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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Confronting Asymmetries of Power through Collaboration

Collaboration is at the heart of the National Museum of the American Indian. As stewards of a vast number of archival and object collections of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere, our role as museum employees is not solely to preserve these materials, but to actively seek out, develop, and hopefully repair sometimes strained relationships with the Native peoples of North, Central, and South America.

As evidenced by the many other blog posts this month, collaboration is nothing new to the Smithsonian Institution. Since its establishment in 1846 the Smithsonian has regularly worked with various local, state, and federal government agencies, diverse communities around the world, and sovereign nations in its mission to promote the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” among humankind.

Examples of a few of the NMAI Archive Center’s many collaborative projects include hosting the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages, working with Crow (Apsáalooke) community members to re-describe photograph collections, and partnering with representatives from the Poeh Cultural Center at Pojoaque Pueblo.

Anthony Gchachu, Octavius Seowtewa, and Jim Enote viewing Zuni object and archival collections at NMAI for inaccuracies in descriptive information, August 2017. Photograph by NMAI Conservation Fellow Megan Doxsey-Whitfield.
One of the more recent collaborative projects undertaken by the NMAI Archive Center has been working with members of the Zuni community and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in New Mexico. Jim Enote, Anthony Gchachu, and Octavius Seowtewa- three Zuni community members- visited the NMAI in August, working closely with the NMAI Archive Center staff.

Partnering with the Zuni community, and with Jim Enote in particular, has helped our staff to better define what collaboration actually entails. As noted in various writings and guidelines by Enote, collaborations between cultural heritage institutions and source communities represent a joint effort to “set the record straight” through co-labor on equal terms. Such collaborative endeavors not only confront and challenge the asymmetries of power which have existed for centuries, but also simultaneously aim to correct the historical records and underlying power imbalances.

A Zuni bowl related to the Hawikuh pottery ink drawing below. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (06/7670). Photograph by NMAI Photo Services
Hawikuh pottery ink drawings, such as the image above, can convey inaccurate or misleading information depending on the artist’s use of hash-lines, which represent different meanings for Zuni community members. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.
Working together, Zuni members and NMAI staff commenced several projects to better describe and understand Zuni archival materials in our stewardship. These include:

• Creating an inventory of Zuni materials to share with community members (these consist of archival films, photographs, maps, manuscripts, ink drawings, and anthropological field notes); 

• Analyzing and reinterpreting archival descriptions of materials in order to correct inaccuracies or completely false information which exist in the records;

• Creating and defining different levels of access for particular archival materials, such as photographs or items relating to ceremonial knowledge, which may be deemed unsuitable due to cultural sensitivity restrictions

Many images in the NMAI Archive Center collections, such as this one depicting Zuni pottery work, can reveal much greater information via collaboration with source communities than would otherwise be known by museum staff alone. Photograph by George H. Pepper, 1918. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (N02277).
These projects represent just the beginning of an ongoing process of exchange and partnership between NMAI Archive Center staff and Zuni community members. Collaboration, or true and equal co-labor between all parties involved, is something that takes time and trust.

Nathan Sowry, Reference Archivist
National Museum of the American Indian

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