Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Archive, Memory and Identity

If you know me, you know that I spend a lot of time with my nose in some archive or other, dusty reality or pixelly digital. I am fascinated with the stories found there, the stories NOT found there, and everything in between. While researching and writing Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, I came under the spell of the archive as a potent source of material, story, and justice. I've never been the same.

Yesterday I spent the entire day at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. I was lucky enough to attend 

Archives, Memory & Identity: A Public Symposium

held in the auditorium at the Rare Books School there. My colleague Julie Phillips Brown, an English professor at VMI, has alerted me to this opportunity earlier in the summer, and I could not sign up fast enough. After all, archives/memory/identity are what I DO. And this year, I'm also teaching with the archives in various ways in my creative writing memoir workshop.

Suffice it to say, the event was pretty much everything Julie and I could have dreamed of, and more. The lineup of individuals creating and/or using archival materials of every imaginable kind was brilliant. Of course, I have favorite presentations, and the best part of having my own blog is that I get to claim them: 

“The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal: A Model for Ethical Access to Cultural Heritage” Trevor James Bond (Co-Director, Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and Associate Dean for Digital Initiatives and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries). This material, and the respectful, thoughtful collaboration between white scholars and Indigenous peoples from the tribes in an area of Washington, Idaho and Oregon who are linked by their relationship with the Columbia River.  Because time is tight as the term gets started, I'll cheat and paste in the info from their beautiful website, with some crucial information in bold:

The Plateau Peoples' Web Portal is a collaboration between the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes Of The Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and Native American Programs at Washington State University. This Portal is a gateway to Plateau peoples' cultural materials held in multiple repositories including WSU's Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture, the National Anthropological Archives and the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. The materials in the Portal have been chosen and curated by tribal representatives. Each item has one or more records associated with it as well as added traditional knowledge and cultural narratives to enhance and enrich understanding to many audiences.

I found myself profoundly moved by both Trevor Bond's presentation of the project details, and by the voices, faces, and objects found on the website. I rarely cry over an academic presentation, but this was so much more than that: this was a rare, and painstakingly respectful illumination of an archive filled with Indigenous peoples' culture and spirit by those Indigenous peoples, for those Indigenous peoples. Even the home page photograph was chosen by the 8 tribes whose cultures are housed here; they said the photograph of the Columbia River was representative of how that river put them into relationship with one another, and with it.

Within this archive, certain materials are not available to the general public (a password protects them; family materials can also be uploaded to the archive but viewed only by family), while great care is taken to preserve protocols about gender, season, religion and so on. An immense collection provides resources for language research, maintenance and education; the mix of historic materials with contemporary Indigenous commentary and critique is a crucial addition that helps erase the old trope of the vanished Indian. Just browsing the site today, I found such a wonderful mix: baskets, videos of elders discussing the Northwest "Fishing Wars," and historical trauma; written documents from government and BIA and church sources; photographs; natural resources, old and new; arts -- and all of this catalogued, searchable, and well-organized. Trevor played one video in which a group of Indigenous women talked about an archival basket in their language, only switching to English at the very end; one woman holds, pats, and examines the basket with respectful hands, and observant eyes throughout. This scene brought tears to my eyes; as a whole, Indigenous peoples are separated from the works of our ancestors, and to hold a basket like that, to speak to it like a person, is a moment to be cherished.

Perhaps the most important work this portal does is what it UN-does: the voices are those of Indigenous people; the materials are chosen not by white curators and scholars and scientists, but by contemporary Indigenous individuals and communities whose expertise is both acknowledged and implicitly behind every aspect of the archive. 

Please take the time to explore this archive, and guide any young students you might know to it, as well. You will come away inspired by the meticulous archival cooperation and Indigenous presence.  In particular, Indigenous protocols and traditional knowledges are present and respected, right down to a privileging of the Native description of a basket over long-held social science descriptions. A small piece of the long, painful history of having our Indigenous sacred objects, or ancestral materials, stolen and withheld from us, and still another dismissive history of being told we can't have them back because "you don't know how to take care of them," are both dismissed with this project. The sovereignty and agency and dignity within this project is palpable, and joyful.

That was just session 1.  In Session 2, my favorite was:

“Moving Memorials” – María Verónica San Martín (Artist, Whitney Museum Independent Study Program; Booklyn, Inc.)

Maria Veronica San Martin is a book artist, a social justice activist, and a visionary.  Her bio reads: "The subject matter of her work derives from the violence in dictatorship Chile (1973–1990) vis-à-vis the United States and Nazism’s involvement in that violence, addressing memory as a pivotal factor for the understanding of the neoliberal, globalized present." But it is also true that Maria portrays the love, compassion, and determination surrounding the memory of those "desaparecidos" -- not just by their families, but in the Chilean national historical identity.

Here are a few photographs of the work she shared with us in a half-hour performance; afterwards we were encouraged to come forward to touch, move, and experience the books ourselves. Maria stated that she feels strongly that the act of remembering is also a physical, tactile act which creates connections between body and mind, thus diversifying and strengthening memory, and making it no long just her memory, or a Chilean national memory, but our memory. As members of a nation that enabled and helped create massacre and torture of innocent people half a world away, our complicity -- as her United Statesian readers -- must be acknowledged, and felt.

