NAGPRA and not Sharing

In our program the necessity for access and intellectual freedom and the role that technology has played in promoting this has been discussed many times over.  I wanted to look at a view of this increasing role in technology from another point of view, one that does not correlate with that idea that access is particularly good.  In 1990 the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed.  NAGPRA came about to put an end to the collection of Native American artifacts and remains and return those that a particular tribe wished to be returned.  This caused quite a stir in the museum community, which was forced to relinquish collections that may have been in existence for one hundred years.

The notions present in the ALA and SAA about the rights to access are completely moot when considering objects that fall under NAGPRA.  Sometimes objects are not returned but are placed in trust with a museum or archive by the tribe.  In many cases no one but the tribe members and maybe a representative of the institution is allowed to view objects.  For example, in DU’s anthropology department there are two “NAGPRA rooms” that remain locked and inaccessible.  Sometimes digital documentation of these objects is not an option.  If the tribe’s wishes are that things not be digitally documented, they cannot be.

Though digitization of objects for study and access has become very important, it is also important to consider that not everything is available to this technology.   Some objects and collections must remain only in tangible forms.  I find it a sobering thought to think that not all information about there is possibly accessible.  What technology has done in circumstances like NAGPRA is not to provide infinite access, but has allowed the community to share this knowledge.  Native Americans are able to express their views in the same electronic forums and universal multimedia as everyone else, which has helped in a greater understanding of  why something like NAGPRA is so important.

NAGPRA Homepage

Lucie B.

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7 Responses to NAGPRA and not Sharing

  1. J.A.Lee says:

    I think, much like the posting about access, that there should be in cases of an individual or group of individual not associated with our government that should be able to maintain privacy. I agree that this is the case with Native American, as well as some religious groups, and of course artists. The right to privacy of an individual is as important as that of an individuals access to information.
    -J.A. Lee

  2. While I was researching a paper, which dealt in part with NAGPRA, I came across an interesting dilemma. It didn’t fall under the scope of NAGPRA for it wasn’t concerned with human remains or burial artifacts, simply audio recordings. It is none-the-less interesting. A researcher named Pamela Innes began translating a collection of Native American narratives that were recorded years ago. These recordings, if I remember correctly, were recorded by an anthropologist/linguist, Dr. Haas, in the 1960s.

    Innes, a linguist herself, began translating these narrations with the help two female consultants who were native speakers of Mvskoke. The consultants found four narratives that basically freaked them out. The consultants “indicated that these were extremely dangerous for contextually-uninformed men and all women to have contact with, either through reading or hearing” (Innes, 2010, p. 198).

    Mvskoke speakers, peoples of the Muskogee and Seminole Nations, believe that speech is very powerful and that storytelling must be accompanied by certain rituals to protect the narrator and the listeners. Certain stories, like the four mentioned above, are only suitable for certain audiences. To Mvskoke speakers, contact with these narratives by unprotected and/or unsanctioned audiences could cause serious personal repercussions such as dementia and heart disease (Innes, 2010).

    What was Innes to do? Should Innes, a woman, even keep transcribing them? Should she give up her project? Bring in a man to help? What would you do if you where in her shoes? From an archivist point of view, what would you do if Innes came to you and asked that you restrict the collection either partially or in totality? As per the SAA Code of Ethics, archivists we are to promote access “… in accordance with legal requirements, cultural sensitivities, and institutional policies”

    K. Yockey

    Innes, P. (2010). Ethical problems in archival research: Beyond accessiblity. Language & Communications , 30, 198-203.

    P.S. Innes didn’t stop her work. She is continuing to translate the work but Innes is also trying to find a community holy man who will retroactively consecrate the narrations.

  3. Allie B. says:

    This is an interesting debate because it does seem that there is tension in archives and library professions between privacy and access. How are we to determine which is more important in a given circumstance? In the case of the ALA Code of Ethics, there are two important components to untangling this conundrum. “II. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources,” and, “IV. We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.” These two statements seem to conflict with one another, and there is no easy answer when it comes to determining whether the public’s right to access information is more or less important than protecting rights holders. What ALA offers as a caveat is this: “The principles of this Code are expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision making. These statements provide a framework; they cannot and do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations.” As always, then, it’s a wonderful idea to have a mission statement and a code of ethics, but at the end of the day good decision-making happens among professionals who understand professional ideals but are aware of the subjective details and particulars of a given situation.

  4. If it were up to me (an incurable skeptic), I would keep up the transcription work. I would also restrict the finished collection to “serious scholars” (who could provide credentials from their institution) who are doing actual scholarly research, and include the caveat or warning with the materials that they may be offensive or disturbing, and also possibly give you dementia. Maybe there would be a release form involved.
    Basically, if the materials are potentially hazardous or offensive, I would want to restrict them and make sure people understood the risks involved before accessing them. I would want to do this mostly for the legal protection of my institution.

  5. This one has an interesting debate going. I think that we have to realize that we are not the owners of the information. Knowledge that material exists or even resides in our buildings does not give us permission to do whatever we like with it. I think it is important to respect the wishes of those who do have ownership. If we stop respecting peoples’ rights to control their own information, we (as an institution and profession) lose their trust. The simple fact that we disagree with someone, as may be the case in our beliefs about the power of spoken words vs. those of Native Americans, doesn’t give us the right to ignore their concerns.

    We often speak of access as though it is a right. That’s not really true. I don’t have the right to demand any of your social security or bank account numbers. I also don’t have the right to demand that any of you break with your beliefs or traditions in order to satisfy my own desires, professional or otherwise, to share some bit of knowledge you wish to keep private. Access is a privilege. We grant it freely to items we have rights to and encourage sharing of information.

    We also need to be mindful of placing the ideals of our own culture or profession above others. Humility is a virtue. If we simply ignore objections that don’t fit with our own standards, we become little better than thieves.

    I think in these cases, the library/archive should discuss possibilities of access with the groups involved. But in the end, the desires of the owners should be respected.

    – J. Cox

  6. Wow, this is an interesting topic, and I really like Katie’s addition to the conversation. That definitely brings up a number of concerns. I personally don’t think I would carry on with the project because it violates the desires of the tribe, and I think they should be able have their right to privacy just like everyone else does. Although I value access and intellectual freedom, I still believe that not EVERYTHING needs to be made available to the public. If the tribe wishes to keep their records to themselves, let it be. Basically, I just have to say that I agree very much with Jennifer Cox’s comment…well put!

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