In Palmer, Alaska, a 45-minute drive north of Anchorage, the Chickaloon people have all but lost their original language, Ahtna. The last known fluent speaker of the tribe’s native Western dialect died in 2010, and the remaining tribal citizens—which traditionally do not count their members but are estimated to number around 350—speak an amalgam of the Western and Central dialects of Ahtna. Audio recordings of Western Ahtna exist, but many are held in consumer archives not owned by the Chickaloon Tribe.
Now, two University of Maryland faculty members are part of a new effort to bring those recordings, and other pieces of history, back to the Indigenous peoples who lived the stories within them. Diana E. Marsh, assistant professor of archives and digital preservation, and Eric Hung, assistant lecturer in the College of Information Studies, are part of the archives repatriation committee recently created by the Society of American Archivists.
The committee will recommend “policies and best practices regarding the physical return of archival materials to communities, which is usually not done, or if it is done, it is because an institution in a good mood decides to “assignment” of a collection,” Marsh said. “But there’s not a lot of advice on how to do it.”
Archival materials may include photographs, audio recordings, drawings, a researcher’s field notebook, formulas for traditional medicine, or video documentation. Often, these records contain knowledge that a tribe considers sacred and that has been passed on to traditional, historically white-led institutions without Indigenous permission.
“A lot of these documents in the archive should never have been created or were created under duress,” said Hung, who is also the executive director of the Asian American Music Research Center. “A government official (or an anthropologist) could have come in and recorded these things without consent.”
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law enacted in 1990, many institutions are required to return human remains, grave goods, and other cultural objects to their rightful Native owners. But letters, photographs, recordings, and other archival materials are not covered by NAGPRA, and under U.S. copyright laws, “this notebook or letter or photograph belongs to the person who has it. taken or documented, not to the person whose knowledge is in it,” Marsh said.
Archives around the world hold an impressive number of these documents, Marsh said. The LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, she said, has about 18,000 linear feet (the standard archival measurement) of Indigenous materials, roughly equivalent to 50 million individual items. “And it’s an archive in an institution,” Marsh said. “You can imagine the colonial collecting, in particular, of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
Selena Ortega-Chiolero, the museologist specializing in Chickaloon Village Traditional Council in Palmer, feels the urgency of reuniting the Chickaloon people with their ancestry. “Every day we bring home a new Western dialect audio recording, we are reclaiming a piece of that language and helping to restore cultural traditions,” she said.
Indigenous people have a visceral and emotional connection to these materials, Ortega-Chiolero said. “I’ve worked in museums for many years – it’s very easy to become detached from the collections you manage,” she said. But she saw how personal these items are to many.
“We had an eldest who never saw a picture of her mother when she was young, because (her mother) was sent to boarding school,” she said. During a digital repatriation from the Anchorage Museum, the eldest saw an image of her mother as a daughter for the first time.
“She cried,” Ortega-Chiolero said. “It’s the meaningful connection that indigenous peoples have with these materials.”