Joseph Genetin-Pilawa: “Documented Rights” & Representations of Indigenous History in the Archive

[This article is crossposted from]

This past November, historian Joseph Genetin-Pilawa participated in a symposium on federal Indian affairs at the newly dedicated St. Louis branch of the National Archives. The panel coincided with the opening of a new NARA exhibit entitled “Documented Rights” (complete exhibit viewable online here) and included historians Flannery Burke and Frederick Fausz, in addition to Genetin-Pilawa. This was the second in a series of panel discussions addressing civil and human rights struggles of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants from various parts of world, working class activists, and women as they relate to the exhibit. In this guest post, Dr. Genetin-Pilawa, whose new book will be published by UNC Press into the First Peoples, New Directions in Indigenous Studies initiative next fall, contextualizes the exhibit within broader Native American histories and illustrates some of the potential pitfalls of inclusion in a linear, multicultural archival exhibit.

“Documented Rights” and Representations of Indigenous History in the Archive
By Joseph Genetin-Pilawa

"Documented Rights" online exhibit screenshotThe online exhibit “Documented Rights” tells a story about the ways that diverse people have struggled “for personal rights and freedoms.” Its narrative is constructed using historical records held in fourteen National Archives locations across the United States, including digital facsimiles of photographs, telegrams, speeches, letters, court documents, ship manifests, congressional papers, and more. The exhibit begins with the Civil War era—focusing on slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction—then moves chronologically through time to address issues related to immigration, suffrage campaigns, working class activism, Japanese-American relocation, and the Civil Rights Movement of the postwar era. Within this timeline, the creators of “Documented Rights” have also attempted to incorporate the history of Native people.

Interestingly, visitors first encounter Indigenous people by viewing records related to the Indian Citizen Act of 1924.  These documents, along with a photo of Comanche Quanah Parker and the Constitution of the Mission Indian Federation, are situated between and among photographs of Susan B. Anthony and suffrage parades, enemy alien registration forms, a picture of Eugene V. Debs, and a brochure about World War II Japanese internment. Within the larger mosaic of records and images, the struggle and hardships experienced by Native Americans might appear to “fit.” After all, museums and public spaces have often simply omitted a Native presence. This exhibit, it seems, has made a conscious effort to rectify that omission. I have to wonder, though, is the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act really a good starting point for this inclusion? Should “inclusion” even be the goal for curators of an online exhibit such as this one? And, could simply “fitting” the Native experience into a linear narrative of inclusion ever work?

When I was first asked to participate in a panel at the St. Louis National Archives branch, I had not yet viewed “Documented Rights.” Truth be told, being invited to speak in the hallowed halls of a NARA branch (albeit in this case a glistening new building on the west side of St. Louis) was exciting, while the prospect of critiquing the exhibit was somewhat anxiety provoking. As an American of settler/immigrant ancestry as well as a scholar of Indigenous studies who spends a lot of time doing archival research, I often struggle with the archive as an institution. This is especially true of the federal archival system. It occupies problematic space. On one hand, it catalogs, organizes, and maintains records that the settler colonial government has used to make populations legible thus facilitating dispossession, extractive labor, and coercive assimilation policies. On the other hand, archives also, often unknowingly, preserve evidence of a colonial-settler state that allows Indigenous people to critique, shape, and resist oppression. Examining the exhibit itself illustrates both of these points.

Studying Indigenous history in light of federal policy and United States development is wrought with unique pitfalls that make fitting it into a multicultural national narrative problematic, especially when that story is depicted as a celebratory and linear march toward universal inclusion. Historian Donald Fixico sees federal Indian affairs as an oscillating pendulum, not a linear timeline—policymakers shifting between full inclusion on one end and complete marginalization/exclusion on the other. Fixico argues that, while this paradigm allows for an easy periodization of federal policy development, the wide sweep of that pendulum has often obscured as much as it has revealed.[1] Author Kevin Bruyneel suggests that this polar paradigm is a reflection of “American colonial ambivalence,” an inability on the part of policymakers to allow Indigenous people to exist in contemporary political time and space.[2] It would seem, then, that “fitting” Native American history within a linear narrative of inclusion is a bit like fitting a square peg into a round hole.

“Documented Rights,” like so many other museum/archival exhibits, unfortunately seems to fall into this trap. United States citizenship rights were no doubt profoundly important to former slaves and new immigrants. And voting rights were of utmost significance to the white female activists and male labor leaders who appear in the exhibit. Yet, Indigenous history does not weave so easily into this larger tapestry of “inclusion.”

