Can archives be decolonized?

This blog post was written as an assignment for ARST 573: Archival Systems and the Profession, a required course for my Masters in Archival Studies at UBC. The assignment first required us to prepare an annotated bibliography on an assigned topic (I was assigned decolonizing archives) and then collaborate with another student to write a summary of the topic to share with our class. This piece was co-written with my classmate Rachel McRory. A full list of the references cited in our annotated bibliographies is included at the end of this post.


Discussion around decolonization has been increasingly present in the last decade or so in academic literature. In her influential book, Decolonizing Methodologies (first published in 1999), Linda Tuhiwai Smith articulates the concept of decolonization as, “about centring our concerns and world views and then coming to know and understand theory and research from our own perspectives and for our own purposes”, where “our” represents Indigenous peoples (Smith 2012, 41). This definition has impacted how many scholars comprehend decolonization. However, the term can be defined in many other ways.

Many scholars agree that decolonization requires structural change to enable Indigenous resurgence, not just symbolic actions or “token inclusion” (Regan, p. 189 in Hogan and McCracken 2016, para. 7). People can begin to work on decolonization by identifying colonial power structures and relationships and making them visible (Hogan and McCracken 2016; Tuck and Yang 2012). This increased awareness can then lead to transformational action and the dismantling of these harmful power structures.

There is little written about decolonization by archivists or about archives in particular, and as a result our sources reflect a diversity of perspectives from fields such as Indigenous studies, research methodology, education, history, anthropology, and museum studies. Decolonization has only begun to be regularly discussed within archival studies in the last two years (Allard and Ferris 2015; Bak, Bradford, Loyer and Walker 2017; Delva and Adams 2015; Fraser and Todd 2016; Genovese 2016; Ghaddar 2016; Luker 2017; O’Neal 2015). This timing coincides with the increasingly prevalent discussion surrounding power dynamics within archives, as we have discussed in class.

Therefore, to understand the call to decolonize archives, archivists must begin by developing an understanding of how archives relate to colonialism. Here we will outline a few of these relationships, but there are many more.

First, colonization has resulted in the accumulation of a massive amount of documentation about Indigenous peoples in repositories, mostly created by white men either ignorant of what they are observing, or explicitly hostile towards Indigenous peoples (Hagan 1978). These records are often biased or incorrect, and regularly cast Indigenous peoples “as passive bystanders” of history rather than human beings with agency (Fraser and Todd 2016, 37).

Second, archives have perpetuated colonialism by limiting Indigenous people’s control over how this information about them is used and understood (Ghaddar 2016; Luker 2017). The way in which these records were accumulated has left many of them devoid of important cultural context necessary for understanding them or for using them in projects such as cultural revitalization initiatives (Cushman 2017; Sentance 2017, 117). While archives and museums argue that they protect cultural memory, in practice they regularly harm the preservation of Indigenous memory and oral tradition. As Nathan Sentance (2017) describes, “culture loss was not a problem before colonisation [sic]”.

Third, archives privilege certain kinds of records, particularly textual records, and have traditionally excluded oral histories and other forms of Indigenous knowledge from their repositories (Buchanan 2007). Archivists and other information professionals have long struggled to recognize that Indigenous peoples preserve(d) information because the methods they used to do so were/are considered inferior to the use of written records (Sentence 2017).

Fourth, the emphasis on open access to archives in democratic societies reflects values that may not be appropriate for Indigenous records (Luker 2017). Wide public accessibility to archival records is often mandated or controlled through general legislation, which does not consider the specific context or the type of information in the material. This does not reflect or respect the nuances of Indigenous forms of ownership and cultural practice that controls who can view certain records and how they should be treated (First Archivist Circle).

As a consequence of how deeply archives are embedded within these colonial structures, some authors have argued that “any effort to decolonise or Indigenise the archives in Canada can therefore only ever be partial” (Fraser and Todd 2016, 33). Others disagree and see progress being made already, for example through the creation of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (Luker 2017).

Unquestionably, any attempt at decolonizing archives will require challenging embedded dichotomies between Indigenous and non-indigenous concepts, including “orality–literacy, myth–history, savagery–civilisation and tradition– modernity, and the consequent positioning of Indigenous voices and narratives as inferior” (McKemish, Faulkhead & Russell 2011, 226). Furthermore, this dismantling of dichotomies will require settlers to examine colonialism, white supremacy, and structural oppression – none of which are simple projects. Below, we delve into more specific approaches different authors suggest to decolonization.

Trends in Decolonizing Archives

Throughout our review of the field of Decolonizing Archives, we noticed four major trends in how authors approached decolonization in practice. These four approaches overlap, and some authors address several in their work. Our intention in separating them in this way is not to suggest that they are in competition with one another or mutually exclusive. However, we think that drawing out these patterns can help with understanding some of the main suggestions that advocates of decolonization are presenting for archives and beyond.

