Looking for and beyond origins

Finding the origin of something can be fascinating, and this kind of search can bring you much more than just a satisfying conclusion. The direction in which you search for a particular origin can be revealing in itself. Often it is tempting to search within the framework and the borders of current nations and states, but some origins are to be found in periods before these territorial units were shaped or are just outside our normal view of things. In this post I will look at some examples of searches for origins and the way they can bring us at the best partial answers, and in the worst cases only the views of history’s winners.

One of the major current movements with attention to origins is the trend in the United States to search for the original meaning of elements in the American Constitution, especially for the interpretation of a number of the famous amendments. I will not advocate here any particular way to tackle specific questions or to complete quests in this field, but it is tempting to write a kind of nutshell guide to a number of relevant primary sources. Today you can find an increasing number of them in online digital collections. Thus you can check the marvellous Founders Online (National Archives) with papers from six influential Founding Fathers. Interestingly this project includes records from the colonial period (1706-1775), a valuable hint the history of the United States did not start ex nihilo. At The Founders’ Constitution (University of Chicago), a web version of the book by Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (5 vol., Chicago, 1986) you can consult the sources in the works of philosophers and other authors of many ideas discussed and taken up by the founders of the United States.

Last year I looked here at the legal history of New Amsterdam, and some legal elements from the Dutch period survived into later centuries. For almost every founding father there are separate digital collections, in particular for the first presidents. It is possible to widen their circle with others, for instance with The Federalist Papers (Library of Congress), also available at Founding Fathers, where you can find conveniently many other key documents. Among the most valuable extensions of this inner circle are the digital projects for the John Jay Papers (Columbia University), the digitized books from the library of John Adams (Boston Public Library), and the digitized archival records in The Papers of the War Department (1784-1800). The Library of Congress provides anyone interested with a quick guide to digital versions of core documents in its web guide Primary Documents in American History.

However valuable these digital resources might be, it seems they leave out a substantial part of American history. Some vigorous recent alerts on social media and blogs, and in particular the launch of a new digital collection have made me aware of this painful truth. Even my own collection of relevant digital libraries shows the same lacunae, apart from some exceptions which will feature here. It is not just a case of something missing, but a number of people who lived in the Americas are almost absent. It dawned on me that I have been seduced to look too much along the lines of nations and states still present on contemporary maps. To make things worse, there is a problem in designating these people, and this explains also to some extent my omissions. Where are the original inhabitants of both North and South America? Where are the people defeated by the conquistadores? Where are the various tribes we used to name Indians? How useful and truthful is it to use words as native or indigenous people?

In this post I will look at some new digital projects concerning the “colonial period” of the United States, and I will try to provide here some information about projects bringing us to resources and primary sources concerning the people living in the Americas before and during the period shaped by the presence of people from Europe. If I succeed here in documenting here at least some of the gaps and omissions, it is of course just a first step in doing things better in the future, and not a definitive answer to some of the questions to be addressed here.

Colonies and their context

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Among the prompts for writing this post is the Colonial North American Project at Harvard University. In this digital collection items from many institutions at Harvard will eventually appear. At present I could find some 120 items when searching very globally for Indians, and this number stands in relation to a current overall number of 2,200 digitized items. With the advanced search mode you can pursue much more detailed questions. Various Indian tribes and aspects of relations of the colonies with both tribes and individual persons might well come more into view when more archival records and books will have been digitized.

Where should one start looking for materials concerning the original inhabitants of the Americas? The Indigenous Law Portal of the Library of Congress can serve as a starting point. One of its strengths is the indication at the very start of both divisions along the frontiers of nations and a more general approach. You can use selections for Alaska, Canada, the United States, North America and Mexico, and you will find links to a number of major relevant portals. The portal was launched in 2014. Interestingly it was Jolande Goldberg, a bibliographer trained as a legal historian, who developed a new classification system, the KIA-KIX series, for the relevant materials in the Library of Congress; this part of the story is nicely told in a post on the In Custodia Legis blog. The portal contains in the United States section first of all a massive and yet compact listing of links to websites, projects and collections elsewhere, and you can narrow your search to large regions or go to a specific current state within the USA. Earlier on the Library of Congress had already digitized a number of Indian constitutions, ranging from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Their sheer number will be a surprise.

