A Tlingit photographic lantern slide has two competing descriptions. While the US National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) describes, “View of a wooden plank dwelling in a Tlingit Indian sealer’s camp in Glacier Bay…”, the Huna Archive adds, “This camp represents the Huna people’s return to their homeland after being pushed out by the Little Ice Age’s glacial maximum…It is a testament to the adaptability and resilience of the Huna people…”. This discursive tension illustrates the need of applying an intercultural lens when engaging with Indigenous records.
Colonial Collecting Legacies
Much of the knowledge pertaining to Indigenous peoples/Nations held in the archives has been collected through extractive colonial processes without Tribal consent, leading to the misrepresentation of Indigenous histories. By this I mean that the information accompanying Indigenous records is often one-sided and doesn’t necessarily take into consideration the interpretations made by the Indigenous creators and/or subjects of the records. As the Huna Archive example above illustrates, there is a tangible tension between the ways non-tribal repositories describe Indigenous records and the ways in which Indigenous peoples see them, use them, and understand them.
Having worked with dozens of Tribal Nations for the last ten years, assisting them with their digital return projects and setting up their digital archives, it became clear to me that these descriptive tensions have to do, to a large extent, with the fact that western classification systems lack fields for identifying relations between Land, people, and knowledge; or where Territories can be named as a part of knowledge relations; or where communities, clans, or families can be acknowledged as authorities along with their ways of knowing.
The lack of fields for documenting Indigenous histories deliberately restructures social and public memory through a settler colonial worldview. This, in addition to causing the displacement of Tribal names, meaning, and knowledge, can cause discursive and affective erasure; or what, borrowing from feminist discourses, archival theorist Michelle Caswell has termed “symbolic annihilation:” the ways in which mainstream archival practice can symbolically annihilate whole communities through absence, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation. Thus, Tribes often don’t see themselves existing in the records that, ironically, were produced to represent their very existence.
In settler colonial contexts, the consequences of symbolic annihilation are tangible: exclusions related to knowledge production in the archives go hand in hand with Indigenous dispossession from Land, along with other deprivations of sovereignty. In other words, when based on western systems of documentation, the description of knowledge enacts logics of possession and dispossession that replicate the settler colonial Land-based project of taking. This shows the more basic challenge of locating displaced records, but also the more pervasive and harmful reality that, when preparing their sovereignty claims, Tribes are often not able to use the records they do find as evidence, because their meaning has been displaced, the names have been misplaced, or the context/place of record creation has been ignored.
Therefore, a model of archiving both Tribal and “official” histories that acknowledges and documents those dispossessions and displacements is urgently needed – an intercultural and anticolonial archiving framework that, in addition to surfacing and foregrounding the voices and histories of Indigenous peoples, brings those voices into dialogue with often contradictory settler colonial realities. An archival paradigm shift that legitimizes both narratives, so that Indigenous records can be effectively used as evidence by Tribes when advancing their sovereignty claims.
An Anticolonial Tool for Intercultural Archiving
Indigenous peoples/Nations are increasingly calling out settler colonial practices of archival displacement and re-placing their histories and belongings – both physically and ontologically. For example, Tribes in the U.S. and elsewhere are using Mukurtu, a digital content management system conceived with what several Native information scholars and archival practitioners have identified as “Indigenous knowledge organization” needs in mind, to build their own digital archives.
Mukurtu allows for Tribal-led representation, display and circulation of knowledge based on locally defined cultural protocols. It also has integrated metadata fields that have shown to be particularly relevant to Tribes, meaningfully attending to the epistemological needs of the Indigenous users. Finally – and this is what I’d like to focus on – through its “Community Records” feature, Mukurtu allows for multiple layers of narration, thus legitimizing forms of collective knowledge production that push back on the concept of a singular canonical record.
When using Community Records, Tribal Mukurtu users put diverse interpretations of history and memory side by side in a non-hierarchical way. Instead of erasing the content they consider incorrect/incomplete, racist or derogatory about them or their records, they choose to display it, acknowledging that knowledge is grounded in physical places, relationships, and enduring social systems. This form of archiving recognizes the rather obvious fact that there can be different ways to describe an event, object, song, place, etc. – even within the same Tribal community – while exposing the various forms of discursive violence or information colonialism that Tribal records have historically been and continue to be subject to.
In the Huna Archive example, community members make the decision to have both records – the Tribes’ and the NMAI’s – side by side on their archive, looking like this:
Fig. 1: Screenshots of the Huna Heritage Digital Archive.
Both screenshots show two tabs on the top left of the archive: one for the NMAI and one for the Huna Heritage Archive. The first image shows the NMAI record (highlighted in red) and the second one the Huna Heritage record (highlighted in red).