Ethics of Decolonization

The first trend focuses on archival ethics, and proposes archivists learn and apply ethical frameworks that centre the rights of Indigenous peoples.

In her presentation to our class on November 6, Melanie Delva described this as “ethical repatriation”. She put forward a similar proposal in her article co-authored by Melissa Adams (2015). In this article they give examples of how Western archival codes of ethics can actually hinder ethical behaviour, for example by mandating that archivists must always preserve materials or that items acquired by an archives cannot be removed. As alternatives, they encourage archivists to familiarize ourselves with the Protocols on Native American Archival Materials and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

A number of other authors also call on archivists to familiarize ourselves with these documents, as well as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action, and Vine Deloria Junior’s 1978 report The Right to Know (see Bak et al. 2017, First Archivist Circle 2007, Genovese 2016, and O’Neal 2015).

Decolonization through Repatriation

The second trend focuses on the physical repatriation of materials by or about Indigenous peoples that are held by non-Indigenous archives to Indigenous archival institutions or communities. This is linked to the application of the ethical frameworks introduced above, some of which focus heavily on repatriation.

In his blog post, “The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting”, Nathan Sentance (2017) succinctly describes how the accumulation of these materials is an act of colonialism. Numerous authors emphasize that these materials, taken or created without consent, need to be repatriated in order to address ongoing contemporary colonialism in archives, libraries, and museums. Echoing many others, Genovese (2016) suggests “it would possible – and practical – for non-Indigenous archival institutions to deaccession their Indigenous holdings and transfer them to Indigenous-run or community archives” (39). It should be emphasized that this repatriation encompasses records not only by Indigenous creators but also records co-created by Indigenous peoples, often portrayed as records’ subjects in the past (Luker 2017; McKemmish, Faulkhead, and Russell 2011).

However, few articles described specific repatriation projects that have been successfully executed either in archives or related institutions such as museums (to learn about successful projects, see Mithlo 2004 and O’Neal 2015). Repatriation efforts are not without their opponents; Luker (2017) highlights how archivists in Australia have refused calls for repatriation by instead advocating for materials to be open access. These opponents may need to (re)visit some of the ethical frameworks outlined above, which make clear why open access is not equivalent to repatriation.

Decolonization is not a metaphor

Outside of the archival field, there is a robust conversation happening about decolonization as the return of Indigenous lands to Indigenous peoples. This is powerfully expressed by educational scholars Tuck and Yang (2012) in their influential article “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, who write, “decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools” (1).

This was only touched on by one archivist in the sources we reviewed (see Ghaddar 2016). On the whole, archivists are not yet engaging with Tuck and Yang’s critique. Archivists continue to focus on “repatriation” (see above) and “assertion of Indigenous sovereignty” (Luker 2017, 121) in relation to records, but not land. While the efforts these authors are advocating for may be important, Tuck and Yang’s work suggests that they also have limitations.

In contrast, Simpson (2004) explicitly links the recovery of Indigenous knowledge to the recovery of Indigenous lands. It would be interesting to see archivists do the same. For example, we could consider how settler archival institutions could return Indigenous lands that they own, and examine what role archives could play in supporting settlers to return land to Indigenous peoples.

Thus, we are including this as an aspect of decolonization that would merit archivists’ attention in future.

Decolonization and Indigenization

The fourth and final trend we identified was the overlap between decolonization and Indigenization. Indigenization encompasses “a focus on Indigenous values and knowledge, and a commitment to institutional and social change” (Doyle, Lawson, and Dupont 2015, 110). Indigenization can be distinguished from decolonization by its specific centring of Indigenous ways of knowing and its reduced focus on challenging colonialism in existing institutions. However, the two terms overlap and we identified a number of authors whose proposals for decolonization could also be described as (or were already described as) Indigenization.

These approaches involve a variety of suggestions, such as:

  • Centring Indigenous perspectives and epistemologies in research (Allard and Ferris 2015; Smith 2012);
  • Adopting Indigenous museum curation methods (Mithlo 2004);
  • Broadening the definition of what qualifies as archival to include Indigenous knowledge, such as Māori oral histories (Buchanan 2007);
  • Developing Indigenous Knowledge Organization Systems (Doyle, Lawson, and Dupont 2015; Duarte and Belarde-Lewis 2015);
  • Integrating information into “wholistic” institutions rather than segregating information into galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (Bak et al. 2017; Doyle, Lawson, and Dupont 2015; Mithlo 2004; Sentance 2017).

A number of these suggestions call into question the ongoing existence of archives if archivists and other information professionals are committed to decolonization and Indigenization. Both Fraser and Todd (2016) and Ghaddar (2016) make this explicit in their work, describing archives as inherently embedded within colonialism. They suggest that archives cannot be decolonized.

