Performing Archive: Digitizing and Contextualizing Edward S. Curtis Photographs

Performing Archive: Edward S. Curtis + “the vanishing race” is the result of a three-month pilot project undertaken by the Claremont Center for Digital Humanities. The project is focused on the well known and controversial collection of photographs of Indigenous communities and people that were created by Edward S. Curtis in the early 20th Century.  Curtis is perhaps most known for his published work The North American Indian and for his work photographing Indigenous people because of his belief that they were a “vanishing race.”

The use of Curtis’ photographs is currently controversial because of the context behind them – they are representative of colonial relationships, often very staged, and representative of a fundamental lack of understanding of the communities they portray. As the Performing Archive essay “Vanishing Race and Canon de Chelly” by Ken Gonzales-Day notes “In many cases Curtis encouraged his models to stage, restage, or perform dances or ceremonies out of season and out of context, but Curtis believed that performing for the camera could serve as a way of preserving cultural traditions while there was still a living memory of them. The staged images were often paired with titles created by Curtis which further emphasized his perspective of Indigenous communities as vanishing and as ‘others.’

The Performing Archive initiative digitally brings together archival material relating to Curtis from Claremont Colleges Honnold-Mudd Library Special Collections, Northwestern University, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian by way of the Digital Public Library of America, and the University of Indiana Bloomington Archives of Traditional Music. The project brings together “nearly 2,500 items related to Curtis and his ethnographic and photographic work with western American and Canadian tribes” and also “brings together a number of new scholarly works designed to facilitate teaching with Curtis’ work.”

I think it is crucial to note that the Performing Archive aims to contextualize Curtis’ images and to present them in a way that critically engages with the context of the creation, preservation, and current day usage.  The site aims to unpack the relationships of authority in the images and provides critical essays to critically engage students and casual viewers who come across the content.  The essays written by Ken Gonzales-Day unpacking the creation and use specific images are extremely well done and insightful.  However, I do worry about viewers skipping this important part of the website and diving headfirst into the images without that important piece of context.  That being said the site navigation is setup in such a way that the introduction and critical essays are displayed first making it more likely that visitors will engage with that material prior to simply searching for photographs.

I also really enjoyed the sections of the site which examined the archival and visualization implications of Curtis’ images and the digitization of these works.  The project has also looked into using data analysis and data visualizations to examine the relationships between photographs and the communities the represent.  In the site essay “Conclusion: The Archive and the Technology of Race” David J. Kim notes that “The approach we have taken with the network representation of Curtis’ images and his social network is an attempt to unveil the history of visual documentation as technology of establishing the “what of” and the “knowing” of, or the essence of, Native Americans, as well as the history of how the scientific discourse of race has made the category of Native Americans archivable and archived in the early twentieth century.”  Performing Archive does an excellent job of critically examining and exploring it’s own processes and the cultural implications of these approaches to Curtis’ work.

This is a hugely interesting project and I’m amazed at how much material is here considering it was developed out of a three month pilot project.  I also think that this is a crucial work examining the historically context around colonial photography from archival and historical perspectives.  One red flag for me about the project was that the section on partnerships with Indigenous communities was very limited.  By the sounds of it there is plans that this part of the initiative will grow, and I really hope it does as working with the Indigenous communities represented in the photographs is hugely important.  Similarly I’m always slightly uncomfortable seeing Curtis’ images published anywhere – be they in a book or on a website – I think the contextualization done by Performing Archive mitigates that somewhat but without Indigenous community support this initiative has the potential to repeat colonial relationship structures.

Listening: Who Killed Alberta Williams?

In December 2016 I listened to “Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?” a CBC podcast by Connie Walker.  The podcast focuses on the 1989 death of Alberta Williams on the Highway of Tears near Prince Rupert, British Columbia.  The podcast also discusses Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirits (MMIWG2) in Canada and the history of the Highway of Tears.  Episode four of the podcast also explores the legacy of residential schools and the long term impacts of residential schools on Indigenous communities, families, and individuals.