Other Tribes, such as the Passamaquoddy, use Community Records for revitalizing their language and re-claiming sacred sites; the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians use them to re-describe the colonial evidence used to prepare their federal recognition petition; and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs use them for adding traditional knowledge to their basket collection and re-attributing elder knowledge.
Intercultural Archiving Practice
Community Records, then, can be used to contrast but also bridge settler and Tribal histories, overcoming, on one hand, the discursive incommensurability between diverse forms of knowledge documentation, while on the other, allowing Tribes to regain control of their own archival histories, memories, and futures. In this sense, and in line with Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ definition of interculturality – the bringing together of different knowledges in different epistemes without silencing or marginalizing the specificity of any of these knowledges – Mukurtu allows for what I call an intercultural archiving practice.
Intercultural archiving does not entail erasure or the fusion of existing knowledges, rather it has the potential of creating new options, enhancing reciprocal intelligibility, and identifying complementarities and contradictions, common ground and alternative visions of a historical document. Intercultural archiving does not attempt to “fix” or “correct” the “official” record – doing so would affirm that a universalizing way of knowing is possible and/or that discursive colonial violence doesn’t exist. It instead points toward a “dialogic pedagogical intervention” that defines knowledge and history as always politically, culturally, and socially produced.
Tribes practicing intercultural archiving use their archives as spaces to establish, enact, and reflect on their Indigeneity in ways that are complex, meaningful, and substantive. Some Tribes are even using their archives to supplement settler knowledge with Tribal oral knowledge and histories on territory, ancestry, and descent, as they prepare the evidence they need for their Land claims. This is crucial, since not only were Tribes bodily and discursively displaced through settler colonial regimes, but so too was the significance of Tribal Land and territory as essential parts of the chains of meaning in which Tribal evidence rests.
Legitimizing Indigenous Histories
The remaining challenge is how to make intercultural archiving – and the multiplicity of histories it allows for – legible and legitimate in the eyes of the settler state and the law. How can Indigenous pasts and presents be reconciled with the dominant historiographies of state bureaucracies and academia? Even though some courts and tribunals are willing to recognize different record-keeping practices and categories of evidence, they typically fail by requiring difference to be explicable in hegemonic terms. In order to “officially” break the many silences and erasures that Indigenous archives have been historically subject to, we must start by challenging and re-thinking colonial archival and information structures from the bottom-up.
Dismantling the hierarchical dichotomy between “official” and Tribal through interculturality might contribute to creating new possibilities, contingencies, iterations and adaptations of the Archive and what constitutes valid evidence for Indigenous legal claims to self-determination. An intercultural approach to reading and archiving Tribal history is one potential avenue for Indigenous peoples/Nations to win their battles over stolen Land.
- Tuck, Eve, and Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1-40.
- Luker, Trish. “Decolonising Archives: Indigenous Challenges to Record Keeping in ‘Reconciling’ Settler Colonial States.” Australian Feminist Studies 32 (2017): 108-125. doi: 10.1080/08164649.2017.1357011
- Montenegro, María. “Re-placing Evidence: Locating Archival Displacements in the US Federal Acknowledgment Process.” In Disputed Archival Heritage, edited by James Lowry, New York: Routledge, 2022.
- Huna Heritage Digital Archives: http://archives.hunaheritage.org/ (last accessed 6 March 2023).
- Plateau Peoples Web Portal: https://plateauportal.libraries.wsu.edu/digital-heritage/root-gathering-bag-6 (last accessed 6 March 2023).
- Indigenous Archives Collective: https://indigenousarchives.net/ (last accessed 6 March 2023).
 See full description here: http://archives.hunaheritage.org/digital-heritage/tlingit-seal-hunters-seasonal-camp-glacier-bay (last accessed 6 March 2023).
 This research was conducted in Tongva, Chumash and Tataviam territory, colonized as Los Angeles in what is currently known as California in the US. As a non-native scholar conducting research and teaching in a land grant institution located in unceded Indian Land, I thank and pay my respects to Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders), and ‘eyoohiinkem (relatives/relations) past, present and emerging and recognize their continuing connection to land, water, and resources.
 For the purposes of this essay, I define Indigenous records as records created by and/or about Indigenous peoples.
 The practice of digitally returning cultural materials from museums/archives/libraries to the communities of origin is understood here as a set of political, social, and cultural practices that cede decision making about access, narration, curation, and circulation to the original stewards of documents and cultural materials, thus affecting the documentation, recording, metadata, as well as the publication of the materials and documents involved.
