Freely given: Ethnographic collections and their Informants

Freely given: Ethnographic collections and their Informants

Tribal traditions, languages, ethnography are integral to research on the cultures of tribes. These are part the libraries of tribal knowledge that are somewhat preserves and lost over the past 200 or more years. Elders have stated that whenever an elder passes, a library is gone. This is especially true for people how are carriers of tribal traditional knowledge, where they are no others who possess the language or stories of the tribe. This event, or series of events has been happened for hundreds of years, and the colonizing processes that are now taking over all human cultures are expanding. In the 19th and 20th centuries ethnographers following a notion of Salvage Anthropology collected millions of pages of indigenous intellectual knowledge. Ethnographers undertook this work thinking that tribal cultures were disappearing and someday their languages and cultures would not longer exist. This seeming disappearance of tribal culture was happening at the same time as the United States, Canadian, and Australian governments were pursuing aggressive education campaigns, forcing indigenous children into boarding school to assimilate them, by eliminating the languages, and cultures. This forced assimilation continued in the U.S. well into the 1970s.  Then In the U.S. was passed the Dawes Act forcing less-than 1/2 Indian blood people to leave the reservations as they could not get on-reservation allotments. This further eroded the cultural base for many tribes.

Clare Pearson, Nehalem Tillamook Myths
Clara Pearson, Nehalem Tillamook Tales by Elizabeth Jacobs

From the 1940s to the present day, much of the intellectual knowledge recorded from native people in the U.S. has never been returned to the tribes. Tribal people had few scholars and thus limited access to where their ethnographic collections were kept. Much of the studies at the time were about language, but there were many studies of culture in the later years. The tribal cultures continued to erode away, with a loss of populations, or out-migration, and then termination of many tribes in the 1950s. The culmination of so much degradation on tribal culture and knowledge caused many tribes to cease to exist.

Everything began changing int he 1970, indigenous peoples began fighting back. There are many examples of cultural revival that began then, Maori, Hawaiian, some Native American cultures, are the most prominent. There are now additional efforts to bring back tribal knowledge. Some work happening in archives of the United States by local Oregon tribes (Coquelle and allies) in the 1990s has brought back field notes of numerous ethnographers to the tribes. Previously I have written about the SWORP Project and Collection, which is the most prominent effort in the area to return traditional knowledge to the tribes (some chapters and articles about this project  are publicly available). What made the project possible was the way in which the collections of the BAE, now the National Anthropological Archives, are considered to be publicly owned documents. As such they are subject to collection, copying by the public, which made their return to Oregon a fairly simple process. The research and copying was time intensive, but there were few hurdles once the documents were copied. In addition, many people (archivists, directors, scholars) working in the Smithsonian and National Archives were very sympathetic to the tribal issues.

Melville Jacobs and Informant

Now so with some other collections. The Melville Jacobs Collection at University of Washington for some 30 years was heavily managed by a committee where researchers had to request access, request copy rights and request publication rights. The collection is now open, but for some 30 years, they were some serious hurdles to accessing the collection.

Elizabeth and Melville Jacobs
Elizabeth and Melville Jacobs

The amazing part of this collection is that the tribal people, the informants that spoke with and gave their languages and stories to Melville and Elizabeth Jacobs, gave freely of their knowledge. One informant in particular, Clara Pearson, who was an informant for Elizabeth Jacobs on the Nehalem Tillamook language and culture, was noted by Elizabeth in this way;

“To my Informant Mrs. Clara Pearson, I owe my gratitude for non-suppression of any portion of the material for her generous cooperation, and her distinctively creative effort to reproduce as honestly & fully as possible the literature of her people.”

Similar statements from Melville Jacobs about John B. (Mose) Hudson and Eustace Howard were made. Melville noted that Eustace knew more of the culture of the Santiams, while Mose knew better the languages of the Santiams. Both of these informants worked for years, in the 1920s-1930s with Melville to tell their stories, and to accurately translate them. In fact these tribal informants spent much time traveling to Seattle for weeks at a a time in working on these notes. And while they were likely reimbursed for their time, they were very intent to get the information right, as without them, this work would not have been possible. And if not for this, there would not now be an opportunity for the descendants to learn these stories. I believe that these intelligent leaders in their community knew what they were doing and made a choice to save their knowledge rather than let it pass forever. The question then is save it for what? And the answer is they knew that someday their descendants  would be reading these stories again.

Yet, ironically, these collections of fieldnotes were kept in a limited access collection for so many years at UW. This is the nature of some academic institutions, and such limitations to tribal peoples seeking to recover or restore a working knowledge of their culture is unacceptable. This is how I felt about the collection when I first heard about it some 20 years ago. Now the collection is open and available. I wonder how the limitations to the collection slowed down research on our tribal traditions, and hamstrung our ability to recover faster. Did the management of the collection adhere to the wishes of the informants, this is a key question. There are lots of issues at play here. In tribes stories are owned by the tellers, but once they are told to scholars they seemingly become the property of the scholar or university if the collection is housed there. This seems a poor arrangement for native people. Moving forward, there needs to be free access granted to the subject cultures, and more of a partnership arrangement between the tribes and the universities. This would hopefully correct many of these issues when they arise.

There are additional issues in the collection, interpretation, and authenticity of the fieldnotes wherever they exist, but that is for another time.

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