This next book is called "Make the Economy Scream," (President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to "make the economy scream" in Chile to "prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him," paving the way for Pinochet's brutal military coup). The book is housed in a copper box (copper mining being an economic mainstay in Chile) with those words engraved on the lid (very difficult to photograph!). Inside, fragile prints on clear plastic show the faces of desaparecidos, those "disappeared" and presumed killed by the military regime; these prints are stacked with sheets of vellum between them, and the whole deck is wrapped in a handkerchief printed with some of the phrases used about Chile in secret conversations between the President and then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

As readers and handlers of this text, we are meant to come away with the stain of these deaths (and the memory of these faces) transferred to our own skins. At the same time, we see, and become complicit with, the inevitable "disappearance" of these faces through time and handling. 

Another of Martin's projects is titled "In Their Memory: Human Rights Violations, Chile (1973-1990)," a collection of photographs, names and biographies of the disappeared constructed as books within books within books. It could be read as a normal text, with pages turning from right to left; it could be read as many tiny books, each photo lifting up to reveal a story about where each person was when they were last seen; it could be read as a wide-open accordion book that floods the eye with faces pleading for attention, and stand on its own; it could even be rolled into a kind of spiral curve, an evasion of linear time. Finally, the back of the book was a long panoramic painting of the Presidential Palace in Santiago, where many of the disappeared were tortured to death. The implication cannot be escaped: their graves never found, these desparecidos are still being held within the walls of torture and silence.

 Julie's iphone's facial recognition app tried to give names to these faces, something which was extraordinarily disturbing.


Another accordion book with two sides, "Indignity and Resistance: In the Foothills of the Andes" is the re-creation of a torture camp. The book is housed within a case. When removed, expanded, and formed into a circle, with the original gate opening at the front, we are presented with the sur/reality of torture. The contrast between what happened inside the camp, and the beauty that surrounded it on the outside revealed our minds' struggle to understand such brutality and beauty being allowed to exist side-by-side. The contrast and dilemma are stunningly portrayed. As I viewed this book, familiar thoughts came back to me: if there is a God, how could such a being take no action against the horrors here? If torture can happen here, in the middle of such beauty, can't it happen anywhere? What kinds of delusions do we have to construct in order to deny our own inhumanity? How is it that we can be surrounded by the clarity of our homeland's landscape, and yet still torture the bodies of our own people?

On the prison scenes inside the book, Maria Veronica Martin sought to show both the cruelty of the torturers, and the ways the prisoners tried to care for one another, comfort one another, and show one another compassion in their worst moments. The indigo blue paint, for me, depicted a kind of eternal night.

One last book: The version we saw at the symposium was made of aluminum, but in later evolutions, heavier metal was used, along with hinges that can move 360 degrees (this version uses aluminum tape). The book comes out of a metal box cut in half along an unusual, jagged line; when the two pieces of the box are pulled just an inch or two apart, they form the stylized "S" used in the Nazi SS symbol.  

The book itself is almost a machine; there are times when Maria simply picked it up and let it fall into a shape of its own, and other times when it seemed to move, roll or collapse into a shape of its own design. The metal "pages" are cold, and lack the warmth or texture of her other books. In addition, the book makes an eerie sound when manipulated; a non-human clicking, clattering, metallic "ting" that is, honestly, creepy and yet fascinating. If you go to her website, linked above, you will see a later version, and be able to watch a video of Maria working with it. She said she came to this design in part because she had reached a point where she lacked the words for such mechanical brutality. The metal pages contain no words, and yet as she continues to manipulate it into shapes (like a swastika, a cross), the metal surface takes on scratches, dents, stains, and other markings. As a kind of puzzle, the pages are both intriguing, and repulsive.  I could not bring myself to touch them, though others did.  


It is not hyperbole to say that the symposium, as a whole, knocked me out; I learned so much about how archives work, the diversity of archival holdings out there. The specialization is intense: we heard about a Hip-hop Archive, saw materials from, and heard the process of, creating an archive of video footage from the Charlottesville violence of the recent Alt-Right rally. We met the founder of the "Historymakers" archive of the Black community, and explored the formation of the Digital Library of the Middle East, formed "in response to the tragic displacement of people, loss of life in conflict zones, and ongoing threats to the cultural heritage of the Middle East through destruction, looting, and illicit trafficking," with a mission to "federate Middle Eastern collections from around the world, creating a publicly accessible,  inter-operable digital library of cultural material."

There was more -- much more. The symposium's organizers left long stretches of Q&A planned into each part of the day, and believe me, we asked questions! The day was packed from one end to the other with stories of financial strategies, partnering with larger organizations, preservation techniques, archives that are "born digital" and archives that have real physical objects at their center; in fact, we talked about storage (both digital and spatial), collaboration with multiple communities, the hard-learned lessons of the past, and wildest-dream plans for the future.

I am not an archivist, myself (although I have my share of obsessive collections). I am a storyteller. An artist. And so it is Maria Veronica Martin's work, and the stories contained within the Plateau Peoples' Web Portal, that most fill my heart. Mining the archive in order to tell the stories of voices silenced and/or brutalized, using the oppressor's archive to bring about justice, and creating, if we are persistent and lucky, a moment of beauty or compassion from these archives, all lead to creating our own archives to achieve balance in narrative; this is why I do the work I do. 

I cannot thank the Rare Books School folks enough for the event, for their fine choice of panelists and topics, for the delicious coffee and fruit in the morning, as well as the wines, cheeses, pickled veggies and breads at the end of the day reception. From start to finish, this was a day I will carry with me, that has fed and will continue to feed me. One of the archivists - I'm sorry, I don't remember which one - told us that one of the most important things to keep in mind as someone who is a safekeeper of cultural inheritance is to "Recognize the gift you are receiving." 

Yesterday was a gift.