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Protocols for Native American Archival Materials:

Background and History

Conference Paper

Northwest Archivists Conference

May 23-31, 2008

Anchorage, Alaska

Monique Lloyd

In early April, 2006, fifteen Native American, First Nation, and Aboriginal

information professionals and four non-Native archivists gathered at Northern Arizona

University in Flagstaff, Arizona. Their goal was to begin the process of developing best

practices for culturally responsive care and use of American Indian archival material

held by non-tribal organizations. The result was a draft document entitled Protocols for

Native American Archival Materials addressing issues such as access, traditional

knowledge, copyright and ownership, and moral rights.

Michael F. Brown asks in his book Who Owns Native Culture?

How can we promote respectful treatment of native cultures and

indigenous forms of self-expression within mass societies? (Brown, p. 10)

The intention of those meeting was to start a conversation with and inspire and guide

archives, libraries, and tribal communities interested in building relationships to address

this question by “doing the right thing”.

The participants, drawing upon the ethical codes of the Society of American

Archivists, the American Association for State and Local History, the American

Anthropological Association, and the Oral History Association as well as consulting

international declarations recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples such as the

Mata’atua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives, and Information

Services, addressed ten policy, legal and human rights topics.


These are:

1. The importance of consultation with and concurrence of tribal communities in

decisions and policies

2. Understanding Native American values and perspectives

3. Rethinking public accessibility and use of some materials

4. The need to recognize and provide special treatment for culturally sensitive


5. Providing culturally responsible context

6. The role of intellectual and cultural property rights

7. The need to consider copying, sharing, and/or repatriation of certain materials

8. The recognition of community-based research protocols and contracts

9. Reciprocal education and training

10. Raising awareness of these issues within the information professions

(Underhill, p. 135)

Mutual Respect

Building partnerships between tribal organizations and collecting institutions

requires communication, negotiation, patience, and time. It also requires trust. In

Decolonizing Methodologies, Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith states

…respect is a reciprocal, shared, constantly interchanging principle which is

expressed through all aspects of social conduct (Smith, p. 120)


The Protocols are designed as a guide to develop culturally responsive archival

management policies and best practices within a framework of cooperation and resource


Differences and Balance

While both tribal communities and collecting institutions share a commitment to

preserving and disseminating knowledge, it is important to recognize that Indigenous

peoples create, organize, use, and manage knowledge and information resources in ways

different from Western libraries and archives. Western tradition favors open access to

resources as well as intellectual freedom while Indigenous cultures view access to

information based on such factors as age, clan, gender, and role as a way to protect their


The Protocols seek to find a balance among these perspectives and values and

between the needs of Indigenous and Western communities by seeking greater

communication, valuing both types of knowledge systems, as well as reexamining

assumptions about existing archival practice.

Access and Culturally Sensitive Materials

Collecting institutions have employed restrictions to their materials for decades

including honoring donor wishes; respecting privacy; determining materials are too

fragile ; complying with state and federal laws and protecting the integrity of a collection
or institution (Underhill, p. 138). Restrictions can be ambiguous, fluid, and subject to

change over periods of time.

The Protocols stress the importance of working together to ensure that libraries

and archives have the right of possession and, if questions arise regarding ownership and

informed consent, the rights of the community of origin must take precedence. The

Protocols also advocate consulting with the communities of origin when dealing with

sacred, secret, or sensitive information that has been removed from their cultural context,

recommending that researchers obtain approval from the community of origin before

accessing cultural materials.

Recognizing that there are multiple viewpoints and core values is the first step

necessary to begin finding a balance between the Indigenous and Western perspectives.

What should the caretakers in institutional repositories do when intellectual freedom

conflicts with individual or community privacy or with religious freedom? How can

preservation and access in perpetuity be balanced, for example, with the belief in some

Indigenous cultures that some objects, such as baskets, are sentient beings created for a

specific purpose and it is wrong to put them in glass cases where they cannot be handled

and touched, where they are not be allowed to do the task they were intended for, and

where they are not allowed to die a natural death?