Just how large the challenge is to approach the history of original inhabitants is very clear at the portal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. This portal mentions status tribes, Inuit, Métis and non-status Indians, and urban original people. Many of the tribes refer to themselves nowadays as First Nations. Here, too, the very number of tribes, groups and other units will be an eye-opener. Until now I had just missed the concept First Nations on my page with digital libraries. Among the links I had included for Canada until now you might perhaps first go to Peel’s Prairie Provinces (University of Alberta), a portal with digital collections containing a substantial number of books about Indian tribes.

Another thing is clear for me, too. It will not help to lament about lacks, gaps and omissions. Some of the links on my digital libraries page do touch the subject of indigenous people. In fact, this page does gather a number of things not easily found elsewhere at all, and it might become necessary to divide the information on a number of sister pages. Lately I have added to some of the sections for continents a list of general projects which touch several countries. These links used to be positioned near the end, but now they can be found in a better position.

North America

 

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Several ways offer themselves to find out more about current indigenous law and earlier periods. One of the tools will be for example finding a blog that helps you to become aware of current matters and which might offer also a repertory of useful resources. In my view the Turtle Talk blog of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law does fit into this description, and its blogroll brings you to more blogs.

For the United States I did see in the past six years a number of relevant projects:

For Canada my links collection might be meagre, but luckily I did find two collections tucked away on my page for virtual exhibitions in the field of legal history. Libraries and Archives Canada created a digital collection called Aboriginal Documentary Heritage, and there is a small collection around the first settlement with native people in 1899, Treaty 8. It proved to be relatively easy to find more relevant digital collections in Canada, and in order to make this post not too long, I will offer here just a list:

The History Education Network / Histoire et Éducation en Réseau offers a useful repertory of digitized primary sources for Canadian history, yet another starting point for further research. I was aware of projects such as Early Canadiana Online, but I had simply overlooked its section on Aboriginal Studies with some 900 digitized titles. The wealth of specific collections for a particular theme does not always diminish the value of more general portals. Only when you decide to create a database for links collections and provide sufficient tagging you can largely avoid such omissions. Such projects require the forces of teamwork or crowdsourcing. My appeal on my website for additions and corrections is not just a kind gesture or a rhetorical phrase, but a very serious question!

Latin America, Australia and New Zealand

For South America, too, I can point to some digital collections. In Chile the Memoria Chilena: Salas Virtuales created by the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile does have a section Derecho indiano as a part of a larger field termed Política y legislación. The University of Arizona is home to the Morales de Escarcéga Collection, accompanied by a virtual exhibit. For two of the historic people in Latin America I can at present not point to a digital collection, but instead we have at least the guidance of a fine virtual exhibit at the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas at Austin) with a bibliography devoted to Aztec and Maya Law.

At least a part of the legal history of the aboriginal people in Australia is documented in two digital collections, Founding Documents: Documenting a Democracy of the National Archives of Australia – with 110 digitized documents – and Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project (University of Melbourne). Centers have been founded to study indigenous people and law, for example the Indigenous Law Centre of the University of New South Wales. New Zealand can point to the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre (Victoria University of Wellington) with among their projects for example He Pātaka Kupu Ture – The Legal Maori Archive. The New Zealand Digital Library is in fact a portal to several digital collections, one of them concerns Indigenous People. The Treaty of Waitangi – Te Tiriti o Waitangi is the subject of a virtual exhibition of Archives New Zealand which puts on display not only this treaty from 1840, but also the subsequent treaties.

Instead of giving here more examples it is better to mention just the Endangered Archives Project of the British Library, yet another galaxy of resources discussed here earlier. In many cases projects focus on minorities in many parts of our world whose cultural heritage needs urgently to be described and preserved, or they document historical phases threatened to disappear completely. The very short lengh of this section should at least remind me there is a lot of work to!

Some steps towards a search strategy

Banner database Smithsonian Libraries

If you want to find more virtual exhibitions about indigenous people all over the world you can benefit as much as I have done so far from the marvellous database of the Smithsonian Libraries. Virtual exhibitions often provide a basic bibliography, bring you telling images and point to other relevant websites. Some of them are in a class of its own, and I cannot help pointing to the virtual exhibit about Aztec and Maya Law of the Tarlton Law Library, not just because Mike Widener helped creating it, but because of its excellent qualities.

