Indigeneous Research Approaches and Archival Work
As I continue thinking about how to do archival work, I found myself this week listening to Malea Powell’s words from her chapter “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories” published in the book Beyond the Archives: Research as Lived Process. In this chapter, Powell tells her story about her experience doing Native American archival research at the Saint Louis University Law library and the Newberry Library in Chicago. As she digs through the archival material in the two libraries, she critically reflects on the colonial and imperial agenda behind the collection and preservation of American Indian’s materials in these archives. At the Newberry library, she shares what she was thinking as she “felt” the letters written by Charles Eastman, an American Indian intellectual born in 1858 on the Santee Sioux (Dakota) reservation in Minnesota. Powell narrates:
I sat with those letters for a long time, watching handwriting emerge from the page, thinking about Newberry’s hold on these materials, on the way that I’d been trained to think about the archives and the objects they contained, spent a good deal of time thinking through my ethical relationship to this archive, to the project of imperial archives, to all the objects stored in all the archives all over the world (120).
During my graduate program in the Rhetoric and Writing program at MSU, I have been lucky to take two courses with Dr. Powell: American Indian Rhetorics and American Cultural Rhetorics. And just as she hints in the quote above, her teaching on research methodologies emphasizes the need for researchers to have an ethical relationship with the people or the materials they research. While the question of ethics is always discussed in most research methodologies, I find her approach very different because it is grounded in indigenous epistemologies and informed by a decolonial agenda. From her story, we learn that dealing with archival objects, especially from communities that have been colonized, we have to remember to practice values like honor, respect, care, friendship, and goodwill. She also reminds researchers, archivists, and curators the importance of learning how to read materials in archives. She notes for example that some of the materials from colonized communities have been made “objects” by “a story told about them by imperial discourse”. She also however tells us that, as we read these objects, this “doesn’t mean we can’t…tell different stories about them, with them, through them”. Listening to these words is important for scholars involved in digital humanities work that involves archiving or building digital repositories for or with communities whose objects/cultural material has been “written on” on by the colonial/imperial discourse.
Can indigenous methodologies then teach us something in terms of how to do archival work? In my American Indian Rhetorics course, we read the book The Land has Memory, which I can say is a good example of how archivists and curators can do their work in ways that respect and honor a community’s cultural values and practices. The book is a compilation of essays/stories about how the National Museum of American Indian (NMAI)Smithsonian Institution works collaboratively with indigenous people to collect and preserve indigenous cultural materials and heritage. Reading about how NMAI was conceived and steps involved in bringing the project into fruition epitomizes the enactment of indigenous research approaches in terms of how the artifacts are collected, how the cultural meanings of each artifact are interpreted and (re)presented in the museum. Honor, responsibility and reciprocity are some of the values emphasized as Native elders and community members are invited and involved in identification and deciding on what artifacts to be showcased. The essays describe in detail the strategies used by the archivists and curators to value the voices of the community members as they were and are continuously invited to participate in the cultural interpretation, presentation and access of the artifacts.
One of the collection practices that I find interesting was the kind of relationship the archivists tried to build with the material artifacts. A good example is the boulders. It is amazing to hear the archivists and curators share how they spend time collectively reflecting on what it means to remove the boulders from their original locations and move them to their new location at NMAI. They considered not only how such a removal would impact the community and the land, but the boulder itself. Further, the act of blessing and praying for every artifact shows that they recognized and honored these “inanimate” artifacts as alive and feeling. Such practices emphasize Native’s respect and relationship with their land. The essays in this book are also impressive as they tell how the NMAI celebrates and affirms Native cultural practices by showing us it is a community that is alive and not “frozen in time” as past colonial re-presentations of Native cultures seem to imply. Enacting these practices by the archivists and curators shows that the goal of archiving materials for former colonized communities should go beyond collection and preservation, to also be about reclamation and decolonization.
Thus, indigenous research approaches can help us recognize the importance of critically “reading” how artifacts, especially from non-dominant cultures, are collected, interpreted and presented, be in digital or physical archives/repositories. This becomes even crucial in today’s era of neoliberalism and capitalism where colonial and imperial motivations seem to be embedded in research/collection practices.