Post contributed by Carady DeSimone
This blog post was partially inspired by a long-term workgroup titled, “Putting the Protocols to Work.” These monthly sessions were hosted by the Autry Museum of the American West and supported by SAA; concerning experience with the practices of PNAAM, repatriation, and intersection with NAGPRA. Although I do not work directly with our NAGPRA team, there is definitely some overlap in my practice. Much of the material I work with is considered restricted under one or more conditions—or as I prefer to think, “for official use only.” As an early-career archivist working adjacent to indigenous materials, I was honored to be included in the conversations.
Here is my experience.
I am responsible for rearranging and inventorying the extensive photograph collection of the National Parks Service’s Southeast Archeological Center. This curation center supports the wide array of National Parks within the Southeast Region—largely Gulf coast and South-Atlantic states.
Archeology is how the government determines compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHRP). Basically, any groundbreaking activity on federal land—from establishing a new hiking trail, to planning new buildings, to historic renovations, to road construction—must be evaluated for the potential impact in the “area of effect.” Each branch of the Department of the Interior has their own team of archeologists (most notably the National Parks Service, US Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Land Management), while other departments may work with other subject matter experts (SME’s) like biologists, ecologists, or geologists, depending on the project and/or agency mission.
My day-to-day assignment involves consolidating photographs by Park, rather than by format, as was previously practiced [that’s an entire other post of discussion, trust me]. During my first few months of adjusting and onboarding, I unexpectedly came across a close up, 8”x10” black and white photograph of a human skull. Now, I know that I should have expected this to happen eventually, and it certainly seems that many in the field have a high tolerance for … the otherwise creepy and/or macabre … but for whatever reason, it took me by surprise.1
There is an old belief that photographs capture or steal a small bit of ones’ soul. If that is the case, perhaps that may extend also to photographs of remains…? How might it feel to be so close to those other bits, yet not intact? Fractured. Disunity. My goal became to bring these fragments together, for cohesion, and solace. It took months to cycle through the bulk of materials (mostly 35mm negatives and a whole variety of older prints), but I was able to reunite all of the photographic materials, all the bits of stolen soul, into one physical location. When the photos were all compiled, I discovered that the skull from the photo that inspired me was one of three found at the site—a family.
It’s like Humpty Dumpty; but instead of eggshells, we’ve got piles. Every time a piece fits together, it feels like a small victory. And I think that’s the one I am most proud of so far.
I can’t find every photo for every park. There’s not enough time. I’m almost to “good enough” level of processing for most of our parks. But, whenever I look through this particular binder to check on a different accession, I say the tiniest, silentest prayer to this trio—pardon my disturbance again; are you settling in well? I’m glad you are all together again…
The Autry – The Autry Museum of the American West, in Los Angeles, CA.
- Season 4, Episode 5: Liza Posas – Archives In Context (archivists.org)
- Developing the “Where Repatriation Meets the Protocols” Workbook | The Sustainable Heritage Network
NAGPRA – Native American Graves Protection Act; federal legislation concerning the protection and repatriation of Native American human remains and funerary objects.
NHPA – National Historic Preservation Act (1966); federal legislation protecting historic properties and lands. See Section 106 below.
PNAAM – Protocols for Native American Archival Materials; created by a workgroup of cultural heritage professionals and the First Archivists Circle, to describe some best practices when working with indigenous materials.
- See “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials”: Information and Resources Page | Society of American Archivists, Native American Archives Section, for additional resources and information.
Section 106 – The part of the NHPA that requires compliance.
Disclaimers: Written with respect by a non-native ally.
- A coworker recently assured me that most people working in museums or archeology do tend to become more desensitized to death than folks in other professions.
Read more about DeSimone’s career journey on the SAA Membership Blog!