Native American and Indigenous scholars often consult archival holdings in multiple sites and collections. Archival materials are frequently split, scattered, or dispersed across various repositories, and researchers will have to visit multiple institutions to access the papers and materials of previous anthropologists. For instance, the records and manuscripts of Margaret Mead are kept at the Library of Congress, American Philosophical Society, American Museum of Natural History, and other sites. Thus, scholars have over the years considered archival dispersion as a lens to examine the very nature of archives. What are the challenges and opportunities of studying the stories and contexts of dispersed collections?

At the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) annual meeting held in Los Angeles, California, in May 2018, three archivists and librarians gathered to explore, articulate, and critique current approaches to capturing and representing archival dispersions for scholarly, public, and Indigenous audiences. Weaving together interconnected experiences in navigating the complexities of access, use, processing, and representing dispersed archives, members of the panel explored the benefits and limitations of archives that have been scattered over space, time, formats, and entities.

The panel, “Navigating Diasporic Archives: Researching and Representing Dispersed Indigenous Archival Collections,” discussed the theoretical, ethical, and representational issues affecting dispersed archival collections. The panelists offered a broad definition of dispersion to include temporal, geographical, provenancial, or material dimensions across which archival materials are scattered and move away from their creator(s), source(s), or origin(s). As often the case, archival records kept in repositories are far removed from their source communities. The panel explored what can be learned by engaging with dispersed collections, looking at cases of archival dispersions in the contexts of a donated album in New Mexico, a set of scattered ethnographic photographs from the Philippines, and the experiences of a librarian helping Native students navigate archival research.

“The Knowns and the Unknowns: A Case Study in Dispersed Collections from 1860s New Mexico” by Hannah Abelbeck

This presentation discussed a collaborative attempt to investigate an album of 1860s photographs donated to the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives and the archival challenges that followed, which involved consulting dispersed collections, collectors/hobbyists, and descendants of historical people across New Mexico, the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. According to Hannah, historical and contemporary practices, including both the ideological and the material, influence what items are available for researchers to study today. The lifespan of archived material often includes multiple stages and varied histories, ranging from original processes of creation and circulation; later use, ownership changes, and re-evaluations of importance; and ongoing care and record-keeping, including digital access and discovery (or lack thereof). While many historians may have some familiarity with how works crucial to their studies were created originally or how they appear cited by others in scholarship, an ability to access and think through “intermediate” histories of archival collections is often more difficult. These histories frequently include dispersion and (re)collection, and they present challenges for archivists and scholars in discovery, access, and interpretation, even when these histories occur inside a single institution, which they usually don’t. An active imagination, both about historical actors and social and institutional processes, is critical to asking new questions of archival collections. Sometimes this frustrating, laborious work leads directly to a confrontation with inherent problems in historical and archival practices, including colonialism, biases, and incoherence. Sometimes it also leads to new discoveries, new questions, and new understandings of misidentified, misunderstood, or unappreciated sources.

“Archival Diasporas: Dispersed Ethnographic Photographs in the Age of Digitization” by Ricardo L. Punzalan

Ethnographic photographs often appear in multiple copies, versions, or formats. Photographs by the same creator are often found in various locations or housed in several institutions. Understanding the context of format diversity, duplication, and dispersion can help archivists and scholars in their efforts to represent, access, and study ethnographic images. Ricky Punzalan’s presentation outlined the four dimensions of archival dispersion—geographical, temporal, provenancial, and material—that simultaneously act as barriers to the discovery, use, and interpretation of dispersed ethnographic photographs. He argued that understanding the context and nature of dispersion is key to effective representation and discovery of photographs in archival custody. Focusing on the case of Dean C. Worcester’s ethnographic photographs of the U.S. colonial Philippines, he discussed the issue of “archival diaspora.” Worcester served as a U.S. administrator in the Philippines from 1899 to 1913. The photographs, which were taken during “ethnological surveys” to document the Indigenous communities of the islands, are currently dispersed among ten libraries, museums, and archives in North America and Europe. As cultural heritage institutions facilitate digitization and online access to the Worcester images, the ethics of online displays and the digital returns of ethnographic images pose concerns for scholars, archivists, and Indigenous source communities. His presentation underscored the importance of understanding the four dimensions of “archival diasporas” to help frame ethical issues of online representation and access.

“Navigating Digital Collections and Dispersed Archives” by Melissa S. Stoner

In the context of her work as a Native American Studies librarian, Melissa realized that many students and researchers have not completely grasped that archival collections are often dispersed in several institutions. With the advancement of digitization and mass digitization, many institutions and organizations are jumping at the chance to display their collections for all to access. How can librarians, archivists, and educators bring forward issues of representation and challenge them to think about the context of materials they access online? Melissa noted that digitized collections and digital archives are taken at face value and are also seen as a “one stop shop” for primary resource needs. Yet what the students are viewing online is not the end all, be all of a digitized collection; instead, it is only a portion of what the entire collection embodies. Behind the content management systems and metadata are factors that need to be considered, such as issues of access, systems of power, item originality, and institutional collaboration.

Audience Questions

Native American and Indigenous Studies scholars in the audience provided important commentary on the topic of archival dispersions. Among the issues raised were the importance of developing ethical guidelines in representing culturally sensitive content online, the colonial legacies of archival practices, and the lack of reciprocal relationships between archival institutions and source communities. Some suggested the necessity of emulating decolonial practices and methods currently being implemented in some institutions. Perhaps the most notable comment centered on approaching ethnographic digitization in ways that begin and end with better relationships with Native communities. Specific steps identified included adopting the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials, which are relevant for both scholars and archival repositories to follow. Another was the importance of developing a collaborative relationship with specific Tribal communities and to acknowledge that Indigenous community members are scholars of their own culture. All told, we have a long way to go towards dismantling the many barriers of dispersed archives.

Ricardo L. Punzalan: contributions / website / / Assistant Professor, College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, College Park; Past Chair (2017-2018), Native American Archives Section, Society of American Archivists
Hannah Abelbeck: contributions / / Photo Imaging Archivist, The Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, New Mexico History Museum
Melissa S. Stoner: contributions / / Native American Studies Librarian, Ethnic Studies Library, University of California, Berkeley