Stewarding Collections of Trauma

The Fall 2015 issue of Archivaria included “Stewarding Collections of Trauma: Plurality, Responsibility, and Questions of Action” by Lisa P. Nathan, Elizabeth Shaffer, and Maggie Castor.  The article looked broadly at efforts to manage archives that contain material relating to historical trauma and more specifically at the work of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).

As the authors point out there are a lot of ethical and professional questions around how work with materials relating to trauma should be done.  Collections of trauma in this instance have been defined as intentional collections relating to violent and disruptive histories and the resulting aftermath of those histories.  The complexities of residential school archives and the NCTR collection are varied and archivists are still working to determine how best to work with this material.

In particular, I found the article’s section on “Incorporating Distrust” insightful to current challenges.  The authors note that, “The same juridical and political systems that conceptualized, created, managed, and perpetuated the harms of the Indian residential school system continue to be forces that shape the work of the NCTR.  Canadian universities contributed to the running of the Indian residential schools (eg. training teachers); one such university now hosts the NCTR” (p.115).  Many of the same colonial systems that were involved in the residential school era are now involved in the administration of reconciliation policies and the administration of archival collections relating to residential schools.  How does an archive existing within this system acknowledge this challenge and respond appropriately.

This tension is something I’ve felt while working within a residential school archive that is housed in a university and is jointly governed by a university.  The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is slightly different – being founded through the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association and jointly managed by a survivor group.  But, it’s physical home is within a university and it exists within a very similar framework as the NCTR.  As the authors argued there is a need to acknowledge the distrust that comes with being part of these colonial systems and the need to develop new professional approaches to residential school archives.

How does the historical context of residential schools, intergenerational trauma, and colonialism impact how residential school archives are processed, accessed, and managed?  The TRC’s Calls to Action challenges the archival community to look critical at its approach to Indigenous archives and residential school archival collections.  This call is something that needs to be examined and responded to as archives continue to struggle with how to best care for this material.

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