Bridging Histories Through Intercultural Archiving

Abstract: Much of Indigenous peoples’ knowledge held in archives has been collected through extractive colonial processes without Tribal consent, leading to the misrepresentation of Indigenous histories. Even though Tribes are increasingly regaining control over their archival histories, an archival paradigm shift is needed. One where archival practice is intercultural and anticolonial: while bridging settler and Tribal histories, it should have the potential to give Land back.
Languages: English

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…”.[1] This discursive tension illustrates the need of applying an intercultural lens when engaging with Indigenous records.[2]

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[3] 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[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] Thus, Tribes often don’t see themselves existing in the records that, ironically, were produced to represent their very existence.

Symbolic Annihilation

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,[7] 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.[8] For example, Tribes in the U.S. and elsewhere are using Mukurtu,[9] a digital content management system conceived with what several Native information scholars and archival practitioners have identified as “Indigenous knowledge organization” needs in mind,[10] 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,[11] 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.[12] 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;[13] the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians use them to re-describe the colonial evidence used to prepare their federal recognition petition;[14] and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs use them for adding traditional knowledge to their basket collection and re-attributing elder knowledge.[15]

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[16]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”[17] 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.[18]

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,[19] they typically fail by requiring difference to be explicable in hegemonic terms.[20] In order to “officially” break the many silences[21] 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.


Further Reading

  • 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.

Web Resources


[1] See full description here: (last accessed 6 March 2023).
[2] 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.
[3] For the purposes of this essay, I define Indigenous records as records created by and/or about Indigenous peoples.
[4] 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.
[5] Kimberly Christen and Jane Anderson, “Toward Slow Archives,” Archival Science 19 (2019): 87–116,
[6] 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.”
[7] For example, claims for land restitutions, for political and/or federal recognition, and repatriation claims, among others.
[8] 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. (last accessed 6 March 2023).
[9] 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: (last accessed 6 March 2023).
[10] 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).
[11] Fields such as cultural narrative, traditional knowledge, place, relations, and people, among others.
[12] 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).
[13] See: and (last accessed 6 March 2023).
[14] María Montenegro, “Unsettling Evidence: An Anticolonial Archival Approach/Reproach to Federal Recognition,” Archival Science 19 (2019): 117–140, (last accessed 6 March 2023).
[15] (last accessed 6 March 2023).
[16] 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.
[17] Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” The Library Quarterly 83, no. 2 (2013): 94-111.
[18] 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).
[19] 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 (last accessed 6 March 2023).
[20] Miranda Johnson, “Making History Public: Indigenous Claims to Settler States,” Public Culture 20, no. 1 (2008): 97–117.
[21] Michel-Rolph Trouillot Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. doi: 10.1086/ahr/102.2.426.


Image Credits

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.

Recommended Citation

Montenegro, María: Bridging Histories through Mukurtu Community Records. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 2, DOI:

Editorial Responsibility

Olaya Sanfuentes / Catalina Muñoz

Copyright © 2023 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (

Categories: 11 (2023) 2

Tags: , , , ,

1 reply »

  1. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    The Long Histories of Intercultural Archiving[1]

    “Intercultural Archiving” revisits interdisciplinary debates about colonialism and archives from a practical lens. It makes a strong case for the importance of new and emergent forms of intercultural archival practices that include Indigenous knowledge, allow for mutual intelligibility with settler discourses, and lend themselves to Indigenous legal claims to self-determination and land restitution. The article showcases Mukurtu, an impressive digital platform that places descriptions developed by settler archival staff and Indigenous communities side by side, enabling the coexistence of descriptions that respond to different epistemologies. Indigenous communities have used Mukurtu to revitalize their language, keep elder knowledge, seek federal recognition, and reclaim homelands. In this way, the author sees Mukurtu as a prime example of intercultural archiving practices, flexible enough to provide the type of complex, multiple, layered forms of recording of information useful for communities in general, and needed to produce evidence that is readable or deemed valid by bureaucrats of settler colonial states.

