Recentering Cultural Heritage with(in) the Community
The Haudenosaunee Archive, Resource and Knowledge Portal
In early June, we sat down for a virtual conversation with three researchers on a recent Mellon grant that brings together several topics of interest for Ithaka S+R: digital archives, preservation, open access, DEIA, and data sovereignty. In the following transcript, we discuss the development of the Haudenosaunee Archive, Resource and Knowledge (HARK) portal at the University of Buffalo with Theresa McCarthy (Principle Investigator (PI), Onondaga Nation Beaver Clan from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, associate professor in the department of Indigenous Studies and associate dean for inclusive Excellence in the college of arts and sciences at University of Buffalo), Mishuana Goeman (Co-PI, chair of Indigenous Studies at University of Buffalo, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, daughter of an enrolled Hawk member), and Evviva Weinraub Lajoie (Co-PI, vice provost for libraries at University of Buffalo).
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
IH: We’re really excited to get this time to interview you and highlight this work. Can you give us some background on the larger Indigenous Studies initiatives, including the department at University of Buffalo?
EL: In 2019, UB was awarded a Mellon grant for 3.174 million dollars for the formation of an Indigenous Studies department. Prior to that point, Indigenous Studies existed as an area of focus within American Studies and then later transnational studies. That initial grant from Mellon has been used to hire faculty focused on Indigenous research and scholarship, obtain additional resources and infrastructure, and has helped to establish ongoing community engagement in order to center Haudenosaunee values and protocols and build and sustain Indigenous inclusion at UB, building on two Haudenosaunee archive grants from Mellon.
TM: Native American Studies started at University of Buffalo in 1972, and it was founded by students from the Seneca nation. The program was started by Marilyn Schindler along with her husband Barry White. They brought in Oren Lyons, who is Seneca, and who now serves as Onondaga faith keeper and sits on our traditional Confederacy Council of Chiefs, as well as John Mohawk. Together, they started this program that remained very connected to the community, very focused on grassroots work. But [the program] also used Haudenosaunee knowledge as a lens for thinking about Indigenous issues nationally and internationally as well. As the program developed, other illustrious Indigenous professors joined, such as renowned Tuscarora artist Jolene Rickard. The program was embraced by the surrounding communities.
At the University of Buffalo, we have a number of different communities in Western New York—Haudenosaunee communities—and in Southern Ontario, within a 90 mile radius of our campus. So we have Six Nations of Grand River Territory, where I come from, we have the Tuscarora Nation, we have Tonawanda Seneca where Mishuana comes from, and we also have the Seneca Nation of Indians at Cattaraugus and Allegheny. Serving those communities has been very important. Just so you know, the intellectual authority Haudenosaunee studies had for a very long time resided with anthropologists and people from outside of our communities. The professors and the work that happened here wrestled control of that back to really center our knowledge, our experience, and who we are as a people.
One of the priorities of the program was for students to be doing projects and activities that benefited the nations and communities that they came from. That was such an important legacy for us to build on. At its heyday, I came in as a graduate student working on a PhD to work with John Mohawk in the year 2000. To me, it was just such a fantastic place. I had never had Indigenous professors before, let alone the four or five of them at UB. It was just unbelievable to me. Drawing upon this legacy, we built [the new UB Indigenous Studies Department] as a home and a hub. It was a home for Indigenous Studies as an academic discipline, and it needed to be a standalone department, but we also wanted the unit to be a hub that was concerned with Indigeneneity across our campus and that involved the community. It is a place where we could work on cross-campus Indigenous-centered research initiatives like the one that we’re talking about today, where we could think about how we can build capacity in best practices in Indigenous research, but also to explore how we were supporting our students.
MG: As we’re rebuilding the department, we have a minor in place right now. Next year we are in the process of building the major and the PhD and MA program. The field itself has become self-sustaining with its own association, Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), and also with a set of journals that are really important as well. Indigenous methodologies have also come a long way since the inception of Native American Studies at UB. There’s kind of a wrestling back in the larger field, of taking back knowledge for Indigenous communities. So these are some of the issues we want to reflect in that larger global critical Indigenous methodologies department. What does trans-Indigeneity mean? It’s not just about white-Indian relationships, but also about Indigenous nation to Indigenous nation relationships. How can we learn from each other, as language revitalization or language based-learning becomes one part of a focus of our communities—we currently teach Tuscarora, Seneca and Mohawk as well, and we have a Haudenosaunee language and cultural class. Then we have the land-based and the language learning, as well as classes in global critical methodologies in which we train students to do research. The digital realm is really where we’re working on focusing some of our projects in relation to circulation in communities. That’s where the program stands now.
One of the things that I really believe in is also creating undergraduate spaces so that students in the sciences can come and at least learn the basics of working in tribal communities. Our tribal communities across the United States tend to be the highest employers in some states, such as Minnesota and in California. So this isn’t just about training academics, it’s training people to work with tribal nations and understand what sovereignty means, understand living treaties and those kinds of capacities. We are very excited to grow: we have new faculty coming in the fall as well as in the fall of 2024, and we have two postdocs coming to campus as well. And our faculty makeup mirrors what we’re hoping to do: we have faculty in critical global Indigeneity, land-based pedagogies, and language. We also have concentrations that I’ve developed out of Indigenous geographies and Indigenous gender and sexuality studies.
