‘An Act of Victory’: A look at Indigenous-owned and operated archives

The growing tribal archive center at Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. The Little Traverse Bay Bands archives holds Odawa records spanning from the 1640s to present day. (Photo by Eric Hemenway)

Meghanlata Gupta
2021 Native American Journalism Fellow

Eric Hemenway has had a front-row seat to his tribe’s history since he was born. Growing up in Cross Village, Michigan near to his tribal homelands in Harbor Springs, Michigan, the Little Traverse Bay Bands first generation descendant watched as tribal leaders and community members fought for the rights of their nation, their culture and their people. His mother was on the first tribal council and was part of the team that successfully pursued federal reaffirmation of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in 1994. 

Years later, Hemenway was backpacking in southern Mexico when his mom called. She said a job opened to work with the tribe’s archives. The decision to take the job was a “no brainer.” At that moment, he dedicated his career to preserving the history of his people. He got on a plane and flew home to serve his community. 

Hemenway has spent the past 16 years working as a tribal archivist and historian. He currently holds the position of director of archives and records for his tribal nation. His numerous job responsibilities are vital to the Little Traverse Bay Bands community: collecting and curating historical information and artifacts; seeking ways to use archival materials to support the tribal government and citizens; creating historical educational materials and collaborating with state governments, museums, parks, and other organizations. Hemenway and two other staff members manage the 3,000-square-foot physical space, which consists of a community area, staff offices, a library and two storage units.

The main reception area of the Little Traverse Bay Bands archive, featuring an oil painting by a tribal citizen and various quill and birchbark baskets in case. On the glass case, the framed photo of President Bill Clinton and several tribal leaders commemorates the signing of Senate Bill 1357 into law, which reaffirmed the United States’ nation-to-nation relationship with the Little Traverse Bay Bands tribe. (Photo by Eric Hemenway)

Hemenway talked about the significance of working with an archive that is run by and for Little Traverse Bay Bands people. He emphasized the value of archival materials during tribal self-determination efforts in the 1990s. 

“When we were going through our federal reaffirmation, we had to rely on a lot of documentation,” he said. “So we’ve always had this idea of the importance of records.” 

After securing tribe reaffirmation, the Little Traverse Bay Bands established an archives department as one of its first governmental departments. The archives have grown to hold approximately 300 artifacts, 250,000 records, 3,000 photos and 200 books. 

Hemenway said he cares for a wide variety of materials. 

“The archives aren’t just paper,” he said. They include photos, interviews, and artwork, a collection of history that is driven largely by Little Traverse Bay Bands community members. 

“The story comes from a lot of different sources where somebody within the community will come in and donate some beadwork that their mom made, or somebody has been collecting newspaper clippings their entire life, and they donate those, so it becomes a repository for people and their belongings that they’re giving to the tribe really for safekeeping,” he said. 

Hemenway cares for a wide variety of materials, such as this large black ash basket donated to the archive by a tribal citizen and this porcupine quill box from the 1840s. (Photo by Eric Hemenway)

One of the archive’s primary functions is historical education. Hemenway and his team collaborate with various state organizations and museums for public educational exhibits. They partnered with the Mackinac State Historic Parks on a number of projects including the curation of the Biddle House, a museum on Mackinac Island that focuses on the Anishinaabek of northern Michigan and their continuing relationship with the island. They are currently working with the Michigan History Center to redesign the society’s pre-contact exhibit. Other partners include the Harbor Springs History Museum, Little Traverse Historical Museum, Mackinac Historic Village, Sleeping Bear Dunes, the National Park Service, the Grand Rapids Museum and the Weltmuseum in Austria. 

They also co-develop lesson plans with teachers from Harbor Springs Public Schools in Michigan, using primary sources to teach students about Anishinaabek history and culture. These lesson plans bring students out of the classroom and onto the lands and water. For the ninth grade students, the team worked with another local group to bring two dozen canoes to a local beach. The students paddled out into Little Traverse Bay while learning about the canoe voyage that an Anishinaabek delegation undertook from Little Traverse to Washington, D.C., in order to negotiate the Treaty of 1836. 

Tribal archivist Eric Hemenway speaking to a group of students about Odawa history. He sees efforts like these as opportunities to use tribal archives for educating people about Native peoples and cultures.
(Photo provided by Eric Hemenway)

Within these endeavors, he sees an opportunity to use tribal archives for educating people about Native peoples and cultures. 

“When it comes to the educational outreach, we see there’s a real hunger,” he said. “These people want to learn, they want to know. And we’re taking advantage of that.”

Hemenway and the Little Traverse Bay Bands are not alone in their archival work but rather part of an ongoing movement across Indian Country toward Indigenous-owned and -operated archives. 

Archivist and historian Jennifer O’Neal explained that the tribal self-determination and restoration movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s encouraged tribal communities to create their own archives. 

“Tribes were having to go to all these different repositories and places to gather their records and getting frustrated,” she said. “So it did start this movement to ensure that Native people had access to those records and then also to start creating their own tribal archives, ensuring that they preserve their own records, that they were in control of their history, of the records telling their own story, instead of having that story told through another repository.” 

The Association of Tribal Archives, Museums, and Libraries has supported this movement since its establishment in 2010. The organization’s President and CEO, Susan Feller, said the organization strives to raise awareness and organize programming and collaborations related to the cultural sovereignty of Native nations. For Feller and her team, one of their main goals is to support Native communities as they attempt to regain control over cultural materials. 

