Reclaiming Indigenous Memory Scapes: The Role of Indigenous-led Archival Initiatives

Published Oct. 07, 2021
Updated Oct. 18, 2021

From an Indigenous perspective, keepers of memory have long played a critical role in Indigenous societies. Before the arrival of European settlers, Indigenous memory keepers were entrusted to steward their tribe’s epistemology/lifeway in order to maintain balance with the natural and spiritual world(s). Their stewardship of cultural knowledge was key for community memory and for the cultural transmission of their tribe’s values, customs and protocols. Despite 500 years of settler colonialism, Indigenous knowledge systems have been maintained by innovative ways of memory keeping. From O’odham calendar sticks made of carved saguaro rib that document significant events on O’odham jeweḍ (land), to the cordels rooted in Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian styles of storytelling through song and poetry in Northeastern Brazil, each Indigenous community has a particular process/custom that western culture might describe as “archiving”.

However, in dominant Western society, this form of “Indigenous archiving” has largely been delegitimized and dehumanized by Euro-centric archival and museum professions. Their fixation to collect has led to Indigenous memory to be accessioned by so-called cultural heritage institutions (i.e. Non-Native libraries, archives, museums and galleries), which is an attack on Indigenous cultural sovereignty. Their definition of archiving peperates narratives of extinction, and blatantly ignores the intellectual property rights of thousands of Indigenous nations across the world. 

In light of the predatory nature of Western archival work, Indigenous communities have been and will continue to be cautious of western archival practices stemming from universities, historical societies, and federal agencies. All this being said, there is hope for anti-colonial, Indigenous-driven praxis within institutions like Arizona State University (ASU). Building on the adoption of the 2018 Protocols for Native American Archival Materials here at ASU, and the adoption of community-driven archival methodology by the Labriola National American Indian Data Center (Labriola Center) in 2019, library/archival units within institutions can formulate Indigenous-informed archival care practices, services and programs, and agreements that support the archival sovereignty of tribal nations and tribal community members . 

Here at the Labriola Center, we run this operation Indigenously. With Alexander Soto (Tohono O’odham) as the first Indigenous Director of Labriola, significant strides have been made over the last two years to demystify, decolonize and Indigenize archival work within Indigenous communities. Under his leadership, he has shown the importance and utility of archival sovereignty. To gain a little insight into the various ways Indigenous people are decolonizing the archives, below are perspectives and experiences from three student archivists/librarians at the Labriola Center. Moving beyond the profession’s fixation to bestow academic prestige on individual accomplishment, we feel Director Soto’s ability to foster a safe, fierce space for Indigenous librarianship underscores what non-Indigenous archival repositories should be doing in order to rectify problematic archival practices that undermine Indigenous peoples. By exposing Indigenous students to Indigenous archival praxis, the Labriola Center is creating a cohort of Indigenous peoples who are actively decolonizing and Indigenizing libraries and archives for self-determination.


My name is Lourdes Pereira, I am Hia-Ced O’odham and Yoeme.I come from the San Lucy District of the Tohono O’odham Nation. I am double majoring in Justice Studies and American Indian Studies at Arizona State University (ASU).  Working at the Labriola Center exposed me to community-driven archives and Indigenous intellectual property rights. Due to my tribe's lack of federal recognition, I have embraced archival work to maintain my tribe's cultural sovereignty. My commitment to protect the integrity of my tribe’s Traditional Cultural Expressions led me to become the community archivist for the Hia-Ced O’odham. In this role, I work with my community to establish its archive. Utilizing  community archives methodologies empowered me to appraise and sort our current archival holdings in order to digitize photos and cassettes. We have become stewards of our own collection, by taking the first step of digitally preserving our culture and traditions. With the Labriola Center, I have provided glimpses of what Indigenous-informed archival tools can do to protect Hia-Ced O’odham intellectual property. Rather than transfer our collection to non-Indigenous custodians, I assessed my great-grandmother’s collection and digitized historical photos with the Labriola’s equipment. Mukurtu and Traditional Knowledge labels will give my community the means to provide controlled access on our terms. This practice ensures that our intellectual property rights are acknowledged and respected outside our community. To advocate for our tribe’s future and preserve our existence to future generations, we need intellectual property tools to protect our stories/data. By utilizing CDA, Mukurtu and TK Labels, we believe the integrity of our archive will be protected as we “set the record straight” about the Hia-Ced O’odham. To learn more about these efforts you can read TurningPoints Magazine issue 06 on “Indigenizing Archives.” To learn more and stay in touch with the efforts of the Hia-Ced O’odham, you can check out their website at


