Repatriating History

Access, Archives

By: guest blogger Ryan S. Flahive

Recently, I presented to a small audience at Occidental College in Los Angeles on a mostly rainy Tuesday. The requested topic was one I’ve deliberated for most of my 15-year career as a historian, archivist and curator: How can archival repositories assist the repatriation movement to return cultural expressions, knowledge and heritage to source communities while maximizing the intellectual freedoms of our patrons? This blog post will summarize thoughts on how archives can promote a culturally responsive approach to archives management through policy-making.

Language is a good place to start. So much of what we do as information professionals is tied to our nomenclature. Here are a few definitions to guide the discussion:

Traditional cultural expressions are cultural materials created by a source community that reflect that “community’s cultural and social identity” and are a “community’s heritage passed down from one generation to another.”[1]

Traditional knowledge is “traditional technical know-how, or traditional ecological, scientific or medical knowledge.”[2] These types of expressions and knowledge fall under two classifications in our collections:

Tangible cultural heritage is defined as documents, manuscripts, photographic images, and other physical objects while intangible cultural heritage is defined as traditions or living expressions inherited from ancestors and passed on to descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, and knowledge, and practices.[3]

Museums and archives are stewards (not owners) of objects and materials that originate from source communities (in this case, Native American communities) and do so for the “public good.”

With these definitions in mind, let us review a brief history of repatriation and its relationship to archives. In 1978, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote a report for the White House Preconference on Indian Library and Information Services on or Near Reservations titled “The Right to Know.” In it, Deloria outlined specific actions to be carried out by the federal government, including an inventory of all records in federal possession and providing funding to support a large scale repatriation effort.[4] The report was prophetic; in 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was enacted and notions of what museum collections could and could not keep was questioned. Although NAGPRA has been somewhat successful in returning human remains and objects of cultural patrimony to source communities, archival materials — tangible and intangible cultural heritage — is not included in the legislation, leaving archivists to question stewardship of potentially sensitive materials.

Enter the “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials,” published in 2006 by the First Archivists Circle, a group of 19 Native and non-Native archivists, historians and anthropologists at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.[5] Crafted to supplement NAGPRA, the contributors to the Protocols “envisioned that the document would open the lines of communication between tribal and non-tribal repositories for the ongoing national discussion around different approaches to the management, preservation, and transmission of Native American knowledge and information resources.”[6]

Materials covered by Protocols include recordings and transcripts of songs, chants, oral histories and other auditory materials; personal or family information (genealogy, diaries); maps related to cultural sites; and archeological data and ethnobotanical materials.[7] While the Protocols called for the “creation of collaborative and mutually respectful relationships between tribes and archives and libraries,” objections from some in the archival community were based upon recommendations to remove works for repatriation, the intentional non-preservation of works (according to tribal protocols), and restricting access to works.[8] The final point — access — was the most contentious; are not archivists and librarians public servants dedicated to providing full access to information and protecting the intellectual freedoms of our patrons?

To that point, let us look at traditional notions of archival access. Most access is defined by what archivists call competing rights: the right to know vs. the right to privacy. However, for the sake of argument, let us assume that source communities have a moral right to control access to their cultural expressions as explained in the United Nations “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” which adds a wrinkle to the competing rights discussion.[9] First, traditional access to archives is based upon two separate concepts: in the historic manuscript tradition, access is based an agreement between the institution and donor, while the public archives tradition assumes that records with high public policy content should always be open to the public. The complication archivists face is that neither of these concepts takes forced assimilation and cultural appropriation by institutions and collectors into account.[10] Because of that complication, the traditional notion of full access (an attempt to grant access to all materials, except those closed by law or restriction) is wrought with problems: inappropriate use of sensitive materials, commercial or exploitative use of cultural information, and unauthorized infringement of group privacy rights to name a few.

What can archivists do to avoid these complications? How can collecting institutions work with source communities to assure that appropriate measures are being taken to protect group privacy rights and cultural property while providing the fullest access possible? Visual repatriation of photographic materials, or photoeliciation, has become a regular practice in museums and archives alike.[11] It entails the sharing of resources with a source community prior to opening access and “re-engages indigenous communities to help generate counter-narratives to colonial histories the photographs help to create and sustain.”[12] Likewise, visual repatriation creates a powerful opportunity for the source community “to re-own the knowledge and experiences embodied in the objects” through visits and volunteer work on collections.[13]

