Documentation and communication in Aboriginal/indigenous communities



This panel session explores a number of different issues related to the nature of documentation and communication in aboriginal cultures, where “documents” are not traditional, knowledge systems are of varied types, and the transmission of culture and property are decidedly non-Western. Ample time will be provided for interchange between the speakers as they discuss similarities and differences in documentation and communication practices in the various cultures.

Sśmi Culture and Language Centers: Documentation of a Threatened Heritage

The Sśmis are the indigenous population of Northern Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula. In Norway there are 30–50.000 Sśmis, of whom 10–12.000 use Sśmi as their first language. When the oppressive policy against the Sśmi population in Norway was lightened during the 1960s, some Sśmi communities established language- and cultural centres for documentation and development of their language and cultural heritage as the oral traditions lost its ground in the modernization process. Documentation was also seen as a tool in socializing a new generation to feel proud of their background, master their mother language and keep alive the traditional bonds between territory and identity so important in Sśmi culture. Today these institutions are multifaceted; within the same centre you can find a library, museum, archives, language-training facilities, a stage, radio studios, offices representing the Sśmi Parliament and/or Norwegian authorities etc. The centres have given voice to a nation organized in small, decentralized units (called “Siidas”) regulated by unwritten agreements very different from the centralized and hierarchical political structure in Norway. In the ongoing process of deciding the legitimate owner of land and water in Sśmi areas, the centres store a large variety of documents that will play an important role in providing evidence in different courts. Document theory may thus provide a useful theoretical perspective in analyzing why these institutions were established and how they are functioning today.

To Put the Talk Upon Paper: Literacy, Libraries, and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada

In the late nineteenth century, missionaries and government administrators in Canada began introducing book literacy (reading and writing the printed word) into Aboriginal cultures where orality and other forms of literacy already existed and had served Native communities well for many generations. This paper will discuss some of the motivations of Newcomer populations in Canada in employing print literacy and libraries among Aboriginal communities. This paper will also address the effects of introducing book literacy, and the ways in which Aboriginal communities embraced and articulated books and libraries as means of constructing and controlling their own identities and histories. Central to this discussion will be the idea that Aboriginal communities employed their own kinds of literacy before (and after) European arrival in North America – hieroglyphic and syllabic writing forms, in addition to birch bark biting, wampum, wintercounts, and the art of oral storytelling. These methods of communication served to record history and perpetuate knowledge amongst the People, in much the same way that alphabetic literacy served these same purposes for European cultures.

Diverse Knowledges and Contact Zones within the Digital Museum

As museums begin to revisit their definition of ‘expert’ in light of theories about the local and indigenous character of knowledge, questions emerge about how museums can reconsider its documentation of knowledge about objects. How can a museum present different and possibly conflicting traditions and perspectives in such a way that the tension between the perspectives is preserved? This paper expands upon a collaborative research project between the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology at Cambridge Universtity and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center of Zuni, NM to compare descriptions of museum objects by multiple expert communities, particularly focusing on Zuni ways of seeing objects that have been otherwise characterized around scientific, static forms of categorization. Based on our findings, narratives and of objects in use have emerged as key omissions in traditional museum documentation relative to the ways in which these objects are seen by the Zuni. This has uncovered several possibilities to expand on our concept of indigenous knowledge systems, particularly with relation to digital objects, allowing some new perspectives to be proposed around enabling indigenous communities to contribute descriptive information about objects both to support local cultural revitalization efforts.