Comment Sought on Native American Protocols Document

November 26, 2007 – The SAA Council is seeking widespread comment from the archives community on “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials,” a draft document developed by a group of Native American and non-Native American archivists, librarians, museum curators, historians, and anthropologists who gathered for a conference at Northern Arizona University in April 2006.

The Protocols were presented to the SAA Council for endorsement at its August 28, 2007, meeting. In response, the Council has formed a Task Force – comprising Frank Boles (chair and SAA Vice President / President-Elect), David George-Shongo, Jr. (The Seneca Nation of Indians), and Christine Weideman (Yale University) – that is charged with 1) contacting SAA sections, roundtables, committees, and working groups to invite their formal comments on the Protocols and 2) gathering comments from the broader SAA membership via posting of the Protocols on the SAA website by November 26.  Information about the Protocols and this comment period are being disseminated via email messages to the Leader List and the full membership.  The Task Force will summarize the comments received and report that summary to the Council for consideration at its meeting in early February.

The deadline for comments is December 17, 2007. Comments should be forwarded to Task Force Chair Frank Boles via email to boles1fj [@]

The SAA Council is taking the opportunity to disseminate widely, and call broadly for comment on, the Protocols because the Protocols encompass some significant and substantial changes in archival theory and practice (such as: giving Native American communities authority to restrict access to collections not only unrestricted by the donor but open and used by researchers for many decades past; and noting expectations for repatriation of certain material similar to that required under the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act [NAGPRA]).  On the other hand, the Protocols include a wide range of actions that repositories can take to show respect for Native American people, some of which are already within traditional archival best practices (for example: informing Native American communities that one’s repository holds research collections related to their culture is basic outreach; working with Native American communities to ensure that relevant collections take account of their perspective in descriptions not only balances what may be culturally biased or offensive descriptions, but increases the research value of the collections by adding additional context).

At a minimum, the SAA Council believes that the Protocols give the archives profession the chance to examine its practices in light of a now global effort on the part of native populations to reclaim certain ethical and legal rights over property, at least some of which was acquired from them or created about them under circumstances that would not be tolerated today.  Native peoples around the globe have been involved in negotiating partnerships with the scholarly communities in their nations for changed relationships toward stewardship of human remains, recognition of indigenous intellectual property rights, and other cultural stewardship issues.  To be sure, however, such negotiations have not been without difficulties, and thoughtful critics have emerged to challenge some indigenous claims[1]  The archives profession should enter this conversation with as deep and broad a perspective as possible, benefiting from the theory and practice of other professions.  Archivists are being asked to join anthropologists, archeologists, ethnobotanists, and other professionals in examining their past and current practices in regard to Native populations.[2]   Nor are all the issues raised by the Protocols – even the most difficult ones – entirely new to archival discourse.  Journal articles focused on the relationship of majority culture to immigrant communities raise some of the same concerns about cultural sovereignty as are raised by the Protocols.[3]

On first reading – and perhaps more fundamentally – the Protocols challenge not only traditional archival practice but the heuristics on which it is built.  The Protocols raise questions such as whether traditional Western norms of study and knowledge are the only legitimate ones.  In a postmodern and pluralistic world, is it less tenable to assert that there is only one true way of knowing the past?  What seems clear is that in a diverse society and a diverse profession, frank consideration of even controversial requests is required – not simply as a matter of respect for the framers of the Protocols, but for the cultural majority to have the most rigorous analysis possible of its own theories and practices in the increasingly complex 21st century.  If we are truly faced with two contradictory world views and methods of archival practice, compromise will be difficult.  But if difficult, not necessarily impossible.  There is much that frank self-assessment (Do we do things just because we’ve always done them or based on bedrock first principles?), active understanding (If we are inclined to repudiate another’s position, are we certain that we understand it fully?), and mutual goodwill may be able to accomplish.

The introduction to the Protocols states

The contributors to these North American best practices hope that the lines of communication opened by this work will serve as the genesis for an ongoing national discussion around different approaches to the management, preservation, and transmission of Native American knowledge and information resources.  These Protocols urge archivists and librarians to consider Native American perspectives on professional policy and practical issues….  New issues for consideration will undoubtedly arise as the best practices are debated and implemented.  The contributors intend this document to be a work in progress—subject to revision and enhancement.  North American libraries, archives, and American Indian communities will benefit from embracing the power of conversation, cooperation, education, negotiation, and compromise. …it takes human connections to make positive changes happen.

The SAA Council supports this call for consideration, “conversation, cooperation, education, negotiation, and compromise.” We hope that the process of widespread professional comment and discussion informing the Council’s deliberation this winter will form the basis for thoughtful and respectful discussion among majority-culture archivists and between them and their Native American colleagues.  Although the Protocols form the crux of the conversation, it is possible that they are not the end but the beginning of that discussion.

We hope that you will take the time to read the Protocols document, consider it thoughtfully, and share your perspectives with the Task Force.  Thank you.

The deadline for comments is December 17, 2007.  Please direct your comments to SAA Vice President Frank Boles at boles1fj [@]

[1]See, for example, Cressida Fforde, Jane Hubert, and Paul Trumble, eds The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy, and Practice (New York, 2002) and Mary Riley, ed, Indigenous Intellectual Property Rights:  Legal Obstacles and Innovative Solutions (New York, 2004), both of which presents case studies from around the globe.  A critique of many of the arguments expressed in these two volumes can be found in Michael F. Brown, Who Owns Native Culture? (Cambridge, 2003).

[2] For example, the Society of American Archaeology (another SAA) now includes in its ethical principles:  “Responsible archeological research, including all levels of professional activity, requires an acknowledgement of public accountability and a commitment to make every reasonable effort, in good faith, to consult actively with affected group(s), with the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved” (2000).  Quoted in Larry J. Zimmerman, “A decade after the Vermillion Accord:  What Has Changed and What Has Not?” The Dead and Their Possessions:  Repatriation in Principle, Policy, and Practice, p. 94.

[3] For only the most recent example of this, see Joel Wurl, “Ethnicity as Provenance:  In Search of Values and Principles for Documenting the Immigrant Experience,” Archival Issues, 29:1 (2005), pp. 65-76.

Protocols for Native American Archival Materials

Charge for Task Force on Native American Protocols