Lauren Gastineau, Spring 2022 Collections Intern
When I entered the Sam Noble Archaeology Department as a volunteer my sophomore year, I immediately undertook the challenge of a huge feat. I had two short months to scan and digitize over 100 feet of documents, photos, and oversized maps. These text artifacts belonged to the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) collections which were being deaccessioned at the end of October of that year. Although the task seemed impossible, I was able to digitize the documentation that belonged to the collections entirely so that Sam Noble would not lose the information. When I finished this project, I was ready to start another because I loved seeing the tangible evidence of what my work could do for the museum. I also loved knowing that my contribution would help years to come. That is when we decided to completely digitize all documents, photos, and oversized text that the department sheltered. Sam Noble archives hold over 356 feet of documentation. While this may seem simple, scanning and cataloging can take time. This work is one of the foundational methodologies in digital collections. Further, investing in the beginning steps of a digital revolution is still essential.
There is now a movement in museums toward using digital repatriation alongside the work already being done under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Archaeologists Kelsey Grimm and Krystiana Krupa even suggest that digital repatriation could be another step in decolonizing archives (2021). The librarian-archivist and NAGPRA practitioner encourage the repatriation of archival documentation that contain ritual histories, ceremonial experiences, or burial photos. But should then the repatriation includes historical or archival recording, voice memos, and artworks displaying Native American experiences? This question addresses what NAGPRA does not cover as repatriated materials. Museum collections contain much more than just artifacts; photographs, maps, and personal writings about sites are commonly included in the site’s archives. These documents and photos do not fall under NAGPRA but still hold value within the history of the site and its affiliated tribe.
Grimm and Krupa use a case study of the Angel Mounds in Indiana to exemplify how digital repatriation applies to museums such as the Sam Noble Museum (2021). The Angel Mound site was even excavated under WPA, aligning with the majority of the sites we repatriate at the Sam Noble Museum. Since, under NAGPRA, the images and negatives collected at the Angel Mound site were not repatriated, scientists used digital copies and made publications using those images. Because materials such as photographs and drawings are not included in NAGPRA, these materials are open for research use by scientists insensitive to Native American communities. These images depicted the human remains of Native American ancestors being disturbed from their resting places and burials being taken apart. Obviously, for Native American communities, these photos and film negatives are wildly disrespectful. Because the photos are not repatriated under NAGPRA, the Angle Mound site used digital repatriation in order to cover more holistic repatriation. Those working on the repatriation of the Angel Mound site consulted with the affiliated Native tribe to help the community of Native Americans reclaims the photos taken. Now the culturally insensitive images have restricted access. Although the tribe did not want the repatriation of the original photos in this instance, their wish to have them restricted to no public access is a movement to decolonize the archive and give power to the Native American tribe through control of access to the photos that capture historical trauma.
This case study highlights how digital repatriation can help the Native American tribes give power back using digital collections. The team involved in the repatriation of Angel Mounds worked with the affiliated tribe to correctly repatriate or house materials that do not fall under NAGPRA. Although materials such as photo negatives and drawings are not under NAGPRA, the voluntary repatriation or restricted access of these materials takes decolonizing archival collections a step further. This voluntary repatriation gives the Native American tribes the power to use museums as stewards in repatriating, respecting, and representing their tribe as they wish.
Sam Noble houses collections exactly like the case study of Angel Mound. No NAGPRA site is the same, and thus each should be handled with the complete wishes and process of the affiliated tribal nation. By working with tribes not just with the objects that fall under NAGPRA but with digital collections, the repatriations “are even more powerful in their efforts to address the colonial history of collecting” (2021). The Native American tribe should ultimately decide on what is to be repatriated. It is important to be fully open with the repatriation of more than just the artifacts and remains of a site. This step will further the attempt at decolonizing archives. The practice of digital repatriation is also “a purposeful move toward addressing the historical trauma” (2021) caused by the decimation and collection of Native American burial sites.
Digital collections, as seen in this article, cover a broad spectrum of how they can influence the processes of archaeology. Taking steps just as I have in completing the digital collections at Sam Noble can help us as a museum broaden our repatriation. Digital collections have surfaced as a methodology for voluntary repatriation. Completing the digital collections at Sam Noble Museum will allow us to work with tribes on voluntary digital repatriation. If done in collaboration with the tribal nation, this process can attempt to decolonize archives further and give the Native American community power back.
Krupa, Krystiana and Grimm, Kelsey. “Digital Repatriation as a Decolonizing Practice in the Archaeological Archive.” Across the Disciplines, vol. 18 no. ½ pp. 47-58, 8 November 2021. https://doi.org/0.37514/ATD-J.2021.18.1-2.05.