MS: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how the Hub and the HARK portal work together?
TM: We’ve developed what’s called a Haudenosaunee Hub. The Hub is our digital network infrastructure in this project. So it’s staff and resources that aim to help us connect specific digital content projects and community-based archival materials related to Haudenosaunee knowledge production that exist but are currently disconnected or un-networked. The Hub will also focus on addressing the digital needs and priorities of our communities, their grassroots projects, archival projects, knowledge preservation initiatives, and the work that our repositories are doing across our confederacy territories. The HARK itself—the Haudenosaunee Archive Resource and Knowledge portal—is a digital repository website that we’re creating that will contain verified authentic Haudenosaunee knowledge-based resources and materials. Our digital collection that features material from 50 years of Native American Studies at UB will be included on that portal.
MG: I’ll add that this is similar to a hub-and-a-spoke model that’s been developed out of WSU with the Mukurtu platform. Theresa’s expanded it to be very grounded in Haudenosaunee hub spokes (a spoke is like an instance), so it’s less about the platform and more about the repositories and what they want to do. So what we’ll do is provide a place where communities can see all the different spokes and then try to provide those services. In the Mukurtu platform itself, there’s this function called roundtrip. This roundtrip mechanism enables library platforms and different platforms to populate different field structures and metadata structures so that they can cross-pollinate there. So in other words, you can have a cultural digital heritage item that might have been digitized at the Library of Congress, or Smithsonian, and you can cross-pollinate it into our hub system. It can then still be an item that’s held physically there, but when it comes back with the roundtrip, that digital heritage item can have a different attribution record of metadata, one focused in community knowledge and acknowledging the importance of data sovereignty
IH: At Ithaka S+R, we’re particularly interested in tracking the ability of institutions to foster and assess inclusion and belonging. Can you speak to some of the ways that you have measured the impact of your initiatives so far, or plan on measuring in the future?
TM: Central to this project is that we wanted to address place-based concerns to make sure that Haudenosaunee knowledge is still accessible and that it can be engaged in the places and spaces from which it originates. Preceding this grant, we got a small planning grant to explore the feasibility of our current grant. We got that grant right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was focused on a needs assessment around possibilities for digital archiving and resource management that was very general. But we did it at a time when, because of the high transmissibility of COVID-19 in our communities, we could not do in-person meetings, and because there was difficulty crossing borders, we actually couldn’t do the cross-border work that we typically do traveling to Six Nations, for example. And so this really enhanced conversations about needing to establish digital repositories and digital networks and thinking about ways we could network our knowledge. While there was a lot of variability, there was a lot of consistent interest that shaped how we thought about the needs around facilitating digital network access and networking of Haudenosaunee knowledge production and materials. These conversations helped us to identify the materials that people were really interested in having networked that weren’t yet compiled.
EL: The initial conversations that we had with the Mellon Foundation about this were really intentional. I wanted to make sure that they understood that we were trying really hard not to come in with very specific ideas of what the deliverables were necessarily even going to be, what tools we were going to use, and how the community wanted to engage with us. We were basically saying to Mellon, “you need to review us differently and think about us differently because we are asking you to engage with us in a way that will make sense for the communities we’re trying to work with.” And so we were pretty intentional about saying “we don’t want to give you specific goals and deliverables and metrics of success because we also need to work with our community to have them help us define what success is.”
MG: I would also add that the issue of data sovereignty is something that we’re really trying to push. Part of the platform itself is to enable private conversations that I myself wouldn’t even be aware of, even if I’m Haudenosaunee, if there’s a particular community that wants to have that private conversation. So sometimes the deliverables—if you really respect data sovereignty—are not going to be the same kind of analytic deliverables, like how many people have used or uploaded or downloaded or any of that on the backend. Part of moving away from a Western-controlled idea of what is working with cultural digital heritage items might mean losing control by universities and by institutions out of necessity while people have some of those discussions themselves. I think that’s sometimes one of the hardest things that learning institutions have to do because they come from that very Western perspective that all knowledge is everybody’s knowledge, but it’s not, and that’s something that our communities have known for a long time. I think this is one of the important elements that we have to start considering in terms of Indigenous methodology—that not all knowledge is open to everybody nor should that be so. Avoiding extraction from communities is also one of the goals of this project as well, such as avoiding making materials open where they might be translated or interpreted by non-native scholars incorrectly. That’s one of the things that we’re really geared toward resituating within the department and within these platforms as well.
MS: I think that’s really, really fascinating and is clearly an important aim of the project. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the collections that will be included in the HARK portal and what types of items would be included.