“We are working with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and seven universities to repatriate more than 6,000 oral histories to 160 tribes,” she said. “We also are working with another foundation to establish a multi-million dollar fund to help Native communities regain control over their material culture.” 

The association’s programming has included training for tribal archivists on topics such as caring for Indigenous cultural materials, managing audiovisual collections, and planning and constructing tribal museums. During its 2019 annual conference, the association provided training to more than 2,600 cultural practitioners from 352 Native nations and online training to an additional 1,432 participants. 

On the National Planning Council for the conference was Cherity Bacon, tribal archivist for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in California. In her essay for the California Institute for Community, Art and Nature, Bacon describes a “Stone Soup” archival approach, which involves “developing partnerships and sharing resources with other Tribal Communities, Universities, and Archives.” The archive features a growing collection of baskets that were made generations ago by Serrano weavers, as well as other cultural and historical materials. 

Bacon said she hopes to “bring home” as many of these materials as possible. Foundational to her work are repatriation and consulting efforts with non-Native institutions with the goal of properly contextualizing, protecting, and preserving the tribe’s history. 

“Once those materials are taken from the tribe, they’re completely taken out of context,” she said. “We have to really make sure that, one, tribes know where their materials are, and two, that they have access to those materials, whether they have their own copy set or they’re actually granted access for some of these institutions.” 

An act of sovereignty

Both Hemenway and Bacon consider tribal archives to be important forms of tribal sovereignty. 

“It’s important that you use the term sovereignty,” Hemenway said. “That’s really in my mind all the time, that we’re putting the narrative out from our perspective.” 

Having a tribal archive means that tribal citizens can manage and govern their historical materials on their own terms. Cultural beliefs and knowledge systems often guide archival organization and caretaking techniques. Bacon noted San Manuel Band’s cultural understandings of the Serrano woven baskets and how that impacts tribal archival practices.

“The community looks at the baskets as ancestors, that these are living, breathing, organic beings,” she said. “So there is an acknowledgement that there is life in these baskets, and they’re not just treated as objects.” 

Guidelines about access are another important part of tribal archives. Unlike with a state or university archive, access to tribal archives can be supervised by tribal archivists, which is especially important when dealing with personal and sensitive materials.

“We’re making sure that sensitive materials are not just available out there for public consumption,” Bacon said. Culturally-sensitive materials related to spirituality, family history, language, and sacred places can be restricted for access solely by tribal members.   

Digital space

Indigenous archives and protocols have expanded into digital spheres as well. 

Paul Grant-Costa and Tobias Glaza are the co-directors of the Native Northeast Research Collaborative, a digital humanities project dedicated to the history of New England Indigenous Peoples. The project’s digital archive contains more than 3,000 items that are reviewed by Native scholars and community members for sensitivity. 

The digital form of the archive has several benefits. For one, it takes a quick web search to access the archive, something that scholars around the country and world can engage in. Grant-Costa noted that digital editing allows the archivists and Native community members to “make updates or corrections to the records or use the materials with new technologies.” Additionally, the digitization of the archive helps with the repatriation of records. 

“We’ve seen our images distributed to tribal governments but also to tribal citizens across the country,” he said. 

The Native Northeast Research Collaborative is hosted on the web through Mukurtu, a content management system developed for Native communities. The system prioritizes ethical practices for review and curation of Indigenous archival materials, and community members can contribute to curation and restrict access to sensitive materials. 

Platforms like Mukurtu have encouraged the growth of digital Indigenous archival projects like the Native Northeast Research Collaborative. 

“Several years ago, the number of Native digital archival projects were relatively low,” Grant-Costa said. “Today, many institutions of higher learning have joined with tribes to jointly steward collections held at universities and colleges. Another exciting development is the growing participation of Native communities in initiatives driven by their own archival needs.” 

Non-traditional archives

Indigenous peoples are also finding innovative ways to preserve cultural history through social media. 

Ojibwe beadwork artist Hema Patel has created a personal archive of her own work and stories on her Instagram account, @beadworkbyhema. (Photo by Angela Erdrich)

Ojibwe beadwork artist Hema Patel has created a personal archive of her own work and stories on her Instagram account, @beadworkbyhema. The page functions as a platform for selling and promoting her beadwork as well as documenting her artistic and cultural journey. Her page holds a vibrant collection of photos, stories, and comments from her community of followers. 

“Instagram provided a unique opportunity to capture the growing history of my business,” Patel said. “Everything is captured and memorialized on the page. And just like that I’ve been able to create a very unique historical record preserved through this public framework.” 

Patel’s Instagram page holds a vibrant collection of photos, stories, and comments from her community of followers. (Screenshot from @beadworkbyhema)

Patel also noted the significance of the captions for each post, which feature stories, language lessons, and background information about her art. She likened the captions to those seen accompanying archival or exhibition materials. 

“I have captions like you’d see in a museum about the artist and a title and description of the art,” she said. “They are also stories for my family that I can pass down through the arts, anecdotes and short passages that make up an online archive.” 

From tribal archives to web-based repositories to social media pages, there are myriad ways for Indigenous peoples to engage in historical preservation. Hemenway expressed excitement for the future of this archival movement and the continued strength and resilience of Indigenous peoples and histories. 

“Having this conversation is an act of victory,” he said.

Meghanlata Gupta (Ojibwe) is a fellow with NAJA’s 2021 Native American Journalism Fellowship. She is the founder of Indigenizing the News and co-founder of the Mishigamiing Journalism Project, both of which are dedicated to supporting Indigenous journalism. She is currently a masters student at the University of Oxford with a focus on the history of Native American journalism.