Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People

My blog post about the need to centre First Nations Voices in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) collections.

I used to discuss missionaries’ papers and their usefulness in regards to First Nations family history as part of my work. Unfortunately, this usually lead to me discussing the missionaries themselves. This was hard to avoid as the collection would be named after missionary and the descriptive information available mostly related to them.  But, I hated it. Mainly, because it centred a non-Indigenous person in a story about First Nations people. This is common as much of the First Nations cultural material in GLAM collections originates from non-Indigenous people who recorded or collected (probably stole) First Nations culture.

As result, there are shields in collections that their records state ‘maker unknown” but clearly articulate that it is part of the “Smith” collection or photos of First Nations community members in collections that have insufficient title “Aboriginal woman & Aboriginal boy” but the metadata clearly states creator “Thomas Smith” or manuscripts in collections titled the “Awabakal language by Thomas Smith”. All of these examples decentre First Nations people. They also imply that First Nations knowledge or culture doesn’t exist until it gets white acknowledgement. That our culture, like our land, needs to be “discovered”. Furthermore, it doesn’t recognise First Nations people as creators of culture and history or as knowledge holders, but rather gives them the roles of subjects.

This still continues today. You often see non-Indigenous researchers who are researching First Nations culture being solely credited on the research output and only acknowledging and/or thanking the community or individuals where the cultural knowledge comes from. Whereas, the First Nations community and knowledge holders should be credited as co-authors of the output and should have have their names listed before the non-Indigenous researcher.

Also in art, there are many non-Indigenous artists who use their art to highlight contemporary issues of racism and colonisation faced by First Nations people. However,  often their creative output again solely credits them as the creator. Additionally, their art can centre a non-Indigenous person in a discussion of First Nations issues and could take up space that a First Nations voice could fill.

Both of these examples lead to the continuation of GLAM collections being filled with White voices on First Nations culture. There are other ramifications to this as well, such as access. For instance, I heard stories of people trying to access photos of their family members in collections but can’t because of copyright restrictions.

What can we do about it?

Firstly, we should minimise White voices in regards to First Nations culture whenever possible. If a boomerang is on display, then the inscription below it should focus on the community it came from and cultural information around it, not the non-Indigenous person who donated it to the collection.

 To compliment that, we also try to work with First Nations communities and add more cultural information to our catalogues and records. One of the reasons we centre non-Indigenous people in discussions about First Nations cultural heritage material is because it is the only information we have available. Adding more cultural information to our records would rectify this. 

Also, we should respect Indigenous intellectually property. When a non-Indigenous person deposits First Nations cultural heritage into our collections, we should ensure community or individuals where the cultural knowledge comes from are also are acknowledged as copyright holders and as such have a say in the access conditions of the material.

Digitally rearrange collections. While, it may be chaotic to physically divide and disperse the “Smith collection”, we may be able to do so in digital spaces. In these spaces, we may be able to organise and classify material by the First Nations community it comes from and by digitally removing  First Nations material from the “Smith collection” we decentre “Smith” from this First Nations story. Additionally, in digital spaces we can prioritise cultural information above information relating to provenance in the metadata. 

Lastly, have your collection development or acquisitions policy prioritise First Nations cultural heritage material created by First Nations people. 

In summary, many of us are aware of the Eurocentric bias in GLAM institutions, but we got to be aware how current practices contribute to that bias. Centring the non-Indigenous person who wrote, painted, photographed, collected, etc First Nations cultural heritage material does contribute to the devaluing of First Nations voices takes away their agency and places First Nations people and their cultures as subjects and that is why we need to work to prevent this from continuing. 

By Nathan Sentance

7 thoughts on “Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s