 Kimberly Christen and Jane Anderson, “Toward Slow Archives,” Archival Science 19 (2019): 87–116, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-019-09307-x.
 Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor and Mario Ramirez, ‘To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing’: Uncovering the Affective Impact of Community Archives,” The American Archivist 79, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2016): 56–81. Similarly, but within a Native American Studies context, Athabascan scholar Dian Million argues that this affective erasure causes a “wounded Indigenous subjectivity.”
 For example, claims for land restitutions, for political and/or federal recognition, and repatriation claims, among others.
 María Montenegro, “Re-placing Evidence: Locating Archival Displacements in the US Federal Acknowledgment Process,” in Disputed Archival Heritage, James Lowry (Ed.), New York: Routledge, 2022. https://www.routledge.com/Disputed-Archival-Heritage/Lowry/p/book/9780367898408 (last accessed 6 March 2023).
 Mukurtu means “dilly bag” in Warumungu, the language of the Aboriginal community who actively participated in the original design of the software. Warumungu elders keep things safe in the bag, young children need to ask permission to see what’s inside and elders decide what, when, and how to share with them depending on their privileges. Like the dilly bag, Mukurtu is a safe keeping place. Learn more here: www.mukurtu.org (last accessed 6 March 2023).
 Cheryl A. Metoyer and Ann M. Doyle, “Introduction,” Cataloging and Classification Quarterly 53, nos. 5/6 2015: 475-478.; Sandra Littletree and Cheryl A. Metoyer, “Knowledge organization from an indigenous perspective: the Mashantucket Pequot Thesaurus of American Indian Terminology Project”, Cataloging and Classification Quarterly, Vol. 53 Nos 5/6 2015, 640-657.; A. Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Duarte, M.E. and Belarde-Lewis, M., “Imagining: creating spaces for indigenous ontologies,” Cataloging and Classification Quarterly 53, no. 5/6 (2015): 677-702; Farnel, S. et al., “A community-driven metadata framework for describing cultural resources: the digital library north project,” Cataloging and Classification Quarterly 55, no. 5 (2017): 289-306; Hajibayova, L. and Buente, W., “Representation of indigenous cultures: considering the Hawaiian hula,” Journal of Documentation 73, no. 6 (2017): 1137-1148; Kukutai, T. and Taylor, J. (Eds), Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2016).
 Fields such as cultural narrative, traditional knowledge, place, relations, and people, among others.
 Kimberly Christen, “Relationships, Not Records: Digital Heritage and the Ethics of Sharing Indigenous Knowledge Online,” in The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, ed. Jentery Sayers (New York: Routledge, 2018).
 See: https://passamaquoddypeople.com and https://www.loc.gov/collections/ancestral-voices/about-this-collection/ (last accessed 6 March 2023).
 María Montenegro, “Unsettling Evidence: An Anticolonial Archival Approach/Reproach to Federal Recognition,” Archival Science 19 (2019): 117–140, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-019-09309-9 (last accessed 6 March 2023).
 https://plateauportal.libraries.wsu.edu/digital-heritage/root-gathering-bag-6 (last accessed 6 March 2023).
 Boaventura De Sousa Santos, The end of the cognitive empire: The coming of age of epistemologies of the South. Durham: Duke University Press 2018; Boaventura De Sousa Santos, Epistemologies of the South: Justice against epistemicide, London: Routledge 2017; Boaventura De Sousa Santos, Another knowledge is possible: Beyond northern epistemologies, London: Verso 2008.
 Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” The Library Quarterly 83, no. 2 (2013): 94-111.
 María Montenegro, “Re-placing Evidence: Locating Archival Displacements in the US Federal Acknowledgment Process,” in Disputed Archival Heritage, ed. James Lowry (New York: Routledge, 2022).
 Such as oral histories (See: Adele Perry, “The Colonial Archival on Trial: Possession, Dispossession, and History in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia,” in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, ed. Antoinette Burton (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) and very recently, ancient trees (See: BBC News (2023) The ancient trees at the heart of a case against the Crown. Last accessed: 2/1/2023 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-63980557 (last accessed 6 March 2023).
 Miranda Johnson, “Making History Public: Indigenous Claims to Settler States,” Public Culture 20, no. 1 (2008): 97–117.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. doi: 10.1086/ahr/102.2.426.
Title image: Dwelling in a Tlingit Indian sealer’s camp, Glacier Bay, Alaska, June 1899 (photographed by Edward S. Curtis). University of Washington: Special Collections via Commons (public domain).
Fig. 1: Author’s screenshots of an entry in the Huna Heritage Digital Archive.
Montenegro, María: Bridging Histories through Mukurtu Community Records. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 2, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21185.
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