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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 12, 2002 - Issue 53


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The Yurok Archive: Collecting, Protecting the Paper Record of a Native People

credits: Dr. Thomas Gates (right) presenting computer to Margaret Keating School Principal Jim McQuillan
Dr.Thomas Gates (right) presenting computer to Margaret Keating School Principle Jim McQuillanStudents, teachers, and parents of the Margaret Keating School, which is located on the Yurok Reservation, in northwestern California, were dining on the last school day before a holiday when they were presented with their new computer. Dr. Thomas Gates, head of the Cultural Department of the Yurok Tribe, rolled out a cart with the computer, still boxed, and discussed with the assembly the department's plans for the tribal archives Web site. The students showed interest in learning about using the computer for access to the Internet. The teachers were interested in finding out more about the tribal collections held in the archives.

The purchase of the computer is part of a larger effort of the Cultural Department to begin to meet the information needs of a tribal community on a reservation that lacks in many areas access to electricity and phone service and for which Internet access is a luxury. The Yurok Tribe's Cultural Department has been the recipient in recent years of each of the three categories of IMLS grants for Native American Library Services: the Basic, for core library services; the Professional Assistance, for professional assessment and advice; and the competitive Enhancement, for reaching new levels of service.

The two recent Enhancement grants have supported a number of activities to improve the tribe's archival services, including the refinement of the archives policies, the development of an Yurok educational packet for public inquiries, the purchase of computers for Yurok schools and tribal offices, and the creation of an archive and Cultural Department Web site. Perhaps the most significant use of the funds is an investment in the training of a tribal member who is the Assistant Director for the Culture Department and who also serves as the acting tribal archivist.

An ancient people
There are approximately 4,000 Yurok tribal members, of which 700 live along the lower 40 miles of the Klamath River. The land encompasses a diverse landscape: the Pacific Ocean, the river, and some of the highest mountains in the region. Matching the diversity of the topography is the diversity of the many native peoples of the area, who, in addition to the Yurok, include the Hupa, Wiyot, Karuk, Chilula, and Tolowa, each with distinct customs, traditions, and languages.

The Yurok have inhabited the region for thousands of years, according to archaeologists, and since time immemorial, according to tribal oral tradition. In a land that is remote and undeveloped, river fishing and hunting are the main subsistence practices. Indigenous plants and animals provided and sometimes still provide the Yurok material for clothing, basket weaving, canoes, ground flour, food, and medicine.

Despite its ancient roots, the tribe has only been formally organized for the last 14 years, said Gates. The first U.S. governmental attempt at recognition was in the 1850s, about the time when gold was discovered and outsiders moved into the area. Yurok people were involved in treaty negotiations with the federal government, but Congress never ratified the treaties. A second attempt at recognition came in 1855, with an executive order by President Franklin Pierce. There were negotiations back and forth about the land that was designated for the reservation. In 1898, a group of non-Indians challenged the idea that the Yurok even had a reservation, arguing that the land had been abandoned as a result of a flood. It was decided that the Yurok had a reservation, but that there was a previous order restricting the number of recognized reservations in California to four. Since there already were four, officials combined the Yurok's pieces of land with the adjacent Hupa reservation.

From the turn of the century until 1988, the Hupa and Yurok - two distinct peoples, two distinct cultures, two distinct languages-operated under one tribal government. There were several attempts throughout the years, to form a separate Yurok government.

It was not until 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Hupa-Yurok Settlement Act, that the two tribes were separated and given authority over separate lands and governments. Gates said, "Yurok Tribe: old in heritage, ancient in ties to the land, recognized early on by the federal government, organized under another tribe, finally given it's own tribal governmental organization in the last 14 years. Since 1988 there have been a number of different tribal government administrations to move the tribe forward."

Documenting organizational history
Allotments LedgerGates and the tribal archivist, Traci Melendy, hope to expand the archive holdings to better represent the organizational history of the tribe. The collection, as with many tribal archives, contains typical library materials as well as primary source records and other archival-type materials. It currently contains ethnographic books, periodicals, newsletters, technical bulletins, heritage preservation and cultural resources, a language section with source recordings, basic library literature, and a special collection of more than 100 videotaped oral history interviews, covering such topics as fishing, language, ethnobotany, basketmaking, medicine, and tools.

The Cultural staff is directing energy toward the goal of obtaining more archival records documenting the organizational history of the tribe since its formal recognition. Each of the government administrations since the 1988 founding have had, said Gates, "its own mandates, its own requirements, its own set of documents." He said, "One of the things that we began to do as we expanded beyond just an archives with information on culture (the backbone of heritage) is to identify a section of the archives for these records. For example, the section could handle the official papers of the transition team, then of the interim council, which formed the committee that wrote the constitution of the tribe."

