Access to the Past

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

Comparing the handwriting to other similarly looking specimens, we were able to determine that the creator was the Mohegan minister Samson Occom and that the pages may have come from a journal, long thought lost.

At the same time, members of the Mohegan Council of Elders concluded that marginalia on the end sheets of the manuscript were the earliest writings of Fidelia Fielding, the community’s last fluent Native speaker.

Community Engagement

The recovery of Native documentary histories is aided by the partnerships of multiple institutions, a willingness to share their collections and to allow them to be re-interpreted, but what does Native collaboration look like? What forms does it take?

The Project’s mission statement acknowledges that tribal groups must be stakeholders in the endeavor as colleagues, as intellectuals and as the Native voice. As a consequence, Native participation is reflected in the membership of the advisory board and the consultant panel, those willing to represent the Native perspective in creating annotations and commentaries, and those willing to review materials that are potentially culturally sensitive.

In these roles, tribal members have been especially helpful in re-inscribing indigeneity into a colonized archive. Moreover, our Native colleagues can sometimes provide more reasonable explanations of historical events or offer alternative avenues of understanding. In some instances, they may assist in the translations of non-English texts or provide cultural insights into materials that have long been institutionally marginalized from Native communities.

To promote a greater Native participation, we have created a number of collaborative initiatives to foster relationships, especially with New England’s state and federally recognized tribes. Conversations and presentations to tribal elders, historians, genealogists and historical preservation officers are proving fruitful for making the Project’s materials and programs responsive to the needs of the local Native communities.

  • Every community has documents that are crucial to its identity. Over time, some items may be considered essential to any accurate narrative of a tribe’s history. To that end, our “Fundamental Documents Initiative” invites tribal participation in the selection of documents to include in the archives. We will make every reasonable attempt to obtain a copy of the requested document.
  • The “Native Voice Initiative” invites comment from elders, tribal scholars and tribal historians in the editing of the Project’s documents. They may suggest information for footnotes and annotations or write scholarly comments themselves.
  • When we sometimes recover information that may be considered culturally sensitive, especially with respect to cultural preservation and NAGPRA issues, we seek advice from tribal governments through our “Tribal Liaison Initiative.”

This effort recognizes that access to and an open dialogue about relevant primary source materials, both textual and cartographic, can aid tribes in their efforts to identify and protect human remains, associated funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony, burial sites and significant cultural landscapes.

Pathways to Engagement

Until now our outreach to Native communities has relied solely on longstanding personal relationships. Much of the sharing of material has been on a case-by-case basis. And while this approach has been effective, we recognize the need for new pathways or mechanisms for sharing if the Project is to succeed. For the past year, we have been working closely with Mukurtu, the content management system that allows for collaborative vetting and ethical curation of American Indian digital cultural heritage items, in our case documents and manuscripts. The design for the new Mukurtu Shared platform contains a number of potential communication tools and other functionalities that will enhance our ability to collaborate with Native communities.

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).