Decolonizing Archives and Research at the 2018 Northwest Archivists annual meeting

By Steve Duckworth

At the first Northwest Archivists meeting to take place on an Indian reservation, there were a number of presentations and activities centered around the rich history and culture of Native Americans. A session from late on the final day was one of the highlights. “The Northern Paiute History Project: Decolonizing Archives and Research with Tribal Community Members,” presented by Jennifer O’Neal, Kevin Hatfield, and Clara Gorman from the University of Oregon (UO), and Myra Johnson-Orange of the Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs. The session took a close look at a collaborative project between UO’s Honors College and the Northern Paiute communities of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Burns Paiute Tribe.

The session highlighted the history of the Northern Paiute people, a nomadic, desert culture that relocated seasonally but were pushed off their lands through treaties and forced removal at the hands of the U.S. Army. We learned of the “Snake War” (the term “snake” being a derogatory term for the Native people), where the Northern Paiute fought for their land, and about the “Recollections” of Governor George Woods, who expressed in his writings the desire to exterminate the Northern Paiute people.

Additionally, we learned about the UO Honors College Research Colloquium Decolonizing Research: The Northern Paiute History Project. This course, which began in 2013, consists of an annual research colloquium, a field research trip to the Warm Springs Reservation, and sustained engagement between students and tribal elders. Students perform original research, conduct oral history interviews, and create new knowledge and a unique archive for the communities. The project also provides the opportunity for collection of materials from non-tribal repositories and the digital return of tribal knowledge to these communities.

This course approaches archival work as a way of entering into tribal relations. The idea of “entering into relations” implies respect for community values in the search for knowledge. The course methodology is a community based, circular process focused on decolonizing history and making shared decisions. Outcomes include research, the return of printed papers to the community, and adding them to UO’s institutional repository. Those involved are working to develop an Oregon Tribal Archives Portal and are using the knowledge gained from this research to influence and enhance the Oregon K-12 curriculum. The research field trip for the course takes place in the third or fourth week. Students come to the Warm Springs Reservation for two days and meet with elders from the community and tribal partners. They engage with the community to share knowledge and refine their research topics. The trip gives students an opportunity to think critically about what they have learned, and to form relationships that will endure throughout their research and into the future.

For an example of results from the course, student Clare Gorman presented her paper, “Inter-Tribal Dynamics of the Warm Springs and Grand Ronde Reservations: A Historical Legacy of the Discrimination, Prejudice, and Settler-Colonialism.” Her work examines settler-colonialism, the traditional colonial narrative of history, and ways in which we can undo that narrative to reveal Native truth. Myra Johnson-Orange, a tribal elder of the Northern Paiute, Warm Springs Reservation spoke passionately of the history of her family and her people, how the research coming out of this course has helped her connect with her own history and answer long unanswered questions about her family, and how these experiences have helped her to heal some of the wounds she has suffered throughout her life.

All told, this session highlighted an amazing example of bringing historical research together with ideas of decolonizing history and working to diversify the historical record. These initiatives also influence the now by returning history to the communities that were part of it, filling in gaps, allowing people to heal from past abuses, and influencing the teaching of history to current and future students.

Steve Duckworth is the University Archivist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR. He has worked as a Processing Archivist for the University of Florida, the National Park Service (in Alaska), and the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL). He is an advocate for the value of archival labor and training, and serves on the SAA Diversity Committee and the Issues & Advocacy Section’s Steering Committee.

 

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