While visual repatriation is the act of sharing information first-hand, digital repatriation is another way for archivists to assist source communities in reclaiming some of their traditional expressions, knowledge, and heritage. This practice uses digital technology and the internet to provide source communities with digital surrogates of cultural expressions (photographs, audio files, etc.), an opportunity to take an active role in the return of museum objects, and to help redefine and clarify our nomenclature and metadata.[14] Sharing of digital resources has become a common task in the life of an archivist and digital repatriation is an easy way for source communities to have quick, easy access to images while providing the archivist with knowledge about the cultural expressions in the collection. The concept of digital repatriation is best represented by Mukurtu, a community-based content management system developed by a team led by Dr. Kim Christen. The genius of Mukurtu is in its permissions—communities, clans, and even individuals can dictate access to digital objects—check out Mukurtu and its partners at

We’ve covered NAGPRA, Protocols, concepts of access, and virtual and digital repatriation — now let’s revisit the original question: How can archival repositories assist the repatriation movement to return cultural expressions, knowledge and heritage to source communities while maximizing the intellectual freedoms of our patrons? Since archives are not beholden to NAGPRA laws, archivists must change the paradigm and become proactive allies of our source communities. Consider the following policy revisions:

  1. Nomenclature. Initiate organizational change through the use of language in policy documents. Using and understanding terms like tangible and intangible cultural heritage, cultural knowledge and traditional cultural expression can be used to describe materials from source communities and may have a lasting effect upon staff training and attitudes.
  2. Repatriation Policy. Develop a clear, broad statement defining visual and digital repatriation practice. Include references to NAGPRA, Protocols and the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples as guiding principles. Develop procedures for community engagement through visual repatriation as well as procedures and workflows to facilitate digital repatriation.
  3. Access Policy. Archivists may reconsider traditional definitions of access and revise policies regarding access to cultural information. As a guide, archive administrators can refer to a 1996 checklist published by James Nason, a contributor to the Protocols, called “Tribal Models for Controlling Research.” Although the checklist is intended for Native-owned repositories, many of its components can and should be included in the access policy of non-Native owned institutions including community member rights to access, tribal control of heritage, copyright of research data, specialized research permits and organizing community review of materials.[15]

Repatriating archives is not about the physical return of materials — it is about the reciprocal development of alternative historical narratives. While NAGPRA and the Protocols are good starting points for stewards, comprehensive policy revision is necessary to change the culture of an institution. Post-NAGPRA generations of non-Native archivists and curators have an opportunity to recognize the rights of source communities to their cultural expressions through advanced and proactive policy development and organizational change.

Afterword: I would like to thank the talented archivists and scholars who have worked and written tirelessly on this issue for many years, in particular Dr. Kimberly Christen, Kay Mathiesen, James D. Nason and Jennifer O’Neal.

[1] World Intellectual Property Organization, Intellectual Property and Traditional Knowledge, (Geneva, 2005).

[2] Ibid.

[3]United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,, accessed 17 March 2017.

[4]Deloria, Vine Jr, “The Right to Know: A Paper,” Prepared for the White House Pre-Conference on Indian Library and Information Services on or Near Reservations, Office of Library and Information Services, U.S. Department of the Interior, (Washington, D.C., 1978).

[5] First Archivists Circle, “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials,”, accessed 3 January 2017.

[6] O’Neal, Jennifer R., “”The Right to Know’: Decolonizing Native American Archives,” Journal of Western Archives, Vol. 6, Issue 1, 2015. 14.

[7] First Archivists Circle, “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.”

[8] Mathiesen, Kay, “A Defense of Native Americans’ Rights over Their Traditional Cultural Expressions,” The American Archivist, Vol. 75, Fall/Winter 2012. 465-467.

[9]United Nations, Resolution 2006, “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” 2006. Accessed 14 March 2017.

[10] O’Neal, 5.

[11]Dudding, Jocelyne, “Visual Repatriation and Photo-Elicitation: Recommendations on Principles and Practices for the Museum Worker,” Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 17, 2005.

[12] Bell, Joshua A, “Looking to See: Reflections on visual repatriation in the Purari Delta, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea,” in Laura Peers and Alison K. Brown, Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader, 2003. 111.

[13] Fineup-Riordan Ann, “Yup-Ik Elders in Museums: Fieldwork Turned on its Head,” in Laura Peers and Alison K. Brown. Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader, 2003. 39.

[14]Christen, Kimberly, “Opening Archives: Respectful Repatriation.” The American Archivist, Vol 74, Spring/Summer 2011.187.

[15] Nason, James D, “Tribal Models for Controlling Research,” Tribal College, Vol. II, No. 2, 1996, 17.

Ryan FlahiveRyan S. Flahive is an archivist and curator at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico and is the editor of two books, Celebrating Difference: Fifty Years of Contemporary Native Arts at IAIA, 1962-2012 (Sunstone Press, 2012) and The Sound of Drums: A Memoir of Lloyd Kiva New (Sunstone Press, 2016).

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