Event Recap: Ethical Stewardship of Indigenous Material Culture

On March 26, 2021, the CDH Indigenous Studies Digital Humanities Working Group and Princeton University Library hosted Dr. Trevor James Bond, the Co-Director of the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and the Associate Dean for Digital Initiatives and Special Collections at Washington State University Libraries, to discuss his work with the Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) Tribe in preserving their digital cultural heritage. Bond’s presentation, “Mukurtu, the Spalding-Allen Collection, and the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal,” described the origins and development of the Mukurtu platform with a focus on the Nez Perce Tribe’s re-acquisition and presentation of the Spalding-Allen Collection.

A Safe Keeping Place

Bond’s presentation began with an introduction to Mukurtu, a free open-source platform designed to support Indigenous communities in the curation of their digital heritage. The name Mukurtu, which originates from the Warumungu people of central Australia, means “dilly bag” or a “safe keeping place.” It represents the platform’s dedication to preserving Indigenous communities’ material culture through Native-managed digital archives. The platform allows communities to determine their own categories, cultural protocols, and narration of their collections. The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, which uses Mukurtu to house collections from the Nez Perce and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest, prioritizes the presentation of each community’s culture according to the tribe’s wishes and value systems.

Bond continued by elaborating on the Nez Perce Tribe’s repatriation of one collection after over a century of separation and the threat of its permanent loss. Many of these materials, now called the Spalding-Allen Collection, are displayed on the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal. From 1836 to 1847, missionary Henry Spalding lived alongside the Nez Perce Tribe of present-day Washington, Idaho, and Oregon in order to proselytize and “civilize” them. To support his mission, Spalding collected Nez Perce artifacts including clothing, horse gear, and other belongings and sent them to a friend named Dudley Allen in exchange for supplies. After the items reached Allen in Ohio, the collection changed hands a number of times until the Ohio Historical Society received most of the collection in 1942 on “indefinite loan.” The Nez Perce materials remained there until 1976, when curators at Nez Perce National Historic Park found the collection and made a deal with the Ohio Historical Society to loan the materials on renewable year-long loans. The Historical Society halted this arrangement in 1992, however, and recalled the collection. The only way the Nez Perce Tribe could maintain their cultural heritage was to buy the collection for its full appraised value, $608,100, within a six-month timeframe. A massive campaign ensued, bringing in thousands of donations from across the world, with support ranging from large companies such as MTV and NPR to schoolchildren who collected small sums for the cause. One day before the deadline and against all odds, the Nez Perce met their goal and could finally reclaim their cultural heritage for perpetuity.

Bond collaborated with the Nez Perce Tribe in adding these materials to the Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal, which allowed him to form partnerships built on trust and respect with those involved with the project. During his research, Bond ensured that the tribe would benefit from his work by donating oral history interviews and professional photographs of the collection to the tribe and the Nez Perce National Park Service. Bond shared his experience working with Nakia Williamson-Cloud, director of the Nez Perce Tribe Cultural Resource Program, to incorporate photos, drawings, and descriptions of artifacts as well as video and audio clips with tribal members’ perspectives and interpretations of the collection. As an example, Bond played a video from the portal of Nakia Williamson-Cloud’s cultural interpretation of the Nez Perce Woman’s Saddle, which he described as a very early saddle used for long journeys that contains rare rawhide fenders (the material connecting the saddle to the stirrups) and painted cosmological imagery.

A brown saddle with orange and green embellishment

Nez Perce Woman's saddle, from the Plateau Peoples' Web Portal

Ethical Stewardship at Princeton and Beyond

Dr. Anu Vedantham, Assistant University Librarian for Research Services at Princeton University Library and chair of PUL’s Indigenous Studies Working Group, followed with a comment about PUL’s Indigenous holdings and its plans to collaborate with Native communities. According to a recent article in College and Research Libraries, Princeton University has the third largest collection of materials in Latin American Indigenous languages in the country—the highest in the Ivy League. The breadth of materials, from the era of Spanish conquest to the early twentieth century, provides PUL with several challenges in establishing conscientious categorization and partnerships but also with exciting opportunities for research and collaboration. Vedantham’s Indigenous Studies Working Group plans to address these challenges by working closely with Indigenous community members and scholars of Indigenous Studies to gain the language and cultural skills necessary to responsibly house these items. The working group has also considered creating post-custodial collections, in which PUL would support local communities in preserving their cultural heritage by digitizing materials for community members while keeping a digital copy for the library collection.

Following the presentation and comment, I had the opportunity to lead a question-and-answer session with the audience. As a Ph.D. candidate who studies eighteenth and nineteenth-century Creek and Seminole history, I was eager to learn more about how archival practices are changing and how early-career scholars can promote ethical stewardship and scholarship. One significant way, as Bond explained, is through the digital humanities and Native-oriented platforms such as Mukurtu. By eschewing traditionally controlled vocabularies and categorization in these platforms, libraries have the opportunity to offer students, teachers, and researchers a multifaceted perspective that centers Indigenous narration and epistemologies. These efforts are essential to establishing long-lasting, respectful, and collaborative partnerships with the original owners of the materials.

Keely Smith is Graduate Administrative Fellow for the CDH Indigenous Studies Digital Humanities Working Group.

Homepage Image: Plateau Peoples' Web Portal

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