What do you think? Can archives be decolonized? If not, how can archives or archivists contribute to a broader project of decolonization?



Note: Where applicable and known to us, we have included in our citations the nations of Indigenous authors in brackets following their names.

Allard, Danielle, and Shawna Ferris. 2015. “Antiviolence and Marginalized Communities: Knowledge Creation, Community Mobilization, and Social Justice through a Participatory Archiving Approach.” Library Trends 64 (2): 360–83.

Bak, Greg, Tolly Bradford, Jessie Loyer (Cree-Métis), and Elizabeth Walker. 2017. “Four Views on Archival Decolonization Inspired by the TRC’s Calls to Action.” Fonds d’Archives, no. 1: 1–21.

Buchanan, Rachel (Te Āti Awa and Taranaki). 2007. “Decolonizing the Archives: The Work of New Zealand’s Waitangi Tribunal.” Public History Review 14 (August).

Centre for Human Rights Research. 2016. “Decolonizing Archives.”

Cushman, Ellen (Cherokee). 2013. “Wampum, Sequoyan, and Story: Decolonizing the Digital Archive.” College English 76 (2). National Council of Teachers of English: 115–35.

Delva, Melanie, and Melissa Adams (Nisg̱a’a). 2015. “Archival Ethics and Indigenous Justice: Conflict or Coexistence?” In Engaging with Records and Archives: Histories and Theories, edited by Fiorella Foscarini, Heather MacNeil, Bonnie Mak, and Gillian Oliver, 147–72. London: Facet Publishing.

Doyle, Ann M, Kimberley Lawson (Heiltsuk), and Sarah Dupont (Métis). 2015. “Indigenization of Knowledge Organization at the Xwi7xwa Library.” Journal of Library and Information Studies 13 (2): 107–34.

Duarte, Marisa Elena (Pascua Yaqui/Chicana), and Miranda Belarde-Lewis (Zuni Pueblo/Tlingit). 2015. “Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 53 (5–6). Routledge: 677–702.

First Archivist Circle. 2007. “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.”

Fraser, Crystal (Gwich’in), and Zoe Todd (Métis/otipemisiw). 2016. “Decolonial Sensibilities: Indigenous Research and Engaging with Archives in Contemporary Colonial Canada.” In Decolonising Archives, 32–39. L’Internationale Online.

Genovese, Taylor R. 2016. “Decolonizing Archival Methodology: Combating Hegemony and Moving towards a Collaborative Archival Environment.” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 12 (1). Sage Publications: 32–42.

Ghaddar, J. J. 2016. “The Spectre in the Archive: Truth, Reconciliation, and Indigenous Archival Memory.” Archivaria 82 (Fall 2016): 3–26.

Hagan, William T. 1978. “Archival Captive—The American Indian.” The American Archivist 41 (2). Society of American Archivists: 135–42.

Hogan, Skylee-Storm (Kanien’kehá:ka), and Krista McCracken. 2016. “Doing the Work: The Historian’s Place in Indigenization and Decolonization.”

Kurtz, Matthew. 2006. “A Postcolonial Archive? On the Paradox of Practice in a Northwest Alaska Project.” Archivaria 61 (1): 63–90.

Luker, Trish. 2017. “Decolonising Archives: Indigenous Challenges to Record Keeping in ‘Reconciling’ Settler Colonial States.” Australian Feminist Studies 32 (91–92). Routledge: 108–25.

McKemmish, Sue, Shannon Faulkhead (Koorie), and Lynette Russell (Wotjabluk). 2011. “Distrust in the Archive: Reconciling Records.” Archival Science 11 (3–4): 211–39.

Mithlo, Nancy Marie (Chiricahua Apache). 2004. “‘Red Man’s Burden’: The Politics of Inclusion in Museum Settings.” American Indian Quarterly 28 (3/4). University of Nebraska Press: 743–63.

O’Neal, Jennifer R (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde). 2015. “‘The Right to Know’: Decolonizing Native American Archives.” Journal of Western Archives 6 (1). Utah State University: 1-17.

Sentance, Nathan (Wiradjuri). 2017. “The Paternalistic Nature of Collecting.” Archival Decolonist.

Simpson, Leanne R (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg). 2004. “Anticolonial Strategies for the Recovery and Maintenance of Indigenous Knowledge.” American Indian Quarterly 28 (3–4). University of Nebraska Press: 373–84.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Awa). 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 2nd ed. London: Zed Books.

Tuck, Eve (Unangax̂), and K Wayne Yang. 2012. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 1–40.f

The featured image for this post is a photo of UBC’s Xwi7xwa Library, which is the only Aboriginal branch of a university library in Canada. It is designed to represent an interior Salish pit-house. Xwi7xwa is the focus of the article by Doyle, Lawson, and Dupont (2015), cited above. Image from UBC Library, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

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