For the Wind River community, a physical archive of their cultural patrimony is still off in the distance. Scarce resources have been parceled out to more pressing concerns. But the advent of digital archiving technologies has given the Shoshoni and Arapaho people who live there a vital opportunity to begin the process of archiving their traditions for tribal members’ access via a virtual collection of the precious items of material culture being held at the Field Museum in Chicago.
Across the country, tribal communities and non-Native institutions have begun to join forces in similar efforts at virtual repatriation. At Dartmouth, which houses the papers of the eighteenth-century Mohegan minister and activist, Samson Occom (1723-1792) a decade-long project of reclamation will reach fruition this fall, when the Occom Circle Project is officially launched. Back in 2005, while preparing a presentation on the Occom archive at a gathering of alumni and Mohegan tribal members, English professor Ivy Schweitzer realized that digital technology was mature enough to sustain a cooperative archival celebration of Samson Occom’s life and work. Joining with Mohegan tribe linguist Stephanie Fielding and faculty in Dartmouth’s Native American Studies Program, Schweitzer received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a Scholarly Digital Edition of the Occom materials.
Yet the site seeks to be much more than a digital version of a traditional special collections department. As its mission statement explains,
The Occom Circle does not merely replicate a conventionally printed edition of Occom’s collected works in digital form. Rather, employing the latest advances in digital markup technology, it offers users an expansive view of his world by including works written by Occom, but also about him and his activities by the members of his extensive and international circle of associates . . . [including] . . . Eleazar Wheelock, mastermind of Indian education and missionizing; and Joseph Johnson, Occom’s brother-in-law and fellow Mohegan activist. Using the innovations offered by digital technology to cluster documents, search over multiple fields, and provide facsimiles and images, this digital edition places Occom at the center of a broad network of historical relations, allowing us to better appreciate the cultural world he inhabited and shaped.
By providing free online access to a variety of works by Occom and others in the form of digital images and modernized transcriptions, and by placing them in their broader social and cultural contexts, the site allows visitors to search “within documents for elements such as people, places, organizations, events,” and to access relevant links digital archives of related material.
The American Antiquarian Society has just published another, more modest, virtual archive. “From English to Algonquin: Early New England Translations” is really more of a digital exhibit of seventeenth and eighteenth century texts written in Algonquian dialects.
Curated by Kimberly Pelkey, Head of Readers’ Services at the American Antiquarian Society, the exhibition “grew out of Kim’s own interest in her Nipmuc heritage and her desire to learn more about the texts that now provide the basis for many tribal language reclamation projects.” Aided by AAS staffers Molly Hardy and Dan Boudreau, Kim Pelkey has created a laguage reclamation source for local tribal communities like the Wôpanâak, the Mohegan, and her own Nipmuc nations.
Other elite institutions have also begun the long-overdue process of making their vast holdings in Native written archival materials available to tribal communities and the general public. Especially promising is The Yale Indian Papers Project, which serves as a repository for a collaboratively collected and curated electronic database known as The New England Indian Papers Series.
A recent Mellon Foundation grant has allowed the project to expand, and “approximately 4,500 manuscripts held at the Massachusetts State Archives will be imaged and made available to the public on two digital platforms, the Yale Indian Papers Project’s New England Indian Papers Series and Harvard Radcliffe’s Digital Archive of Native American Petitions Project.”
Significantly, the Yale Indian Papers Project has enlisted Native consultants. The Project website notes, for example, “Cheryll Holley, chief of the Hassanamisco band of the Nipmuc Nation, Cedric Woods, director of UMass’ Institute for New England Native American Studies, and scholars from the Mashpee and Aquinnah communities will select and transcribe documents that are particularly significant with respect to the history and culture of Massachusetts Native people, documents touching on important events within individual communities as well larger themes affecting Massachusetts and New England Native people as a whole.”
More on archives and the ethics of archiving Native materials in future posts!