Gates and Melendy are thus enthusiastic about an agreement to purchase the papers of the elder Fawn Morris, regarding 50 years of Yurok cultural history and litigation, some of which led to the eventual reorganization of the tribe. Fawn's husband, Allen, a non-Indian who was favorable to the Yurok struggle, personally and meticulously archived hundreds of newspaper clippings and court proceedings. Despite its impeccable filing system, the collection could have been lost though deterioration. It ended up in a storage unit in a coastal town, where it was subject to damaging humidity and temperature fluctuations. Gates said, "This will be the first opportunity to bring those precious documents to light for all of the tribal community." Melendy will also have an opportunity to conduct an oral history interview with Morris to record her personal anecdotes about her husband's work creating the collection.

Pivotal archival training
When Traci Melendy began at the Cultural Department in 1996, she was a data-entry specialist. From the start she was a skilled filer, which helped her begin to organize the tribal collection. Now, after three years as acting tribal archivist, she has primary responsibility for drafting archival policy.

Melendy describes gaining most of her skills and experience through "hands on" and "on the job" training. Joan Berman, Special Collections Librarian at Humboldt State University and consultant to the tribe under the Professional Assistance grant, also set up an internship, worth 4 units of credit for Melendy to apply toward her anthropology degree. During her internship, she worked at the university's special collections department, identifying materials in the collection about the Yurok to add to the tribal archive, monitoring library and archives electronic discussion lists, and discussing policy and management practices.

As part of her internship, Melendy attended the Society of California Archivists annual meeting in Santa Rosa, California. There she picked up information about the newest technology and participated in workshops and discussions on current issues, such as virtual archives, policy development, access and reference, and funding issues. Archives, she learned, no matter their type, share common hurdles. Melendy said, "The kinds of issues that we face, a lot of archives face."

What is unusual about tribal libraries, said Berman, is the mix of library and archival materials and the mix of library and archives principles needed to manage the unique collections.

Berman said, "One of the interesting parts of the internship with Traci is that our special collections department consists of two people, myself, a librarian, and our assistant, an archivist. We would go back and forth when discussing issues of access, preservation, management and organization because in our respective professions, the principles are different. Traci was in between." She said, "A large part of Traci's training was learning which principles to apply at which times."

On a mission to draft a mission
When Melendy first came to the archives, there was no mission statement and the policies in place were mainly access restrictions. The archive was originally created to hold sensitive and confidential records about cultural sites on the reservation, such as family burial sites, which are subject to looting. With the need to protect these sites, the archives was opened only to staff who had a need. As the collection grew with donations from tribal members, other restrictions were added based on the preferences of the donors.

As tribal members came to the archives wanting to know what was in the collection, Melendy was bound by policies that restricted her from providing much information. These requests, however, prompted her to think about policies that would allow access to non-sensitive and non-restricted holdings. To amend or create new policies, Melendy was required to go through a multi-step process that includes making presentations to the archives sub-committee, tribal members, and finally the Tribal Council.

With Joan's advice Melendy was able to draft a mission statement that provides guidance for overall management of the tribal archives and direction for tackling the drafting of other policies that allow for public access to archive holdings.

Preservation and access through technology
Even while access to the Internet is currently beyond the means of many residents of the Yurok Reservation, technology may one day allow Yurok voices and viewpoints to be heard both within and beyond the reservation. With funding from IMLS, Gates will soon have a Cultural Department Web site, centering on the archive. It will include exhibits of scanned documents, information about tribal organization, tribal news, and electronic access to the archive bibliographic database. Online users will be able to review items in the database, check access restrictions, and request scans of items by e-mail for e-mail delivery. Plans also include an elder of the month section, in which an elder will provide a message in his or her own words about a traditional Yurok practice or history.

With scanning equipment in place and access to a Web site consultant, Gates looks forward to working out the particulars with the staff and the archives committee. It will be an opportunity for the archives to represent aspects of the lives of these traditional people.

Yet he notes that the key to Yurok culture is not on paper. While the Yurok archive collection plays a very important supporting role in capturing the people's history, the Yurok culture was not traditionally transmitted that way. He said, "The archives has to strike a balance. It should be available to provide information to tribal members and non-Indians who have questions, and simultaneously protect the confidentiality of sensitive information. It is important that remember tat the functions of the archive should never replace the traditional methods of transmission of cultural practices. Rather, the tribal culture must be lived, as it has been for thousands of years, and passed down from elders to their grandchildren in their language, traditions, and ceremonies.

Vital Statistics:






Technical Assistance






Technical Assistance



Dr. Thomas Gates
Director, Cultural Department
Yurok Tribe
15900 Highway 101 North
Klamath, CA 95548

Institute of Museum and Library Services
IMLS is an independent Federal agency that fosters leadership, innovation, and a lifetime of learning by supporting the nation's museums and libraries. Created by the Museum and Library Services Act of 1996, P.L. 104-208, IMLS administers the Library Services and Technology Act and the Museum Services Act. The Institute receives policy advice from two Presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed entities: the National Commission for Libraries and Information Science and the National Museum Services Board.
Klamath, CA near
Klamath, CA far

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