This eight part podcast was similar in style to the popular Serial Podcast which used investigative journalism to look at a cold case.  I’d also add a warning that it’s not an easy listen and has content that could be triggering to some folks.  That being said I think Alberta’s experience, the experience of her family and of so many other MMIW is an experience that needs to be talked about and needs to receive more media coverage.

A Grade 8 teacher in Saskatchewan used the “Who Killed Alberta Williams?” podcast as a teaching tool in his classroom.  In that case students responded to the podcast through journals and conversations.  I could also see the podcast being used as resource at the high school or post-secondary level as a means of starting conversations about MMIW, residential schools, and colonialism.

Response to the Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force

As was recently announced over Arcan-L I’m been appointed as one of the members of the Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives (SCCA) – Response to the Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Task Force.  I feel honoured to be part of this initiative to address the TRC’s Calls to Action relating to archives and look forward to being part of this important work.

In case you missed the announcement it read as follows:

Dear members of the Canadian archival community,

Over the summer the Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives issued a Call for Expressions of Interest to the Canadian archival community in order to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report Response Task Force (TRC-TF). The response to this call was overwhelming. The realization that across the nation, our community of professionals is ready and willing to meet the TRC’s Call to Action #70 with conviction and dedication is truly inspiring, and on behalf of the SCCA I want to thank each and every one of you who submitted their statement of interest!

 I would also like to introduce you to members of our 12 person Task Force:

Title Name Organization
Chair Erica Hernández-Read Archivist, Northern BC Archives & Special Collections, University of Northern British Columbia
Member Raymond Frogner Head of Archives, National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation
Member Ian Moir Territorial Archivist, NWT Archives
Member Melanie Delva Archivist, Anglican Diocese of New Westminster and Provincial Synod of BC & Yukon
Member Krista McCracken Archives Supervisor,  Arthur A. Wishart Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University
Member Marthe Brown Archivist, Laurentian University
Member Raegan Swanson Executive Director, Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives
Member Marianne Mclean Principal, Eigg Road Consulting
Member Emma Wright Archives Manager, Royal BC Museum and Archives
Member Nichole Vonk General Council Archivist, The United Church of Canada Archives
Member Jennifer Jansen Records Analyst, Tsawwassen First Nation
Member Marnie Burnham Strategic Advisor, Public Services Branch
Library and Archives Canada / Government of Canada

 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report Response Task Force (TRC-TF) has a tremendous challenge ahead. If you recall, the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada<http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/File/2015/Honouring_the_Truth_Reconciling_for_the_Future_July_23_2015.pdf> (June 2015) called upon the Canadian archival community “to undertake, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, a national review of archival policies and best practices to:

 1)      Determine the level of compliance with both the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Joinet-Orentlicher Principles

 2)      Produce a report with recommendations for full implementation of these international mechanisms as a reconciliation framework for Canadian archives.” (p. 258)

 As its first step on this journey towards the “action” of reconciliation, the TRC-TF had to develop a Taskforce Project Charter – a document outlining project overview, scope, timelines and resources, organization, and risks, assumptions and constraints. While we are still working out the resources section, the TRC-TF would like to share our recently established Statement of Intent which will lead our work over the course of the next 2 years:

 The Task Force mandate is to conduct a review of archival policies and best practices existent across the country and identify potential barriers to reconciliation efforts between the Canadian archival community and Indigenous record keepers. With such a review in hand, the Task Force will then work in collaboration with Indigenous  communities  to create an actionable response to this research which will become the foundation for a reconciliation framework for Canadian archives.

Once our Project Charter is finalized, it will be posted on the SCCA website (currently under development). Input into this document, and all others we post will be most welcomed. We strongly encourage you to take interest in, if not ownership of, this Task Force – we want to work with you as much as we hope to work for you on this national issue.

 Regards,

Erica Hernández-Read, Chair

On behalf of Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report Response Task Force Steering Committee on Canada’s Archives

Ten Books to Contextualize Reconciliation in Archives, Museums, and Public History

My latest post “Ten Books to Contextualize Reconciliation in Archives, Museums, and Public History” can be seen over at Active History.  The post looks at ten books and articles as a starting point for learning about reconciliation, residential schools and indigenous rights in the context of heritage organizations.