As a Diné student pursuing a degree within the computer science field, I never experienced what working behind the scenes in a library entailed prior to working with the Labriola Center. Not long after I first began working, I was introduced to processing and archiving. As I took on the project of processing the Jean Chaudhuri collection, I learned more about the challenges and accomplishments of Chaudhuri herself. After about a year and a half of going through the collection, I now see how processing is reminiscent of computer coding and sorting algorithms. Only at a much slower pace. But, I haven’t learned about the processing of a collection on my own. I have learned from a professional archivist and had to ask many, many questions to make sure I could make certain decisions. Thanks to them, I have been able to introduce many new and old Labriola aides to the collection and teach them what I have learned. That way, they can be successful in future processing projects. Being an Indigneous woman processing the collection of an Indigenous woman who has made history in saving, not just the Phoenix Indian Boarding School property, but the history from the Arizona-Florida Land Exchange Act of 1988. The standing property is a reminder of the transgenerational impact these boarding schools had on the Indigenous community that we hear from our elders. Many who were just kids in the schools still tell their stories of what occured in these places, showing that this history was not that long ago and shouldn’t be destroyed. Only through her collection did I discover this crucial piece of Indigenous experiences was almost destroyed. Being able to be the lead student archivist and training more student archivist leaders is a prime example of being able to take history back into our own hands. It prevents the history of others telling our story for us. The Labriola Center is providing  Indigenous eyes with the tools needed to continuously learn about archives and processing protocols. Creating future archivists, who are immensely culturally aware of cultural material, to be successful, compared to the non-Indigenous archivist. This culminates in actualizing the role intellectual and cultural property plays in archives and libraries, rethinks the public's access to such material, and continues to raise awareness of these issues even within the profession.

The late Chaudhuri accomplished much more for the Indigenous people of Arizona, to read a bit more about what she did before moving to Phoenix, click the link below: 


Previous to this student worker position, ’archives’ was not a word on my radar. In fact if you asked me to say one word to describe how I felt about archiving it would probably be ‘racist’. One of the first ugly truths that I was exposed to when I began this student worker position was about the Arizona Archives Matrix Project of 2012. This project detailed the percentage of archival collections that represented Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and the LGBT community, a number only amounting to 0-2% regardless of the population sitting comfortably at  42%. Native Americans have a larger amount of archives in Arizona collections at 7%. However, due to the majority of archival records being documented by non-native anthropologists, tribal nations are often misrepresented. Learning ‘history’ at public schools in Arizona and being Tohono O’odham, I could easily understand that history was written by oppressors. But to what extent? That's an answer no one can give. Yet my experience at Labriola has allowed me to learn and work alongside radical archivists like Nancy Godoy, that have helped me come to terms with this difficult truth, (Take a look into her most recent publication on Community Driven Archives: Conocimiento, Healing, and Justice to learn more) it’s perspectives like these that have motivated me to archive my personal family history, bringing me closer to my loved ones. Teaching me the ways in which O’odham himdag lives on in my family’s mindset and understanding of the world around us, regardless of the reasons we had been disconnected from our community, traditions, and culture. 

One day while going through my Nana’s old pictures that were stored in a shed in the backyard, she shared with me a lesson her hu’ul (maternal grandmother) had instilled in her, “O’odham were given our hands to do the work that needs to be done.” And well, there is a lot of work to be done for the repatriation and liberation of Indigneous knowledge and intellectual property. I had no idea of the potential for anti-colonial work from within academia and archives, nor the impact it would have on my himdag (way of life). 

The potential for Indigneous cultural and political sovereignty within archival work can rewrite history. Whether that be through processing Indigenous collections through culturally aware and Indigenous lenses, like Jean Chaudhuri, or by doing community driven archival work to help tribes preserve their own histories that will be used to fight for federal recognition, like my Hia-Ced relatives. Wherever my efforts will be put to best use, I am eager to get my hands dirty in the trenches of archival work. First things first though, graduate from ASU and get into a Master’s of Library and Information Science program. 

In summary, archiving goes deeper than just collecting papers and organizing information. It encompasses our Indigeneity, which differs per Indigenous archivists and per Indigenous community. As detailed by the Labriola student archivists/librarians, Indigenous youth hold the power to reclaim past, present and future Indigenous identity. Their insight and curation of knowledge can provide pivotal information/knowledge for 21st century Indigenous sovereignty.

At the Labriola Center, we highly encourage your questions and look forward to assisting you with your archival needs.

PS Labriola will be recruiting student archivists/librarians in the Spring. Come reimagine librarianship with us!

Director Alexander Soto with Labriola Student Archivist/librarians Mia Johnson, Lourdes Pereira, and Elizabeth Quiroga

—Lourdes Pereira, Labriola Student Archivist/Librarian 

Mia Johnson, Labriola Student Archivist/Librarian 

Elizabeth Quiroga, Labriola Student Archivist/Librarian