A couple of weeks ago, I attended a fantastic roundtable on Digital Futures of Indigenous Studies in the Digital Scholarship Lab at Brown University’s John D. Rockefeller Library. The event was “part of an ongoing initiative at the JCB to encourage and support a new generation of scholars and community members as they build consciousness about Indigenous issues not only in New England, but also in the United States and internationally”. The discussion centered on “the use of digital media to foster education, research, and outreach within Indigenous communities and studies.” There was a focus on how digital media and tools can help to create connections between people and materials, as well as the importance of relationship-building with Native communities, the ethics surrounding these projects, and project management issues of resource allocation, stewardship, and sustainability.
I was particularly impressed with Tobias Glaza and Paul Grant-Costa’s Yale Indian Papers Project. They focused on the importance of Indigenous communities as stakeholders in the project and collaborating with community members right from the beginning to answer questions like – What’s most important to the community? How do they tell their stories? What information should remain private? How do they want to access and use their digital history? With this approach, they published the New England Indian Papers Series – “a scholarly critical edition of New England Native American primary source materials gathered into one robust virtual collection.” Built on Yale’s Ladybird software and using a Blacklight front-end, the platform is clean and easy-to-use, and includes a document reader, scholarly transcription, and extensive metadata.
An eye-opening takeaway from Alyssa Mt. Pleasant’s presentation on the American Indian Studies (AIS) resources portal that she built at Yale, is the importance of maintaining a project’s stewardship to ensure its longevity. Unfortunately, the AIS portal, which took 3 years to build, wasn’t taken on by anyone else when she left Yale, and consequently, is no longer accessible.
Lisa Brooks from Amherst College gave a fantastic talk on the problem of trying to understand the history of Native spaces when the main existing reference points are colonial maps. She’s worked extensively on creating new historical maps of Indigenous spaces to support her research and is also engaged in the idea of maps as storytelling, often combining her maps with present-day photos of the locations to bring them to life. Her work is included in Amherst’s digital map collection, which was created using Esri’s ArcGIS platform, and is definitely worth checking out.
Another standout was Dana Leibsohn’s project, Vistas, which “seeks to bring an understanding of the visual culture of Spanish America to a broad audience.” Vistas was designed as a non-linear platform, in an effort to encourage multiple pathways between content that would support research in a variety of scholarly disciplines, as well as less formal modes of education and learning. Launched in the late 90’s, Vistas has undergone three major evolutions, from a website hosted by Smith College, to a DVD, and now back to an online version hosted by Fordham University. Dr. Leibsohn’s stewardship of the project over the years has clearly been integral to its longevity, which includes her commitment to tackling the challenges of migrating the platform to keep up with ever-evolving technologies.
There were also a couple of great discussions surrounding endangered Native languages, including a conversation on the power of digital activism to increase online, and particularly social media usage of these languages, as a way of preserving them.
Obviously all of these projects are contributing to content-collection, digital preservation, and scholarship needs, but it was great to hear that so many are focused on supporting Indigenous communities by facilitating access to their histories, preserving them, and ultimately, helping to amplify the voices of these communities.