    I find the digital platform impressive and the article compelling. Mukurtu is an example of the kind of new, ground-up initiatives that use digital technologies to envision archives that have flourished throughout the world at the service of communities.[2] “Intercultural Archiving” adequately advocates for the need of these initiatives in the context of Indigenous sovereignty and restitution, drawing examples mostly from North America. These are urgent endeavors that invite us to think forward, offering concrete steps to redress at least some facets of the chains of colonial archival violence and erasure and embrace a search for multiple interpretations of the past.

    The article’s premises are that the creation and keeping of archives in settler states follows a colonialist logic and that the majority of Indigenous knowledge included in archives was extracted without their consent, but is still useful for community purposes. It is hard to disagree with these premises, but in the spirit of fostering a discussion of the article’s arguments I would like to further reflect on two aspects of them. The first consists of the polyphonic nature of archives. While it is true that most archives collect, classify, and store fragments of history according to colonial objectives, procedures, and rationales, it is also the case that Indigenous peoples often took (and take) pen and paper and wrote (write) to European (and American) settlers, officials, and even kings (and presidents), knowing that their words and images would be consigned. One of the most obvious examples of this, from early seventeenth century Peru, is Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala’s remarkable twelve-hundred-page letter that combined word and image, was personally directed to the king of Spain, and is now kept at the Royal Danish Library.[3] Indigenous people not only used European writing and archives to address Europeans, but to keep community records, assign plots of land, and seek justice. There are incredible archives full of records written in Nahua, Mixtec, Maya, to name a few, using the Roman alphabet.[4] The scribes who produced these documents were more often than not Indigenous, or of Indigenous descent. The point I am trying to make is that while Mukurtu and the use of digital technologies is more recent, it is not just now that Indigenous communities are actively taking control over their archival histories. Quite the contrary, we need to see these new forms of archiving as part of a broader Indigenous awareness of archiving as a technology of power and the way different communities across the globe have used archives for their political aims and left testament of their cultures in them.

    This takes me to a second aspect I would like to discuss: the possibility of thinking beyond a clear-cut line between “settler-states” and “Tribes”, which appear in the article as the two main entities that organize, describe, and profit from archives. From my reading, “Tribes” loosely refers to Indigenous communities, which may already have federal recognition or might be in the process of reclaiming it, and “settler-states” refers to the many ramifications of western governing apparatuses. The example the author draws from Mukurtu consists of two different registers, one by the US National Museum of the American Indian (i.e. the “settler state”) and another one from the Huna Tlingit Archive (i.e. the “Tribe”). While this is in itself an important step in producing intercultural archival practices, I wonder whether new fields can be created for people who do not fall comfortably within those categories. Colonial encounters are messy and do not usually result in stark black and white divisions, but also in many shades of gray—people alienated from communities and territories who do not always have an adherence to either the settler state or the Tribe. Is it possible to find a place for people with less straightforward trajectories in these platforms? Is there a way for scholars not affiliated to Tribes or settler institutions to contribute their findings? In some cases, would there be possibilities for the emergence of new fields of collaboration that bring together people from different trajectories as they seek to investigate historical artifacts? Is it possible to offer spaces to foster hemispheric and global cross-fertilization?

    These are just a couple of thoughts on a fascinating article and digital platform. Recognizing the polyphony of archives and embracing some of the complex results of colonialism enable us to place intercultural archiving practices in the longer histories of archives and colonialism and their multifaceted outcomes. I believe that initiatives like Mukurtu offer possibilities to envision new futures.


    [1] I would like to thank Catalina Muñoz and Juan Cobo Betancourt for their feedback.
    [2] See, for example, Neogranadina (, Ticha (, or the many fantastic projects funded by Imagining Futures Through Un/Archived Pasts in the Americas and Africa (
    [3] Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, “El Primer Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno,” 2004,
    [4] For English-language works based on these archives, see James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992); Kevin Terraciano, The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca: Ñudzahui History, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Matthew Restall, The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550-1850 (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1997).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest