Tribal Collections [Series]: The Indigenous Digital Archive


Image from the Indigenous Digital Archive: “The Pratt’s Quarters Carlisle Indian School housed 100,000 children between 1879 and 1918″

(Image from the Indigenous Digital Archive: “The Pratt’s Quarters Carlisle Indian School housed 100,000 children between 1879 and 1918″)

This series on tribal collections highlights three projects from across the libraries, archives, and museums space that focus on Native American communities and culture, using best practices set forth by the First Archivists Circle’s Protocols for Native American Archival Materials. (Post 2 of 3: Warm Springs Sound Archives Preservation Project, Post 3 of 3: Sustainable Heritage Network)

Post 1 of 3: The Indigenous Digital Archive

The Indigenous Digital Archive (IDA) is a collaborative project of the New Mexico Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, and the State Library Tribal Libraries Program, to create a free online portal for archival materials related to Indian boarding schools, such as photographs and print records, using crowdsourced transcription, annotation, and other activities to directly engage with tribal communities. The project is funded by a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the New Mexico Historical Records Advisory Board, and the Knight Foundation.

The IDA aims to draw together archival resources from multiple locations into one digital repository, increasing access to Native American heritage and records. In New Mexico, there are 23 Native American tribes, and a thriving Pueblo culture, despite the brutal Indian removal and boarding school era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The very purpose of Indian boarding schools during that era was to separate children from their cultural groups and mix students together from across a range of geographic locations in order to assimilate them into the colonizer’s life and culture. Until recently, it has been difficult for indigenous families to find information about their history and their ancestors who were sent to such schools.

The national government has accumulated numerous Native American records via agencies such as the Department of War, the US Geological Survey, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Smithsonian Institution to name a few. Luckily, a large number of government records have already been preserved via microfilm, but access to these records has been limited in New Mexico, and records are scattered in different holdings across the country. The goal of the IDA project is to provide access to this archival information for the people and communities who have an interest in the records, so they can connect with their ancestors, history, and cultural heritage.

Information reliability and access are central to the IDA project, with the focus on creating a free online portal for accessing reliable digital copies of records that have never been made available before, even though they date from the 1830s to the 1930s and are in the public domain. By providing access to actual records and concrete documents that can be used to trace history and connect with the past, the IDA is contributing to concrete historical recollection and evidence beyond stories, rumors, and speculation.

To ensure both accuracy and persistence, the IDA workflow relies on user input to transcribe and tag materials once they have been scanned and uploaded to the archive. In order to design and develop an open-access repository for these crucial records, project developers worked directly with tribal members to gather user stories based on cultural group, to meet the needs of a wide variety of likely users. Working with tribal members, technical experts, and other collaborators, the project team has been able to expedite the process of making resources available to people without necessarily having all of the metadata complete. This allows for quicker access and early input from expert users, who are able to add annotations, create their own collections of archive materials, contribute additional information and share their findings and contributions with others.

With community members providing context and helping with cataloging, the information provided for access points is reliable. The ability for experts and family members to annotate the materials not only contributes to information reliability in terms of correcting OCR and transcription, it also allows for counter-narratives to be presented alongside the materials, or recollections of personal experience stories to be shared, thus broadening the available information and providing more reliability of the shared historical understanding.

Learn more about the Indigenous Digital Archive:

3 replies

  1. Hi,
    This is the first article I’ve read on HLS that provided information on institutions that provide access, care, and support to Indigenous communities. I’m scheduled to enroll in UT Austin’s Masters in Science and Information Studies next semester and one of the professors will teach a course on the topic of cultural heritage, archives, and access to information for Indigenous communities. I’m excited to see more of work on this, Sheila.

    Liked by 1 person

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