness of these long lost disenfranchised peoples. Unfortunately, Federal Recognition is often the substantiating badge of existence, among Native peoples as well. T

This drive to pinpoint a culture in a linear way—to create equations of understanding—in my view—stems from fear of the unknowable. When you strip down the complex and and try to neatly organize what you do not understand into units that can be dressed in familiar terms, you remove the threat of looking at truths beyond your worldview  and the smallness of your place in the world at large.