In her M.A. thesis, Precious Fragments: First Nations Materials in Archives,

Libraries, and Museums, Kimberly Lawson observes that “gaps and silences are just as

important as the information and records which are accessible. Museums, libraries, and

archives practices do not lend themselves to cataloging or describing silences.” (Lawson,

p. 7)

The Protocols recommend that libraries, archives, and Native American

communities enhance contact with culturally sensitivity statements that alert researchers

to community perspectives and applicable protocols and notice potentially offensive


Native American Intellectual Property Issues

U.S. copyright law causes concerns for Native American communities in several

ways. One concern discussed in the Protocols is the idea of copyright and ownership.

Some Indigenous languages have no word for “self” as everything is community owned

and determined. Knowledge is collectively owned and access to some knowledge is


In a section discussing accessibility, access, ownership, and control of Native

American archival material, the Protocols state that there can be both philosophical and

practical concerns particularly when there is inadequate information about community

sovereignty, and associated legal rights, community ownership of original source

information, initial community restrictions on information sharing and distribution, and

other related issues.

Brown, in his book Who Owns Native Culture? discusses a fundamental principle

of copyright law that has worked against the protection of Indigenous peoples. That

principle is that a work can only be protected when it has been translated to a “tangible

medium”. It must be fixed in some way as text or image, in clay, wood, or some other

fixable medium. The problem for Indigenous peoples comes from the reality that in these

cultures information was conveyed orally or through physical action and thus is not

“fixed” in the sense that is required by copyright law. This has led to the exploitation of

Indigenous artists by those seeking profits.

Many Indigenous populations view property rights in different ways than their

Western counterparts. Sheree Bonaparte (Mohawk/Akwesasne), in the section of the

Protocols discussing Native American intellectual property issues states “We belong to

the ‘property”; it doesn’t belong to us” (Protocols, p. 14) and James D. Nason

(Comanche) goes further stating

What is required at this moment is a fundamental acceptance that intellectual

property and most especially esoteric knowledge are vital components of the

living cultural heritage of Native American communities….. a way must be found

to acknowledge and implement appropriate Native American control over such

knowledge (Protocols, p. 14)

Problems result because Western copyright laws are based on principles opposite

to Indigenous approaches to knowledge. The Protocols summarize it this way:

Existing copyright legislation does not address issues of significance to Native

American communities such as: community ownership of works and management

of rights; community interests in public disclosure of religious or sensitive

information; protection of older or ancient works (e.g. rock art); the antiquity and

accumulative nature of traditional knowledge; and the protection of oral

traditions, songs, and other culturally sensitive intangible property. In some

cases, Native American knowledge has been copyrighted by outsiders without

appropriate permissions or approval.

The Protocols propose three guidelines. One is that it is necessary that “right to

possession” is held by the originating communities. A second suggestion is that it is

important to recognize that the entire discussion of “property” can be a difficult one in

communities which do not conform with the Western idea that an item can be owned

only by one person or entity. The third is to consider the idea of moral rights (droit

moral) to protect the cultural and intellectual property of Naïve Americans.


The Protocols are only a beginning. They were written to help raise awareness of

the issues surrounding the collection, ownership, preservation, handling, access, and use

of physical and digital Native American archival resources. It is imperative that the

dialogue be both respectful and inclusive as we build relationships and cooperate to

solve problems, share resources and expertise, gather and disseminate cultural

information in culturally responsive and responsible ways, and continue to create cross-

cultural bonds.

The process of presenting the Protocols to professional organizations and

communities for comment, refinement, and endorsement has begun with the hope that

increased understanding about the concerns of tribal communities about the care and use

of archival collections house in non-tribal repositories will result in increased

cooperation. As Sven Haakanson, Jr. states “it takes human connections to make positive
changes happen”. (Ogden, p. 15)


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