TM: There’s just so much that we have that will be included in this collection. We want to feature the publications and the unpublished work of our professors that have been part of this program in the last 50 years, as well as that of our distinguished alumni and those that have worked at grassroots organizations to display the lasting legacies of their scholarship, activism, and leadership. And it’s not just publications, but also exhibits and grassroots work that’s been produced by UB faculty and students, and the foundations of so many great intellectual innovations in Haudenosaunee studies including Haudenosaunee work on international diplomacy, visual sovereignty, Indigenous philosophies, cultural production as scholarship, land-based learning as liberation, and more. As an ethical starting point, we picked materials that were in the public domain and had not been digitally connected and networked before, so people don’t have to worry that we’re putting up anything that is sensitive or sacred.
We just had an art exhibit of contemporary Haudenosaunee art that was meant to reflect on and represent the 50 year legacy of Native American studies. It was incredible. We have all of that documented—interviews with the artists, audio visual materials, public talks, syllabi, and all of the work that’s connected with those of us who are alumni or former students of the program.
MG: I would also add that we are creating some of this material as well, like originating primary material that will be on the site. For instance, for the exhibit “Thinking in Indian,” I’m already in the process of interviewing my aunt; she’s a very well known quilt maker and she wanted something for a new quilt that relates to the journey of red black experiences, titled “No Apologies.” We’re documenting the whole process of her making this next quilt, which will operate more as an art piece. We’re already seeing many people asking about the project and they are very excited about the prospect of telling their own stories and their own journeys as artists, activists, and community leaders.
IH: Could you describe some of the cultural, technical, and social complexities involved with building a digital collection of these resources?
MG: I’ve had lots of experience working with communities. I work with over 10 tribal nations for the California Native Mukurtu grant right now. Each community has different problems, but some of them are institutional: largely the issues of ownership and copyright. Mukurtu enables us to have a server that’s outside the university. I also have another digital project that uses Mukurtu, and for that project I work with universities and institutions as well as tribal organizations and practitioners, on a separate server than the university server because of intellectual property law. If you use the university server, you run into some issues. So with the hub and the spoke model, institutions will probably want to start their own [and will] have their own servers. One important kind of structural issue with the platform itself is needing to have that server and needing to have an admin that is willing to take [it] up.
The other side is more on the ground floor. The hardest conversation is not around protocols for how a community should interact or how an object should be shown on the platform, but about categories. Because of the way metadata works, we often have to separate out categories that we don’t see as truly separate from one another, but rather as more relational. People should not be outside of nature, right? There shouldn’t be that. So sometimes we see that there’s kind of an incommensurable point between the technology and the way algorithms have to work and the way that Native communities work as a more cohesive relational model. In Mukurtu, for example, you can have as many keywords as you want, but there can only be 10 to 13 categories under which things get imported into the system. Asking communities to decide the categories has been a really important method, and we actually had to develop a code of ethics and used some models, such as Isabel Rivera-Collazo‘s Archeology Lab at UC San Diego.
You also have to wrestle with [property rights], especially if you’re creating curriculum; for instance universities like control of their curriculum as property rights, but at the same time, if tribal nations are helping you it becomes really necessary and important to think about who’s going to maintain the rights. I find that a lot of the tribal nations that I work with believe in open access, but they don’t believe in the universities’ owning and profiting from their work in their knowledge base. I could go on for a long time about the kinds of ethics that are lacking as digital projects come to the forefront. There are a lot of complexities.
MS: The University of Buffalo news release mentioned that fostering community dialogue was included as an essential element of the project, and I know you’ve mentioned it several times during our conversation today. In what ways does that community dialogue take place? Are there particular people from the community? Are there in person or virtual meetings? Is there an online forum? How does that community dialogue happen?
TM: We’ve done in person and virtual meetings as well as gatherings, training sessions, public presentations, site visits, repository visits, outreach with different kinds of initiatives, and different grassroots archival initiatives. Our hub staff and personnel are mostly out in the community; they don’t just sit in an office at University of Buffalo. That work is constant, so it’s just built into the process of the project.
IH: It’s wonderful to see the library play a leadership role in this initiative. How does HARK speak to the longer-term vision of the library and how do you anticipate measuring impact?
EL: Our participation and leadership in this work is seated firmly in the multiple missions that our university library provides. We view this work as supporting researchers, championing the advancement of knowledge, providing information, access, and of course honoring and supporting and advocating for the relevancy and importance of Indigenous data sovereignty. In this particular model, the university libraries don’t own the information and the data remains under the ownership and control of the communities who created those materials. Libraries have historically done a poor job of collecting and providing access to materials by and about Indigenous communities, and access is often near impossible for the communities the information is about. We’re still really in the very early phases of things, but from my perspective, impact will be measured by community members being able to access information that before was inaccessible to them, researchers using these collections for their work, students gaining the opportunity to work with primary materials, and UB building a strong, reciprocal relationship with members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Tuscarora, the Tonawanda, and the Six Nation communities in Western New York and Southern Ontario, Canada. But I would also turn that question back to our Indigenous data creators and our researchers to tell me how they think we should measure this. I think Mishuana brought up a really good point: what we use for assessing things is not necessarily what those communities would view as success. I think that has to be part of our math when we do this work. I’m excited that you’re taking an opportunity to really highlight what we’re doing here. Thank you.
IH: Thank you so much.