Section 3 of the exhibit, with the unintentionally ironic title, “This Land is Your Land,” focuses on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and asserts, “New immigrants and long-term residents struggled to assimilate as well as overcome social inequalities and injustices.” For Native people, the exhibit states, “inherent rights were not recognized until the 20th century . . . [when] Native Americans became citizens of the United States.” This implies that only U.S. citizenship could confer rights for Native people. And this is a tenuous implication, especially considering the fact that every one of the nearly 400 treaties that U.S. officials signed with Native nations recognized sovereignty and the inherent rights of Indigenous people (many of these treaties are even housed in the federal archives). Citizenship within the U.S. body politic factored nowhere in this equation, and when it did become a factor, it often required Indigenous people to forego or denounce citizenship rights within their own nations. I’m not saying that the 1924 Citizenship Act wasn’t important, but instead, I’m suggesting there is a danger here of flattening the contours and complexities of the Indigenous experience so that it “fits” within a celebratory multicultural American narrative, rather than pushing to change the narrative fundamentally to reflect the deep and rich landscape of Native American history. I think we can do better.

It’s important to remember that “Documented Rights,” even as a virtual exhibit, is presented in a linear form—its stories told through a chronological narrative. Breaking that narrative seems easier in written scholarship, where authors are able to present complicated ideas through prose and literary conventions not typically employed in the physical space of a museum. In my own work, I focus attention on Indigenous and non-Indigenous reformers after the Civil War who envisioned a relationship between Native communities and the U.S. in which U.S. citizenship was not necessarily an endpoint, or even a goal. I call these men and women “alternative reformers” because they presented viable, genuine policy alternatives within mainstream systems of government. These individuals often exist at the margins of current historical literature because they don’t easily fit into narratives of inclusion. My book, (tentatively entitled) Contested Characters and the Crooked Paths to Allotment, upends the conventional story by moving them to the center and by investigating both the campaigns they won and lost. “Documented Rights,” as a virtual exhibit rather than a physical place, could have employed similar conventions and reordered time and space. On the walls of museums or in the cabinets of exhibits, linearity works (and perhaps it’s even necessary to usher an audience through an orderly physical space that requires a beginning and an end), but cyberspace is different. The visitor has the ability to navigate alternate paths and stories. So why has it been so difficult to upend the structures that have driven museum design and form?

As I was reading through Chickasaw theorist Jodi Byrd’s new book The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, I thought about how the ways she writes and thinks about Indigeneity might relate to the exhibit. Byrd offers a sophisticated and thoughtful exploration of the problems associated with conflating Indigeneity and racial identity. Building upon work by Kanaka Maoli scholar J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Ojibwe scholar Jean O’Brien, Bryd writes that when Indigenous identity becomes simply another racial category, Native assertions of sovereignty and land rights disappear. In place of sovereignty then, citizenship within the colonizing state, as seen in “Documented Rights,” fills the void.[3]

If trying to fit the Native experience into a broader framework that includes immigrants, labor activists, freed peoples, internment victims, and suffragists is so dangerous, what’s a historian, archivist, or curator to do? And here it is: I think we have to acknowledge that complexity, not shy away from it. As author Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), one of the curators at the National Museum of the American Indian (a space that has attempted to rethink what a museum does), writes in his thought-provoking book Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, “Simply reversing bogus binaries doesn’t get us anywhere. The project isn’t about the good guys being bad, and the bad guys being good, but about finding new ways of seeing and thinking about the history that is all around us.”[4] I think “Documented Rights” gives us a chance to acknowledge this complexity, that’s part of why it’s important and worth a look. The Mission Indian Federation Constitution and Adam Castillo’s 1925 letter regarding internal sovereignty serve as clear indications that there were alternate ideas that diverged from the artificial binaries we’ve constructed. For example, the Mission Indian Federation met and negotiated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but at the same time, took as their slogan “Human Rights and Home Rule.”

The virtual exhibit “Documented Rights” raises some interesting challenges for scholars and museum professionals alike. It also reminds us that the struggle “for personal rights and freedoms” means something different for Indigenous people. While NARA should be congratulated for its attempt to do some justice to representing the Native experience, “Documented Rights” sheds light on the difficulty of doing so without replicating settler-colonial/archival patterns of organizing, categorizing, and flattening those histories. Rather than “documenting” rights—a process that privileges the kinds of written records held in archives—a better starting point might be “defining” what a healthy relationship between Native communities and the federal state might look like and seeking input from Indigenous nations while departing from linear models of representation.

An alternate approach to presenting Indigenous histories in cyberspace can be seen in the new exhibit “Indians of the Midwest,” hosted by the Newberry Library and curated by D’Arcy McNickle Center Director Scott Stevens. It contextualizes its stories within a United States national narrative, but puts the Native perspective at the center of the visitor experience. Viewers are encouraged to navigate the exhibit across time and Native histories are situated in the present, as much as the past. This exhibit, I believe, offers an excellent model for representing Indigenous histories in a digital environment.

Joseph Genetin-Pilawa is assistant professor of history at Illinois College. His forthcoming book, currently titled Contested Characters and the Crooked Paths to Allotment, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in fall 2012.

  1. [1]Fixico, Donald, “Federal and State Policies and American Indians.” In A Companion to American Indian History, edited by Philip Deloria and Neal Salisbury, 379. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
  2. [2]Bruyneel, Kevin. The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.-Indigenous Relations, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 10.
  3. [3]Byrd, Jodi. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xxiii-xxiv.
  4. [4]Smith, Paul Chaat. Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 75.