Indigenous Archives in the Digital Age II

The speakers at Dartmouth’s Indigenous Archives symposium offered suggestions and provided digital archiving models that went far beyond simply adding Native voices to pre-existing archival architectures.

unknown-1Although they agreed that we must continue with collaborations and protocols already established between non-Native and Native stakeholders, their ultimate goal is a fundamental structural change in information management.

Ojibwa writer Gordon Henry explored how fellow White Earth author Gerald Vizenor’s Summer in the Spring, a creative depiction of an “Indian in the archives,” actually models an indigenous archival methodology.


Gordon Henry, author of “The Light People” (1994).

In Vizenor’s book, Henry argued, the Native visitor to an archive of Ojibwa language material sifts through through sheafs of Ojibwe songs, by turns inspired and dejected. Only fluent bilingual speakers and writers of Ojibwe could completely absorb the archive’s meaning. But, Vizenor asks, does that mean that they must remain unheard?

Characterizing many indigenous archives as “agonistic” in their relation to modern Native peoples, Gordon Henry charted Vizenor’s creative tacking between loss and accretion, showing how Summer in the Spring models a methodology of curation as literary production, employing what he calls “tribal hermeneutics” (rather than Euro-American empirical accumulation and concentration) to release the archived songs into a new context of modern Ojibwa life.


Gerald Vizenor’s subtitle suggests his archival method: “re-expression.”

Vizenor teaches us to treat curation as survivance, to practice (as Henry puts it) “curation without jurisdiction.”

Other speakers emphasized indigenous-centered methodologies for the initital encoding of material into a digital setting. Ellen Cushman, Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University (and co-editor of Research in the Teaching of English), spoke about her work on digitizing Cherokee Syllabary texts. Cushman, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation,  is currently working with a “team in digital humanities, language translators and teachers, linguists, and librarians to create an online space for translating archived manuscripts.” Cushman and her group are working to produce a set of “de-colonized” translations of Cherokee texts, exploring older versions of Cherokee usage written in the 19th Century, and linking word-for-word literal translations with an online dictionary.


Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (SUNY Buffalo) introduces Ellen Cushman, Damian Baca, and Jason Lewis

During the Q & A, Cushman admitted that some Cherokee “formulas”—special prayers written in syllabary script—had been singled out by the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina as improperly posted in public during her research. She and her team, although also Cherokees, were bound to respect the wishes of other Cherokee groups as part of the protocols of indigenous archiving. Once the project is complete, Cherokee language learners and teachers will have an amazing digital resource at their disposal.

Alan Corbiere (M’Chigeeng First Nation), shared his own digital experiments with language revitalization in his home community on Mantoulin Island, Ontario. Like Cushman, Corbiere has found the digital a very useful tool in recovering dormant usages and in creating more effective orthographies. As an example, he discussed a story about Birch trees told in many variants among community members. When the English language versions were digitally compared with extant 19th-century transcriptions and more modern recordings of Anishinaabe speakers, Corbiere and his students discovered fascinating new linguistic formations as well as important cultural knowledge about the local forest system that had lain dormant with these texts for generations.

Other speakers focused on creating digital environments that might replicate indigenous epistemologies, inviting their users to think and write in new ways. Damián Baca (Assistant Professor of English and Modern Languages, University of Arizona) outlined his work in creating a digital platform for producing interactive glyphic codices along the lines of the ancient Mixtec texts that were largely destroyed by the Spanish invaders. Baca, who is the author of Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), envisions a site that will offer visitors a suite of software tools allowing them to interactively participate in the creation of non-alphabetic texts.

Jason Lewis (Professor of Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec) rounded out the discussion with an exploration of the fundamental root of the digital “problem” for indigenous users—”The Stack.” Lewis, who formerly worked in Silicon Valley, explained that a “stack” refers to a set of protocols used to establish a hierarchy of software layers in any application, moving up from the zeros and ones of the wiring and into the user interface with the application itself. Calling this fundamental system of digital organization “an orderly assemblage of biases,” Lewis shared work he and others are doing to upset the monocultural predisposition of both computer hardware and software, especially in the area of gaming.

The symposium also included presentations by several digital archive teams whose work is pushing the envelope on how indigenous materials appear online:

The Occom Circle: Ivy Schweitzer (Professor of English and Editor of The Occom Circle), Laura Braunstein (Digital Humanities and English Librarian); The Yale Indian Papers Project, Paul Grant-Costa (Executive Editor), Tobias Glaza (Assistant Executive Editor); Digital Atlas of Native American Intellectual Traditions at Amherst College, Mike Kelly (Librarian, Amherst College) and Kelcy Shepard (Digital Public Library of America).

The weekend concluded with a keynote “conversation” about the proper treatment of sacred objects in the digital world between Tim Powell (Director of Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR) at the American Philosophical Society; University of Pennsylvania) and Rick Hill (Director of the Deyohaha:ge: Indigenous Knowledge Center at Six Nations Polytechnic in Ontario, CA), who appeared via digital video recording.

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