AOTUS: Increasing Access to Native American Records

December 18, 2020

David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

 In the last few months, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) announced two new online resources that bring greater access to federal records relating to Native Americans.

In October 2020, the Indigenous Digital Archive (IDA) Treaties Explorer made available digital copies of NARA’s series of 374 ratified Indian Treaties. And in November, we launched the Bureau of Indian Affairs Photographs Finding Aid.

Through the IDA Treaties Explorer, the public now has access to the treaties themselves but also, in many cases, to additional historical documents. Generous support from an anonymous donor enabled us to perform conservation work, scan, and digitize this historically and culturally important collection, and make these records accessible for anyone, anywhere, through our National Archives Catalog. Dr. Anna Naruta-Moya and her team at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC), in Santa Fe, NM, partnered with us in this endeavor.

Because of their unique historical significance, the treaties have long been housed in a specially protected area within the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and the original documents are not pulled for use in the Central Research Room. The IDA Treaties Explorer now brings these historically and culturally important documents to the wider public.

Descendants of the original peoples can examine the names and seals and read the words set down by their ancestors so long ago. Teachers and students can explore the treaties and their history as part of U.S. history as a whole. And tribal leaders and lawyers continue to consult the treaties and use them to assert their rights in court, such as in cases over land and water rights.

We also plan to continue and increase our educational outreach to Native American communities, and to raise and increase awareness of Native American history. The Resources section of the Treaties Explorer includes links to curriculum units for teachers to use and “how-to” video workshops about what the treaties are and the kinds of research you can do on the site.

NARA has further expanded access to records about Native Americans with its new Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Photographs Finding Aid. This new digital finding aid was launched on November 19 and allows the public to explore more than 18,000 photographs through an engaging and easy-to-use online experience.

From the landing page, you can choose to explore the photographs by Tribal Nation, topic, or state. Selecting “Tribal Nation” or “topic” allows you to browse alphabetical lists and select your area of interest. Selecting the category “state” brings up a map of the United States that you can use to view photographs from a specific state.

To create this new type of finding aid, NARA consulted users and stakeholders, who included archivists and other information science professionals with experience in Native American records, members of Tribal Nations and representatives of organizations with connections to Tribal communities, and NARA staff.

Once the final list of topics was selected, we curated the photographs into the Native American Photographs Tagging Mission to recruit the help of citizen archivists in tagging the photographs with topics to be pulled into the finding aid. We are grateful for the help of our citizen archivists to develop NARA’s first crowdsourced finding aid; their work made it possible to organize and present these photographs by topic in 28 categories including agriculture, art and artifacts, portraits, and much more.

These 18,000 digitized photographs are a powerful beginning, and this project will continue to grow and evolve as NARA digitizes more BIA photographs.

Both the IDA Treaties Explorer and the BIA Photographs Finding Aid are powerful new tools to increase access to federal government records in the National Archives. They also align with the agency’s strategic goals to Connect with Customers and Maximize NARA’s Value to the Nation. Scanning records is a first step. To fully promote access and meet the public’s needs, we must facilitate new and innovative uses of our digitized holdings to allow the nation’s records to be widely available. These new online resources for Native American records are two platforms that use NARA’s digitized holdings in new and innovative ways.

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