Evolving access solutions – repatriation of records to indigenous communities
Helen Onopko[i], Records & Archive Services
The western view of records tends to see the records
We in the recordkeeping community need to review our understandings of the role of archives, to evaluate how best our collections can be structured so that they are not depositories of the past, but are also living places which are shaped by the nature of the culture they document.
Issues that I would like to cover include the following:
· Indigenous ways of understanding “archive” and the problematic relationships between oral cultures and eurocentric notions of the archive, which privilege written pasts
· Intellectual and cultural property rights in black law
· Examples where records are being repatriated to the communities
What we must consider in recognizing indigenous understandings of “archive” are:
§ location of communities in relation to location of the records
§ financial resources of researchers in getting to archives
§ the intimidating alien environment of archives
§ research skills of people looking for information
§ language barrier - complex subject specific terms and formats utilised by professionals such as anthropologists, governments, archaeologists
§ publications & catalogues of records that are available, and the availability of these indexes - if you don’t know what's there, how can you know what to ask for
§ the damaging nature of many records - not wanting to make public things they did in the past or opinions that were held in the past …… this fear can lad to 'conspiracy theories', where in actual fact it is often just disorganisation and lack of funds or time which make records inaccessible.
The late Fabian Hutchinson, said of central Australian records:
argument has been used that central
Intellectual property and indigenous heritage
Celine McInerney is an intellectual property lawyer for South Australian legal firm, Norman Waterhouse. She has done considerable work on Indigenous Heritage Rights in the context of Intellectual Property under white Australian law and I have consulted her knowledge for this paper.
Indigenous Heritage includes:
§ All items of moveable cultural property including burial artefacts
§ Indigenous ancestral remains
§ Indigenous human genetic material (including DNA and tissues)
§ Documentation of Indigenous peoples heritage in all forms of media (including scientific, ethnographic research reports, papers and books, films, sound recordings).
§ Under Indigenous Law:
§ Cultural heritage is collectively owned by the relevant clan, through individual custodians of the stories, the dreams and so on;
§ Notions of ownership, in the sense white people think of them, don’t apply;
§ The result of this is that white laws don’t recognise many rights indigenous people believe are important for the continuation of their culture.
Museums need to recognise Aboriginal interests in their culture and that they have primary rights over that cultural material. …It may also require the museums to acknowledge that relationships, not objects, have primacy.
Existing archives legislation does not stipulate who can access a particular institution’s records. This lack of enforced regulation gives no protection to records which may contain personal and culturally sensitive information. In addition to this, Museum legislation tends to focus on anthropological and scientific issues, and not on the cultural and spiritual value to Indigenous peoples of institutions’ collections. We are still in a situation where Indigenous cultural material can be destroyed or willfully distorted with no recourse. Cultural material can be misrepresented, and sacred and secret materials can be accessed and used by anyone the current legal 'owners' of these items see fit.
On the one hand free accessibility to this heritage is needed so that Aboriginal people can trace their genealogies, find their tribal identity, their ancestral lands, and trace their relatives. On the other hand 'free' access can go against traditional methods of control over the flow of cultural sacred information. As recordkeeping professionals we can appreciate that here is a special circumstance where context is as important as content.
In July 1978, photographs by a powerful collector of aboriginal records were printed in Stern Magazine showing sacred sites and secret rites of indigenous groups. He was very upset when the photographs were then sold to People Magazine. Stern subsequently apologised. The whole controversy about whether the photographs should or should not have been published caused a great deal of moral anguish. He said that he had every right to permit use of the photographs because the subjects in the photographs had passed away.
In some Aboriginal communities, seeing the names and photographs of the deceased may cause sadness and distress, particularly to relatives of those people.
It is admittedly very difficult to write history without including such names. On the Ara Irititja website, cautions are provided to users, so that choices can be made prior to record access.
This was placed at the beginning of the website and the warning has to be accepted by all users to enter the site.
Example of an initial access page (interface) within the Archive
closest we have come to providing indigenous
Remember, these collections may include sensitive material which must be respected and treated specially. In order to respond appropriately, organisations should make reference to the published protocols.
Protocol 4: Description and classification of materials
What must we do? We must
Develop, implement and use a national thesaurus for
describing documentation relating to Aboriginal and
Develop and use subject headings and guidelines for
archival description which are sensitive to Aboriginal and
Mick Dodson in 1993 said:
We have been referred to and catalogued as 'savages' or 'primitive' while Western industrial peoples are referred to as advanced and complex.
11: Copying and Repatriation of
Records to Aboriginal and
What must we do? We must
Respond sympathetically and cooperatively to any
request from an Aboriginal and
§ to the repatriation of original records to Aboriginal and Islander communities when it can be established that the records have been taken from the control of the community or created by theft or deception. ;
§ Seek permission to hold copies of repatriated records but refrain from copying such records should permission be denied.
Assist Aboriginal and
Libraries, archives, central filing places, museums and galleries are usually given distinct and separate roles. One approach to the situation where a community wants to reclaim its history, is for items from all of these places to be brought together in one place of reference. In addition to this it is important that such places are close to the communities whose people are the subjects of the records. Issues of access can be made more difficult by the fact that records are often housed in locations which are great distances from the communities.
