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.

Collaborative History and Virtual Peer Networks

I recently wrote a short post on historical trauma and self-care.  Shortly after writing that post I read Shurlee Swain‘s Public Historian article “Stakeholders as Subjects: The Role of Historians in the Development of Australia’s Find & Connect Web Resource.”  Swain’s article reflected on the challenges of creating the Find & Connect digital resource that was created as a result of the 2009 government apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants.

The Find & Connect site brings together historical resources and documentation relating to institutional care in Australia.  It contains histories of each institution written by public historians that have used a collaborative approach to history; combing information found in official records with oral history accounts of institutional care.  Swain’s article highlights the challenges of collaborative history and of historians working as mediators to present the past.

I found a number of similarities in Swain’s discussion of the Find & Connect project to on going work relating to residential schools that attempts to provide a fuller picture of the past, which incorporated administrative/government records with survivor voices.  Swain’s also outlined the implications for historians working with this type of project.  She argued that “There is a need…as a historian, to ‘get it right’.  ‘Getting it right’ is not about finding the truth because the truth is a different story for everyone…It is about finding the “right voice to present history from multiple viewpoints.”  Finding balance when writing about historian trauma is extremely difficult.

Working on topics related to historical trauma can also be emotionally taxing and historians need to address the personal toll of vicarious trauma.  Swain maintains that the impact of working on a historically traumatic topic is cumulative and that historians need to admit the personal realities of working on difficult topics.  In the case of the Find & Connect project a virtual peer network was created to allow researchers to support each other, share experiences, and discuss coping mechanisms.

Researchers tend to work in isolation and creating a support network can be instrumental in creating strong coping mechanisms.  Swain’s article was the first time I’ve seen a public history project openly address the needs for emotional supports.  Her work also made me wonder about the lack of resources available for most historians researching residential schools and what can be done to emotionally support people who are engaging in important work independently. 

Redress and Reconciliation: The Legacy of Residential Schools

Yesterday I attended a panel at Algoma University focused on residential school and reconciliation.  The panel, “Redress & Reconciliation in the face of Post-Apology Revelations”, was standing room only and featured four residential school survivors, two inter-generational survivors, and historian Ian Mosby.  

The panel participants were invited to speak about their thoughts on Harper’s apology to residential school survivors, reconciliation, and relations following the apology.  The first two survivors to speak, Mary Hill and Fran Fletcher Luther, both emphasized that they thought Harper didn’t truly believe the words of the apology, that the words he spoke didn’t come from the heart, and that he didn’t write the apology.  Mary Hill also said she felt disappointed that the apology didn’t acknowledge those survivors who have already passed on. 

The two inter-generational survivors spoke of the long term impacts of residential schools on communities and the need to acknowledge the on-going damage.  They pointed to the ongoing legislation that is marginalizing indigenous people and then need for a true apology to be followed up with actions.  Mitch Case highlighted the need for truth.  He argued that reconciliation cannot begin until the truth is out there and accepted. 

The inter-generational impacts of the residential school system have been devastating and is something that needs to be acknowledged and discussed more.  The inclusion of two inter-generational survivors on the panel helped highlight the need for more open discussions and brought attention to current legislation that is marginalizing indigenous communities.

One of the most moving parts of the panel was listening to Mike Cachagee speak about his experience at residential school, his work with the government leading up the residential school settlement agreement, and the residential schools survivor movement.  Mike spoke about starving at residential school and the physical and emotional pain caused by starvation. 

Mike also told an anecdote in which he was questioned about why he was publicly speaking against the residential school settlement agreement.  He asked government officials if they had children and if so what price could they put on their love for their child.  Predictably, the individuals said you couldn’t put a price on love.  Mike response was ‘But you have.  You paid me $3,000 a year for my attendance at residential school.  $3,000 a year for being deprived of my parents love, for being taken away from my family.’ 

I’ve heard Mike tell this experience to other groups.  But every time this example is gut wrenching.  The compensation of the residential school settlement agreement did not fix things and can in no way make up for what happened in residential schools.  Mike’s pointed words highlight an underlying dissatisfaction many have with the apology, the settlement agreement, and current discussions of reconciliation. 

The panel closed with the resilient words “They can’t take our spirit.  They couldn’t take our souls.”  I have worked closely with the survivors who were on this panel for the past five years.  I have heard them speak about their residential school experiences countless times.  But each time they speak I learn something new and I am reminded of the importance of truth telling and the need for us to listen to each other.  Reconciliation takes two sides.

Historical Trauma and Self Care

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Prompt: Energy.  What gave you energy this year? What took away your energy?

Recently on twitter a few historians were discussing the personal impacts of working on projects involving historical trauma.  Working on emotionally charged historical topics can be emotionally draining.  In the past four years while being actively engaged with residential school archives and survivors I have seen and experienced the toll of working with archives relating to historical trauma. 


Archival material relating to residential schools can be triggering and cause emotional distress.  The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre archives is overseen by the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA) and this group of survivors is actively involved in the management of the archives.  The CSAA also serve as health support for the staff, researchers, survivors, and community members who use the archives.  

 Having this type of health support available to visitors has been invaluable.  I’ve seen people from all walks of life be emotionally touched by residential schools. Having built in mental health supports is essential in creating safe spaces to discuss historical trauma. It is also important to teach front line archival staff how they can support visitors who may be triggered by material they are viewing.  Creating a supportive environment for viewing material relating to historical trauma needs include training staff to spot emotional distress and how to provide assistance when needed.
 
I’ve been lucky to be part of a workplace and community that is supportive of self-care.  The emotional impact of working on topics related to historical trauma is something that isn’t often discussed amongst historians, archivists, and other heritage professionals.  But talking about the toll of working with emotionally draining material is crucial.  Personally, I’ve found taking a step back from the material, focusing on the importance of truth telling and the positive impact of connecting communities with their past helpful.