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Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Summer Adventure in the NMAI Archive Center

NCAI Annual Convention, 1971 (P34204)
As a summer intern at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Archives Center, I spent most of my time processing the records of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest national Indian advocacy organization.  The NCAI collection is very large, at least 400 linear feet total, in two separate accessions, and archivists and interns have been processing it off and on for years. (Intern Cara Bertram also wrote about her experiences working on this collection last summer here.)  Its size and complexity made it a sometimes difficult collection to work with, but that ultimately made it more rewarding to see how much progress I made on accurately arranging and describing the material for future users.

One of my main activities with this collection was processing material from the second accession.  Primarily, this meant sorting documents and folders into the categories that had been set up by previous archivists, as well as some basic description and preservation.  Working with this material, most of which was from the 1970s and 1980s, allowed me to learn quite a bit about the work that NCAI did and the many issues facing native communities at the time.  NCAI was a very active, and often very effective, advocate for Indian interests on Capitol Hill and in various other branches of the federal government.  It also actively supported tribal governments around the country, providing training and support on issues ranging from litigation against the federal government to establishing tribal archives.  In working with this collection, I learned about a whole host of topics including treaty fishing rights, nuclear waste storage, Indian responses to the bicentennial of the US Constitution, “Indian Preference” laws, and the inner workings of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

NCAI Delegates relaxing at the 1958 Annual Convention (P34180)
One of the things that I enjoyed most about this collection, however, was the chance to see some of the inner workings of NCAI.  Because of the archival principle of provenance, which dictates that all the records created or collected by one organization be kept together, NCAI’s collection contains the whole range of material created by the organization. So in addition to copies of testimony given before Congress and important letters to the head of the BIA, the NCAI records also contain things like memos from the Executive Director to the staff reminding them to wash their dishes and close the balcony door in the break room. 

These other records, while maybe less historically impressive, let us see the personality of the organization and the individuals involved.  One staff member in the 1980s was fond of puns, and often ended memos with “Thank ewe.”  Elsewhere in the collection, lyric sheets document the “Average Savage Review,” a satirical comedy show occasionally put on by NCAI staff.  One of my favorite songs from one show begins, “There was a tribe that had a game, and Bingo was his name-o/B-I-N-G-O.”  Again, not the most serious document in the collection, but it does give a good idea of what kind of people worked at NCAI, namely the kind who took time out of organizing their major national conference to write song parodies on current issues.  Seeing the whole picture of the organization, everything from budget woes and staff issues to everyday inconveniences and practical jokes, makes the already significant achievements of the organization seem even more impressive.

Archival collections, I think, are unique in enabling us to get this kind of holistic view of people, organizations, and events.  Working with historical records has an immediacy and excitement to it that makes it very rewarding.  Sorting through the NCAI collection yielded surprises that could help me understand the organization better, think differently about the history of the United States, or just make me smile.  That sense of surprise, as well as getting to work with the NMAI Archives Center’s wonderful staff, makes me even more eager to pursue archival work as a career.

Elliot Williams
Summer Intern 2012, NMAI Archive Center

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