Connected \\ July 13, 2022
Ongoing effort seeks to identify and correct harmful terms in PEM’s library catalog
In April of 2020, I joined the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) staff at the Phillips Library as the Native American Mellon Library Fellow, a position designed to assist the library in its mission of collecting, stewarding, and providing access to materials and resources, with a focus on practices related to Indigenous subject materials. My work was part of an ongoing decentering initiative led by the Phillips Library to remediate colonialism in library practice and resource description. Thinking critically about words and the power they hold is one step in the path forward. Harmful language perpetuates stereotypes and spreads false narratives and false representations, and for whatever reason, it still exists in many libraries.
My responsibilities included building on the critical cataloging work done by the previous Native American Summer Fellow as well as processing a donation of roughly 3,000 volumes, theses, and serials from Dr. Jeffrey Phipps Brain, an archaeologist renowned for his contributions in the field on Southeastern Native American art and culture. Dr. Brain’s immense collection reflects his long career as well as his long standing affiliation at PEM as Senior Research Associate, and with other major contributors such as Phillp Phillips and renowned universities like Yale and Harvard.
Photos courtesy of the author.
The unprocessed Brain library materials are housed within rows of boxes, stacked 12 feet high. They contain documents pertaining to Native American art and archaeology, prehistoric and historical material culture, colonial archaeology, the exploration period, as well as South American, African, and Polynesian art and archaeology from scholars such as Charles Clark Willoughby, Arthur Putnam, and Warren K. Moorehead. The inventory, spanning more than 100 pages, includes Antiquities of the New England Indians, Indian Burial Place at Winthrop Massachusetts, The Stone Age in North America, and Stone Ornaments Used by Indians in the United States and Canada. These works contributed to shaping the fields of archaeology and ethnology in the 19th century, when basic literacy, higher education, and publishing were afforded to few.
During the nascent period of cross-cultural exchange, and even today, a majority of scholars researching in the fields of ethnography, anthropology, and archaeology concerned with non-European groups had no implicit affiliation with the societies and artifacts they studied and they approached their subjects with a perspective limited by their own cultural perceptions. Despite the often sincere efforts on the part of these scholars to understand the traditions and values of cultures different from their own, colonial bias and cultural relativism pervade the foundational scholarship in these fields. Many of the misunderstandings these pioneering researchers introduced through ignorance or prejudice have had an enduring impact on perceptions of specific social and cultural groups within both specialist and popular contexts.
Photos courtesy of the author. Acculturation in the Americas (1952) by Sol Tax.
The perpetuation of racial and cultural stereotypes can be explained in part by the privileging of text-based discourses and transmissions of information within the methodological approach of these disciplines. Other forms of documentation, such as oral histories and the artifacts of material culture that often constitute a culture's self-understanding, have been denigrated as legitimate alternatives to the dominant historical narratives generated by these texts and their concomitant practices. One of the major consequences of this approach has been to subsume entire cultures that continue to change and develop within a mythology of the progress of global civilization. While artists and museums, such as PEM, have been addressing these misunderstandings in Indigenous art and culture, the library field has lagged behind, perpetuating colonial narratives and forms of valuation that prevent individuals and groups from correcting and adapting critical models to incorporate excluded modes of subjective understanding.
Photo courtesy of the author.
“Our wild Indians: thirty-three years' personal experience among the red men of the great West. A popular account of their social life, religion, habits, traits, customs, exploits, etc. With thrilling adventures and experiences on the great plains and in the mountains of our wide frontier (1882) by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge.”