Accessing History from Home

Feb 9th, 2012 | By | Category: 23-3: Technology and Culture, Features, Science & Technology

Right, detail of the painting,"Once Upon a Time," by Star Wallowing Bull (Minnesota Chippewa), left, 1865 studio portrait of Chief Po-Go-Nay-Ke-Shick (Hole-in-the-Day). Images appear courtesy of E-Humanity,which can be accessed online at

The spark for E-Humanity, a new web portal for Native American digital artifacts, was ignited by a question. Or more accurately, according to Tom Davis, a complaint voiced by Robert Peacock, former chair of the Fond du Lac Tribe in Minnesota.

While visiting the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum in the 1990s, Davis overheard the chairman complaining about lack of Internet access to collections of cultural items. The museum is located on the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation. “I don’t understand why I can’t sit down at the computer and look at all the museum collections in the world of tribal cultural items!” Peacock fumed.

Davis, who is currently dean of instruction at Navajo Technical College (NTC, Crownpoint, NM), began to wonder about this lack of access as well and spoke to friends and colleagues about the situation. It turned out that he and Chairman Peacock weren’t the only people asking this question.

The question eventually evolved into formal meetings and discussions among cultural stakeholders from the tribal colleges, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), and others. Launched in June 2011, E-Humanity represents the beginning of a new form of cultural institution, one that will blur the lines between traditional museum authority and collections of tribal cultural objects.

Funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant under the Advancing Knowledge Program, AIHEC is partnering with Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing and Digital Science Center, the Autry Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles, and the National Museum of the American Indian in this groundbreaking effort. E-Humanity was developed in parallel with NMAI’s “Fourth Museum”—a web-based vehicle for getting the museum’s cultural resources out to the community.

The free web portal allows users to access photographs and written descriptions of over 70,000 cultural artifacts from NMAI and the Autry, according to Siddharth Maini, web leader of the project at Indiana University (IU).

Technical partners at Indiana University developed the software, wrote the computer coding, and developed the database that has imported content from NMAI and the Autry, according to Al Kuslikis, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Associate at AIHEC.

IU is currently hosting the portal and conducting user testing of students and faculty from United Tribes Technical College (UTTC, Bismarck, ND), the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA, Santa Fe, NM), and the Applied Indigenous Studies Department at Northern Arizona University. Users, including tribal community members, are interviewed as they navigate through the site in an effort to gather diverse feedback.

Currently, users can filter searches by date, location, or culture. For instance, a search for “Anishinaabe” culture produced over 15 pages of results including a worn and patched wild rice winnowing basket from the 1880s that spoke volumes of its owner’s thriftiness and hard work.

Typical of most museum descriptions, the information for each artifact is terse and lacking in detail. Unlike traditional museum collections, however, E-Humanity allows users to add information, share thoughts, and ask questions about the artifacts. This element of engagement and inclusion is the most important aspect of E-Humanity, notes Kuslikis. “Tribal members who access these resources are encouraged to provide information about the objects such as memories they may have about them,” he says. “The idea of the portal is that these artifacts are not just objects sitting in a museum; they are living parts of peoples’ awareness.”

He adds that the “whole idea of cultural memory is to preserve what’s known about values and objects.”

Davis notes that tribal peoples and elders may know far more about the objects found in museums than do the experts who collect and describe them.“Many museum displays are mislabeled,” Davis says.

From the beginning, developers of the portal agreed that tribal communities must maintain ownership of their own cultures. The 2001 report from the first formal meeting of the portal developers, “Digital Collective,” states that intellectual property rights of communities must be honored.

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