The Indigenous Digital Archive: Creating Effective Access to and Collaboration with Government Records

Anna Naruta-Moya


The Indigenous Digital Archive (IDA), a project of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in partnership with the New Mexico State Library, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, and the New Mexico History Museum, plays a special role in digital archives in a number of important ways. First, the project arose from Tribal constituents’ articulations of community needs during a museum strategic planning process and continues with Native direction and participation throughout. Second, the project has developed and enacts a practice of respectful online access to be responsive to concerns about what is appropriate to share publicly online. Third, the project leverages new developments technology, particularly a novel and useful combination of the Open Annotation and International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) W3C standards and computer-assisted indexing through natural language processing (NLP) techniques, to create an open source platform that makes the content of mass digitized historical documents more accessible to people whose communities they relate and to other researchers.

Fourth, the IDA creates tools to facilitate collaborative research with and making meaning of the online documents, recognizing the social nature of research while sharing authority for describing documents. We recognize the need to make meaning together and over time by tagging within pages of documents, adding comments or annotations, and even creating counter narratives to what’s in the records. Importantly, these tools are created in a framework of system independence and digital preservation, so the content that people contribute is not dependent on, and inadvertently made obsolete by, any particular digital system.

Finally, through support and mentoring, including an IDA Fellows pilot project initially open to members of the 23 tribes of New Mexico, plus Hopi (geographically separated while culturally and genealogically related), the IDA has begun enacting an additional element ethically required of digital and other institutional projects related to historically minoritized people; that financial, technical, and mentoring support must necessarily be provided to enable members of historically minoritized communities to make full use of digital knowledge tools.

Community Origin to Meet Community Needs

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) has its origins in the founding of the Museum of New Mexico in 1909 and the Rockefeller funded Laboratory of

Anthropology of the 1920s. A separate building for MIAC opened in 1987. In 2013, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture gained its first-ever Native American director, Della Warrior (Otoe-Missouria), a Harvard educated administrator. The MIAC began strategic planning that included a process to hear from New Mexico’s Native American constituents and identify ways in which MIAC could forge closer and meaningful relationships between the resources of the museum and Native peoples throughout New Mexico. At a 2014 MIAC World Cafe planning session, Native American constituents expressed 1) wanting MIAC to provide online access to documents relating to their history, and 2) for MIAC to provide them opportunities to gain experience with archives, as they gain skills in connecting with archival information as well as develop and operate their own governmental and cultural archives.

These expressions became the seed of the Indigenous Digital Archive project, which was further refined through continual conversations, pilot studies, participation of, and direction from Native scholars, educators, community leaders, and community members, and Native and Native-serving library and archives practitioners.

The MIAC was able to begin the Indigenous Digital Archive project with a 2016 IMLS National Leadership grant and a Knight Foundation prototyping grant to create an open source software toolkit and a digital repository use case. We began by creating user stories,1 descriptions of people who would be using the IDA and their anticipated uses and goals, to guide the user experience and technological development.

MIAC’s use of the IDA project addresses the lack of access to public government records related to the build up and operation of U.S. government boarding and day schools. These records include the period of the “Indian Wars” and reforms related to the “Indian New Deal” in the 1930s. The State Co-ordinator of Tribal Libraries, who often receives reference requests related to information the documents the project will make available, notes that now having even just a pile of documents of student names online filled a need no one has been able to respond to before in connecting people affected by these government policies generations onward with the information they’re seeking.

Creating effective access locally is seen as particularly important at this time, as this is a window of opportunity where Native people have the benefit of understanding the records with the input of those who are Elders today (who were young children at the time of the creation of the later records), and others who still have first-hand stories from their parents or grandparents in the 1920s-1930s and even earlier.

The MIAC additionally partnered with the New Mexico State Library Tribal Libraries Program and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in training in archives and archival management for Tribal librarians and other Tribal and Tribal serving practitioners. This has many wide-reaching effects for archive development and digital literacy: as Tribal libraries play a key role in establishing digital inclusion in many Native American communities,2 helping strengthen local connections to Tribal libraries makes all online resources more accessible.

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