Thursday, December 13, 2007

Open Letter: Protocols for Native American Archival Materials: The View from DMNS

Editor's Note: Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Kristine Haglund of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science have submitted the following statement as an Open Letter in the hope of advancing wider discussion of the “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials" submitted to the Council of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) for endorsement. The proposals on which they are commenting, as well as their position as representatives of the DMNS will no doubt be of special interest to many in the museum anthropology community. As this is the first such letter to the editor published here, it is worth noting that the position taken by the authors is not necessarily that of the Museum Anthropology Editorial Board or the Board of the Council for Museum Anthropology. In this case, I note this only because neither board has undertaken consideration of the Protocols. One can find more information on the Protocols project here. [Thanks to Robert Leopold of the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution for help in correcting the originally posted version of this headnote (modified 12/15/2007)].

December 10, 2007

Frank Boles, PhD
Central Michigan University
Clarke Historical Library
Park 142
Mt Pleasant, MI 48859

Dear Dr. Boles,

We write in response to the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Council’s request for comments on the “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials” (hereafter the Protocols). As an archivist and a curator at a major regional museum caring for important Native American archival materials, we strongly urge the SAA to endorse this important document.

We understand the Protocols to be a more detailed, even procedural, document that resonates with and reflects the spirit of the SAA’s Code of Ethics for Archivists. The Protocols advance the positive changes that many archives and museums have already begun to undertake. For example, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science first established its Native American Resources Group in the early 1970s to provide guidance for more culturally sensitive and accurately documented collections. More recently, we have revised our collection policies, plans, and programs to be more explicitly engaged with Native American communities. The American Ethnology Collection’s four guiding principles are now respect, reciprocity, dialogue, and justice, and the Library and Archives Collection policy will soon point to the Protocols for guidance on best practices.

We interpret the Protocols, at base, to effect two kinds of collections: new collections and existing collections. For our institution, we now strive to only accept those archives that can be widely disseminated with the general public. That said, we can envision special partnerships with tribes in which archives will be housed at our institution, based on our responsibility to preserve archival records while at the same time striving to be culturally sensitive. The Protocols provide an excellent mechanism to guide conversations at the outset with potential donors, as well as Native Americans communities that have a vested interest in the collections.

For existing collections, the key question is: should they stay or should they go? The answer, or rather answers, to this question will need to be worked out on a case-by-case basis. But again, the Protocols will be exceedingly useful in thinking through procedures—and arriving at sound decisions that, fundamentally, fulfill our professional obligations and at the same time are respectful to Native publics. One unresolved ethical dilemma for us concerns how to deal with problematical materials that have already been made public. Should these now be restricted? And if so, under what terms, with what goals in mind? Our institution aims to establish formal policies on this and other complex questions, in consultation with tribes and the Museum’s NARG committee, using the Protocols as a guide.

Another dilemma that our institution needs to address is the ethical and legal difference between institutional records, which the organization itself produces in its daily work, and donated and acquired documents. We would encourage the SAA, should revisions of the Protocols take place, to address this difference more explicitly.

We concur with the Protocol’s call for institutions to recognize the sovereignty of Native American tribes and nations, as well as the document’s broad thinking about intellectual property issues. We believe it would be useful to have an annotated database of all laws, treaties, conventions, etc. that address, in the broadest sense, Native American intellectual property and sovereign rights.

We recommend that the SAA encourage archives and museums to create Native American advisory groups to help facilitate dialogue and to help guide culturally sensitive policies and program. This will allow each institution to truly make the Protocols a living document, addressing global problems with local and workable solutions.

Ultimately, we deem the Protocols to be a thoughtful and careful document that accomplishes what it sets out to do: it is not a suite of absolute laws, but a vehicle to think about best professional practices. It has spurred us to begin discussion on these important issues, to contemplate how to “foster mutual respect and reciprocity.” These are the key principles we admire and believe should lay the foundation for the future of professional archivists and museum professionals.


Kristine Haglund
Archivist & Chair Bailey Library & Archives
Denver Museum Nature & Science

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, PhD
Curator of Anthropology
Denver Museum Nature & Science

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