Access to the Past

Access to the Past: A New Tribal-Friendly Approach Explains Old Archives

I am as said Hasmin cheldrew

Meaningless, right? But that was how a signature line in a 19th century Eastern Pequot petition against the sale of reservation land had been transcribed. Due in part to the illegibility that comes with a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, this nonsensical phrase had slipped through the cracks and made its way into the hundreds of linear feet of evidence presented to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) as part of the Eastern Pequot tribe’s bid for federal acknowledgement in 1998.

No one’s fault, considering the vast amount of documentation submitted, but a curious phrase, a riddle that even a high-quality digital image of the original couldn’t solve. It wasn’t until Native and non-Native researchers collaborated, poring over the material in 2002 that a far more reasonable answer emerged for us: Tamar S and Har nin cheldren.

Tamar S., or Tamar Sebastian, was the progenitor of one of the largest tribal families and this signature placed the family on the reservation decades earlier than previously thought, validating family oral traditions, correcting former BIA conclusions and adding to a new body of evidence. We worked as part of the Eastern Pequot Federal Acknowledgment Petition Team to locate and analyze this critical evidence to gain both a positive preliminary decision and a positive final decision for the tribe.

While this is only one example of the transformative power of an accurately transcribed document assisted by tribal insights, it served as the genesis of the Indian Papers Project at Yale University, a collaborative scholarly editing endeavor with associated research initiatives.

What the federal acknowledgement process also demonstrated to us was a problem many Native communities face – a general lack of access to historical records written by, for and about them. This is especially true for Indians in New England whose rich but fragmented and widely dispersed documentary record goes back at least four centuries.

Providing Access to the Archives

The Yale Indian Papers Project began to take shape when a group of tribal community leaders, educators and scholars informally assembled together with academics and scholarly researchers to address these issues. The original idea was to publish a resource book of transcriptions of crucial documents: Connecticut State Library’s Connecticut Archives Indian Papers Series, a 200-year record of Connecticut’s legislative Indian policy.

The Project came to Yale in 2002 at a time of particular turmoil in New England Indian Country. By then the bombastic statements of local politicians and casino partisans that there were no longer any true Indians in New England reinforced the erroneous trope of the “vanishing Indian.” But it was now coupled with overt racist thinking. However false, the message began to gain some traction in Connecticut towns, especially in an atmosphere fraught with the reaction to the rapidly growing Indian gaming industry. The lack of a visibly documented past made attempts at tribal erasure easier.

Our response was something academic but something that addressed social justice issues: a free-access scholarly editing project done to the highest professional standards.

Our website (http://yipp.yale.edu) offers high-quality images of documents that can be panned and magnified and two forms of transcriptions. Many community elders wanted more easily to read the documents about their ancestors, especially when the materials were written in almost undecipherable handwriting. For them, we offer word for word transcriptions (typographical facsimiles) that include crossouts, raised text, misspellings and line breaks, all faithful to the original manuscript.

For other researchers, we provide text with regularized spelling and punctuation for easier reading and effective word searches. Also included are hyperlinked biographies of every person mentioned in a document and geographies of Native and non-Native spaces that will ultimately be geo-referenced. In certain instances, we will link commentaries providing various interpretations or insights from a broad range of scholars. We are presently working on providing means for video commentary from a number of tribal elders.

Paul Grant-Costa, the executive editor of the Yale Indian Papers Project, holds degrees in law, history and linguistics. During the past 35 years, he has worked extensively with Native communities in New England on a variety of legal and historical concerns. Tobias Glaza is the assistant executive editor of the Yale Indian Papers Project. For the past 20 years, he has worked with tribal communities in the Upper Midwest and New England on issues of natural resource conservation, land management and history.

The Yale Indian Papers Project is funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).