Indigenous communities in
‘Keeping places’ are:
§ libraries, in that they house information which is a resource for the community
§ archives in that they file, protect and maintain precious records,
§ museums and galleries in that they hold items of archaeological and anthropological interest and often have exhibits demonstrating the context from which these items were created.
§ retail outlets and businesses running cultural tours or art classes.
Current repatriation projects
Following the ATSI protocol, many communities and archival institutions are cooperating to establish repatriation arrangements. There will always be resistance through interpretation. The common statement we have encountered is …
We do not have any records created by indigenous communities, only those about them, so there are no issues of repatriation for us to consider.
So, what is
§ Karratha Library
§ The Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce
§ Quirindi and District Historical Society, NSW
§ State Library - SA
§ NT Archives
§ Lutheran Archives - SA
§ Kimberly Communities
Ara Irititja Archival Project,
Library & Information Services Division,
The Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce
The Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce has released its report of the “Finding Your Story Community Forums 2002”. The purpose of the forums is to inform the community about what records are kept and how they can be accessed. It is also an opportunity for the community to raise any issues they may have about access to their records.
this year by the Local Aboriginal Land Council, the
Quirindi and District Historical Society, NSW
Quirindi and District Historical Society has established a keeping place which includes an archives, a newspaper microfilm collection, and artefacts from the local indigenous community as well as the local non-indigenous community. The McLean Phillips Collection contains aboriginal artefacts, artworks, photographs, ceremonial items.
State Library - SA
State Library in
Currently, the NT Library & Information Service is sponsoring a strategy of creating knowledge centres in Aboriginal communities. Part of this strategy is to include in the knowledge centre a place for keeping the records/archives/memories.
Lutheran Archives- SA
The South Australian Lutheran Archives gained a Government grant from the Cultural Ministers Council to write a guide to the indigenous records in their archives. The grant was made possible as part of the governments response to the ‘Bringing them Home’ report.
The guide, published in 1999, is an index of names of people mentioned in the archives. It acts as an initial place for people to search. Once records have been found, people are permitted to photocopy the information, such as entries in books. Unfortunately most people in the photographs which date back to the 1880’s are not identified.
The community in the Kimberly has begun their repatriation process, mostly of material images, historical documents and paintings. Theirs is a very different view of an archive. The land is an archive. They are very concerned about heritage protection of objects on land that they have recently reoccupied.
[See slide presentation: slide #11]
The community has also started organising and indexing for storage, and working out presentation and some access issues. At the end of last year (2001) their archivist Jenny Bolton began developing a classification system and with a consultant, a database.
Currently Jenny is waiting on approval to get a server which will link up the Land Council’s five regional offices to the database. The Land Council is also investing in the training of an indigenous library trainee, who will be able to maintain the collection into the future.
Irititja Archival Project,
Ara Irititja Archival Project identifies, copies and electronically
records historical materials about Anangu
(Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara people). A private community project, the Ara
Irititja Archives were conceived by and are now managed by the Pitjantjatjara
Council. The SA Museum hosts the
project, supplying a place for the ‘hardcopies’ and ‘originals’ of the
materials to be safely housed. This
material was previously held in museums, libraries and private collections.
The software utilized by the project is culturally sensitive in that it regulates access to private, sensitive and offensive materials. Added to this is the capacity for Anangu to utilize a dynamic database such that when viewing records they can add, expand, or correct data and historical details. Anangu people who are in remote communities are encouraged to access the project through mobile workstations equipped with computer, projector, printer and an uninterruptible power supply.
[See slide presentation: slide #12]
workstations are brought to remote communities and have also been installed in
several central locations such as
Since its establishment in 1994, the archive has accumulated over 26,000 records. The focus of the project on retrieving and securing records for the benefit of Anangu and the broader Australian community means that the collection will continue to grow.
presentation: slide #13]
Many indigenous communities and individuals have contacted the Ara Irititja project team regarding setting up their own such archives. However most are unable to access the funds required.
[See slide presentation: slide #14]
Students print out photographic records on
the printer located inside the mobile workstation (Images
success story is the Sisters of St
It is a cruel twist of fate for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that the records generated by the Government regime that tore their lives apart are now in many cases the key to rebuilding their lives and identities.
Power of destiny –v- unintended disclosure
Physical access –v- intellectual access
White interpretations –v- black knowledge
In conclusion, there are differing views as to the merits of returning records to indigenous communities. On the one hand people have argued that "an informed aboriginal population will have a much greater feeling of power over its own destiny". On the other hand, people have argued that in handing over records there is a high possibility that the wrong people will be given information. In such a situation, an existing oral tradition could be destroyed.
Handing the records over may increase physical access, but what about intellectual access. Indigenous communities will still be dependent on specialists (often non-aboriginal) in the interpretation of these records. In the past, we have described the records for our purposes, not theirs. This might undermine their roles as history-tellers.
And what about observations which researchers recorded. In most cases these researchers were not aboriginal. They may have mixed with communities for up to several decades, yet they are still outsiders. Their view is always going to be based on this.
In short, G K Chesterton summed it up well:
The culture of the conquered can be injured and extinguished simply because it can be explained by the conqueror.
Helen Onopko is a
consultant to Government, community organisations, private enterprise, and to
Australian aid projects in the South Pacific Region and lectures to the