Holding onto the Past: Tribal Archives Preserve a People’s History

Volume 1, No. 4 - Spring 1990
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RELEASING BOOKS GRAPHICBefore coming to the Lakota Archives and Historical Research Center at Sinte Gleska College in 1987, my professional experience included research projects, archival training and some junior college teaching. These experiences do not qualify me as an expert in tribal archives. I do, however, bring some local expertise to the subject. And it is local history in particular that I want to emphasize. In a relatively short time I have become aware of the tremendous problems which researchers are faced with when attempting to write local history, especially for a researcher living on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. Not being familiar with other res­ervations, I will use the Rosebud for specific ex­amples, but would venture to say that similar condi­tions exist on other reservations.

The problems on this reservation lie not in docu­mentation, because there is no shortage of written material about the Sioux Nation, or the Rosebud in particular, but in the fact that many of the records are gone. If a person were to attempt to write a history of the Rosebud area, it would be necessary to have a very large travel budget, especially if that person wanted to work with primary source material. Through my experience in the Lakota Archives I have learned that primary source material about the Rosebud area exists in Cincinnati, Denver, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. Given the fact that the per capita income for this reservation hovers around $1,300, the chances are slim that the people who want to write a history of the area from a local perspective are going to have access to much primary source material.

A sampling of the material mentioned above includes government records and privately generated documents. Correspondence, photographs, marriage and school records and allotment ledgers dating back to 1868 are held in the Federal Archives and Records Center in Kansas City. Photographs, letters and artifacts dating back to 1896 are at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History when an exhibition was held in the city and featured 91 Lakota from the Rosebud Reservation who were “obtained honorably with the permission of the U.S. Government.” The J.H. Bratley Collection of photographs taken while Bratley was working on the Rosebud around 1897 are now located at the Museum of Natural History in Denver. General Records from 1907-1953, including wills, enrollments, land patents, heirship and tribal property are today in the National Archives in Wash­ington, D.C. Church and missionary school records going back to 1898 are at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

I can think of no other instance in American history where an ethnic group has been so well documented outside its own culture. Yet this docu­mentation has never really been accessible to the people it purports to record. For generations, re­searchers, government agents and missionaries have come to reservations and created records, then taken them away. A researcher comes to the reservation, does some oral histories, interviews some people, then goes off to a university far removed from the reservation to write his or her book. Tapes and documents are deposited into university archives, but all the reservation community gets is a copy of the finished document. Government clerks, meanwhile, record marriages, take photographs, write reports, set up subject files and send out correspondence. But when the files become outdated, or simply too large, they are sent off to government repositories. Mis­sionaries spend a great deal of time in the educational process on the reservation, creating school records, writing letters to their superiors, and keeping per­sonal diaries which are all then sent away to some church or university archives. In the whole process there has been no acknowledgement that the people about whom this paper trail has been created have any need to retain the written material themselves.

Of course, it might be good to stop for a moment and examine the process from a legal standpoint. The federal government creates records about people every day, not just Indian people. Do they have a legal obligation to deposit those records in the county or state where they were created? Historians and anthropologists develop research topics, not just about Native Americans but about many ethnic groups. Should they then be required to deposit their personal research material in the archives closest to the main body of that ethnic group? Churches set up schools all over the world and often centralize their record-keeping procedures. Is there a legal obligation for them to keep all those records locally?

The answer is no. This should be tempered, how­ever, with the knowledge that the relationship that Indian people have had with these individuals and organizations is unique. Missionaries have rarely gone out among Italians or Jewish people in a par­ticular area to convert them and set up schools for them. Researchers do not usually go to a Caucasian community to record their lives because they are Caucasian. The trust relationship that the govern­ment has long held with Native Americans does not exist in any other sector of American society. The point is this: The historical record of a particular area or community most often resides with the people who live there.

Researching and writing local history or doing genealogy on the reservation is another story alto­gether. If you were born and raised in a certain county, and the preceding three or four generations of your family had resided in the same county, you would expect to go to the county courthouse to find a great many of the records dealing with your family. You would find such docu­ments as birth and death records, probate records and deeds. You could then check with the county historical society, find census rolls at the public library, dig through the local newspaper’s files and go to the school district to look at records. By contrast, if you were born and raised on the Rosebud Reservation, you would be faced with the problem that so many records have been removed from that area that you simply might not have the resources to locate them. And, if you were able to find them, you might not have the resources to get them.

Currently, there are three places where a person might begin when researching local history or doing genealogy on Rosebud: the Tribal Enrollment Office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Enrollment Office and the Lakota Archives. From the genea­logical point a person would have to prove lineal descent to have access to any of the records at the enrollment offices. Allotment folders at each place would be helpful in tracing family history because they contain heirship records and papers deposited by the individ­ual, but are restricted to family members. A profes­sional genealogist, hired by one member of the family, might need written permission from each living descendant in order to do this work. The Lakota Archives has limited resources for genealogical research, consisting primarily of microfilm copies of census rolls, Office of Indian Affairs correspondence and a survey of Indian reservations done in the 1930s. These combined sources would be a start but are again limited by the number of records that have been removed.

Local history is an even greater quagmire. The records of the enrollment offices are restricted. These restrictions, inaccessibility of documents, continued removal of records by outside organizations and indi­viduals, and the general lack of knowledge within the Rosebud community concerning removal of records, compound the problem of doing local history. The current state of reprography enables the Lakota Archives to bring together microfilm editions of original documents for local use. However, the burden and responsibility for producing these edi­tions needs to be shared by the institutions housing the removed materials. The Lakota Archives look forward to the day when tribal historians and other scholars have ready and centralized access to the written documents they need.

For many generations, native peoples of the United States have been subjected to an assimilation process which was dominated by cultural repression. The boarding school system forced Indian children to give up their Indian ways and become “civilized” but did not attempt to help them develop aca­demically. Instead, Indian children were funneled into manual occupa­tions which did little to contribute to documenting their own history. The oral traditions which have been retained will help this generation to write the histories of their people. But lack of available written re­sources will continue to hamper those individuals who are attempt­ing to relocate their history.

Tribally chartered colleges such as Sinte Gleska, and the archives program that it has instituted, are providing the mechanism whereby native people may retain and relo­cate their written heritage. Someday, well-documented tribal histories, created locally, will be a reality. However, now is the time that the various private organizations and government agen­cies which have contributed to the paper trail away from the reservations face the inevitability of repa­triation.

Chuck Hill served as project archivist at Sinte Gleska College from 1987 to 1989. Currently, he is project archivist for the People-To-People Foundation in Virginia.

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