Subaltern Digital Archives: Collecting and Curating Native American Literature on the Web
by Siobhan Senier — University of New Hampshire
October 22, 2013 – 00:00
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.