Decolonizing archives

What are best practices for Indigenous archiving? The University of Manitoba’s Indigenous services librarian Camille Callison addressed that issue at a talk October 6, 2014, at Robson Hall.

She outlined the best practices put forward in a successful 2012 proposal by the University of Manitoba to permanently house the archives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). The National Research Centre for Truth and Reconciliation started up on campus this year.

Callison stressed these practices:

  1. The obligation to protect and preserve Indigenous knowledge in a variety of media for current and future generations in a respectful and sensitive manner. Preservation of records in a digital format means remote communities can access digital archives. The preservation of records within the National Research Centre ensures that Canadians and others don’t forget, and validates the testimonies given by survivors.
  2. Providing a welcoming environment and assistance to First Nations, Inuit, Metis and non-status peoples to access this knowledge. Providing a welcoming environment for survivors and intergenerational survivors is crucial as cultural protocols need to be put in place so Elders and others can assist people in handling what could be a very emotional experience for them once they obtain access to documents.  
  3. Seeking direction from First Nations communities on proper protocols regarding access to or care of the records.  
  4. Respecting First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultural concepts of copyright with regard to Aboriginal history or heritage. Some stories, songs, dances and objects are owned by individuals or a family, clan or community. Unauthorized use is equivalent to plagiarism or cultural theft. This is different from Western concepts of copyright in which the person who records a story is often considered the owner.
  5. Providing opportunities and access to training in archival and library studies for First Nations, Metis, Inuit and non-status people. 

Callison discussed the importance of younger generations looking to the National Research Centre to try to understand the “depth of what really happened and horrific history that was going on.” The records will “empower people to realize that there were reasons for the way that their parents or grandparents acted and that we can empower our communities to heal through this knowledge.”

“Archival records are always partial, never complete,” said Greg Bak, assistant professor for the master’s program in archival studies at the University of Manitoba. He used the Department of Indian Affairs school files record series on the Indian Residential School system to explore decolonizing archives. Bak noted less than 1 per cent of federal government records are preserved as archives and argued, “the destruction of 99 per cent of federal records also means that the remaining 1 per cent are more discoverable, more manageable, and more valuable.”  The goal of the Indian Affairs record-keepers was to document the record-making process and the creators, not necessarily the subjects of documentation. The residential school students themselves were not seen as the main subject of study.

Bak hopes the National Research Centre will become a place where the decolonizing of archives can take place. The overwhelming amount of digital material coming into the archives can be reordered in an attempt to move beyond the colonial structures the records were once confined to, making it easier to access records related to one person or school or community. The National Research Centre aims to allow users to contribute to the archiving of these materials through creating a “web of relationships” between records.

Questions: 

How do you balance individual rights versus community rights?

Callison: “Individuals still retain their rights in our collective society….  It’s just that some things are held communally, other things are held by a clan or a family.  There are just different levels of rights and the TRC has mirrored those rights. In regards to survivors, I believe my story is my story, and it’s not anybody else’s right to tell my story. That is in keeping with our traditions and how we view knowledge – some things are held individually, some things are held by family, or clan or communally.”

How many survivors really understood how their statements would be kept and preserved, and that it would be communicated to the world?

Callison: “Some people were willing to have their stories out there, and they did understand completely what they were doing.”

Bak: “It is a lot clearer in this context than it has traditionally been in terms of the accessioning of Indigenous knowledge into archives. Thinking back to previous research done on Indigenous people, an individual researcher would establish a relationship with an Indigenous community, be given access to certain kinds of information, and without the community’s knowledge publishes it or puts it into the archive. In this instance, at least the reason why the archive has been created is so that this can never be forgotten or repeated.”

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