Indigenous people live on all continents, and it is simply not feasible to present here an exhaustive search strategy. In this section I will look at some tools guiding you to digital collections with a focus on the United States, but often you might find materials relating to other countries, regions and people. Let’s start with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), a portal created with the support of an increasing number of digital projects; I wrote here about it in 2013. The DPLA portal serves as an aggregator of these projects and you can enjoy the harvest. A blurb on the website tells us there are now nearly 12 million digitized items in the DPLA. When you use the subjects tab you will find a list in either alphabetical or descending order with the number of items for a particular subject. The general subject United States is used for 450,000 items, the highest number for any subject. The term Native Americans is good for nearly 70,000 items, Indians of North America for 22,000 items, and Indigenous population yields some 6,000 items.

A few weeks ago I noticed the link to the project Opening History of the Grainger Engineering Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign did not function anymore. This project was launched in 2007, and consisted of nothing less than an exhaustive searchable database for finding digital collections created by libraries, museums and archives in the USA concerning US history. When you still might mutter I did exclude aspects of history from my website you might question yourself why you never or seldom used this resource for doing North American history. The change of the university’s name into University of Illinois has to be taken into account for the changes in many web addresses. Under its new name IMLS Digital Collections and Content – and a new logo cleverly suggesting you look at a beta version of DPLA – you can search among some 2,400 digital collections. If this is too much of a good thing, you might like to look at two web guides of the Library of Congress, the first for State Digital Resources: Memory Projects, Online Encyclopedias, Historical and Cultural Materials Collections, the second called State Resource Guides. When you use these overviews it might be enlightening to compare them with the links put together as Resources for Doing Legal History provided by the American Society for Legal History. A very practical need for historical research can be served by HISGIS systems such as the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries (Chicago, Newberry Library).

In an exchange with Klaus Graf a year ago at Archivalia – this happened originally at its old address – we discussed concisely the overviews of a number of suppliers of systems for digital collections. Graf admired the overview by Bepress of book and archival collections created by users of its Digital Commons system. However impressive this and four other lists of collections using this system are, they remain just alphabetically organized lists. I will not repeat here my discussion of other suppliers, but in my view the best representation of digital collections powered by the same system is the Collection of Collections database for the CONTENT-dm system, a product of OCLC. You can use the simple search or the advanced search to find collections for a particular subject. For tracking down a relevant collection among the nearly thousand digital collections you simply need a relational database. Since many of these collections are either based in the United States or deal with aspects of its history it is good to have a look at it. Part of the fun here is that the overview, too, has been built using this very collection system. In fact other suppliers, too, provide a database to search for particular digital collections using their systems. Alas there is only a list of examples for the open access Greenstone system.

Facing complexity

Let me close the circle of this post and return to the colonial period, and more specifically to New Amsterdam. The digital collections of the New York Public Library are a mer à boire. It is a joy to look at them and it makes your curious about what else you might encounter. Among the digital collections of Harvard University you should take a look at other projects concerning colonial history, Images of Colonialism: Africa and Asia and Harvard in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

If you conclude there is not a single gateway to the history of indigenous people, this mirrors exactly the challenge facing our world. The UNESCO devotes a section of its portal to indigenous people. If you want to look at current indigenous law, you could start with the concise research guide at Globalex. The complexity of matters touching indigenous people, the complexity of talking in a sensible and direct way about them, is not something coming out of the blue. History and law, legislation, jurisprudence and treaties, court decisions, legal education, the use of languages and much more come together here.

Sometimes you need to be pushed into action. Last week a tweet of David Armitage brought me to Rebecca Onion’s article at Slate on the colonial trade in North American slaves, more precisely, “Indians”. Yet another spur to write was this week’s post about Chief Justice Roger Taney at the Maryland Appellate Blog. I might perhaps have chosen ‘First Impressions’ as my title! This post is more or less a field report. It might be impossible to see and understand everything, but I am convinced you cannot reach perfection. You can only make faults and mistakes if you start at all with looking beyond your comfort zone and the tacitly agreed limits of a discipline. Keeping a portal on legal history up to date will always include making minor and major adjustments, spotting omissions, and gaining insight. To rephrase words of Timothy Radcliffe, if you want to debate the results, let’s talk about them, not to win an argument, but to become wiser together.

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