Native American Collections Digital Resource Pilot Project Mid-Grant Report

by | Jan 31, 2024 | Articles, Coe Collaborations, Collections Programming

January 1, 2024

Diné Hataałii Association September 19, 2023.
Anson Etsitty, Dr. Avery Denny, Emery Denny, and Dr. Michael Lema (Not pictured: Daniel Johnson)

    The Coe Center has undertaken a significant project to transform its Collection Management System. This project aims to create a database that accurately presents information about objects in the Coe Center’s collection in a culturally appropriate manner. The Native American collection at the Coe consists of 1844 objects in total. The Pilot Project is specifically focused on a sampling of this collection.

    We are accomplishing this by inviting community members to visit the Coe and review objects in our collection. This process has built meaningful relationships and allowed us to gain further insights into the works in our collection. We have placed great emphasis on the documentation of culturally relevant information. Digesting the information learned in these visits involves correcting and adding to the information associated with each object in our collection.

    To date, we have engaged six communities in this process. These include Diné (Navajo), Ahtna, Paiute, Inupiaq, Ohkay Owingeh, and Tesuque Pueblo communities.

    Bobby Lynn Qalutaksraq Brower (Inupiaq/Native Village of Barrow)
    August 2023

    How we chose communities:
    Our community selection process is strategically characterized by a regional emphasis, reflecting our commitment to fostering meaningful collaborations with Indigenous communities. The initiation of this process involved a deliberate prioritization of tribal nations in the southwestern United States.

    In 2023, we actively worked with the Navajo Nation and neighboring Pueblo communities. Practical considerations, such as the increased likelihood of accessibility in terms of travel and the facilitation of in-person collaboration with the Coe Center, guided this choice.

    As an offshoot of the Pilot Project, we did additional work with Pueblo community members to aid in planning the Coe Center exhibit Stories Within, which focused on Indigenous pottery from North America and included numerous Pueblo pots. The visit by Pueblo community member Clarence Cruz provided valuable information about the pottery that we were considering for display. This process also helped to verify that the objects we chose for display were appropriate. The information gained through these community visits creates an accurate database for the future and an accurate exhibit in the present. 

    We included Inupiaq and Athabascan communities upon identifying community members who were visiting Santa Fe for the Santa Fe Indian Market. This expansion broadened our geographical scope and enriched the diversity of perspectives and experiences within our collaborative network.

    Rose Burns, Hedi Brandow, and Jed Foutz go over Dine objects and textiles, June 2022.

    In 2024, we are poised to further enhance our engagement with Indigenous communities. After every community member visit, we send a survey that allows collaborators to provide feedback on their experience working with the Coe and identify any areas they feel need improvement. Building upon the lessons learned from our interactions in the previous year, we are committed to refining and optimizing our approach. 

    A significant aspect of our upcoming endeavors includes a planned virtual collaboration with the Penobscot Nation, motivated by their substantial presence on the Local Context Hub. We also plan to host Olga Oscar (Yupik) in late February. 

    The foundation of our community selection process is anchored in our overarching goal: to respond to the imperative need for improved provenance, accuracy, and comprehensive information related to the cultural materials preserved within the Coe Collection.  We embark on a collaborative journey aiming to enrich our understanding and documentation of these invaluable materials.

    Melissa Shaginoff (Ahtna and Paiute) and Rose Burns
    August 2023

    In shaping our approach, we consider several key factors: 

    • The volume of objects within our collection: objects from specific communities represent a more significant portion of the Coe Collection than others. Considering which communities have a more considerable proportion of objects allows us to prioritize communities with a substantial presence in the collection, increasing the impact of the pilot project.

    • We are identifying groups of objects that lack sufficient provenance, and we are prioritizing those communities. By focusing on objects with incomplete provenance, we aim to bridge information gaps and enhance the context surrounding these cultural pieces. This targeted effort contributes to the integrity of the collection and aligns with our commitment to providing a more nuanced and respectful portrayal of each respective community.

     As we embark on this collaborative journey, guided by principles of respect and reciprocity, our selection process serves as a deliberate and conscientious strategy to address information gaps, amplify cultural narratives, and present a dignified portrayal of each community’s heritage within the broader context of the Coe Collection.

     Rose Burns and Clarence Cruz (Khaayay) (Ohkay Owingeh)
    October 2023

    Community Member Visits and Works Reviewed: 

    Visiting community members have reviewed a total of 168 works (approximately 9% of the Coe’s North American collection.) During visits by community members, we provided them with printed object data sheets; they made handwritten corrections or suggestions on these sheets. The extent of suggestions varied, with some sheets having minimal additions or changes while others had more extensive revisions. All the object sheets artists have notated have been scanned and uploaded to the Coe Center’s Dropbox. The information on these sheets is currently being reviewed and incorporated into the database. 

     Reviewers, to date, include:

    • Melissa Shaginoff (Chickaloon Village Ahtna and Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe)  – 14 objects
    • Bobby Lynn Qalutaksraq Brower (Inupiaq/Native Village of Barrow) – 70 objects
    • Dine Hataallii Association (Diné) – 27 objects
      • Dr. Avery Denny, President
      • Anson Etsitty, Vice President
      • Daniel Johnson, Treasurer
      • Dr. Michael Lerna
      • Emery Denny
    • Clarence Cruz (Ohkay Owingeh/Tewa) – 59 objects
    • Larry Samuel (Pueblo of Tesuque) – 1 object

    Additional information, including a brief biography about each collaborator, can be found on the Coe website, link here

    In addition to object reviews, visiting community members have engaged in additional ways with the Coe Center. Melissa Shaginoff produced poetry in response to the objects in the collection she viewed while Anson Etsitty has maintained communication and a relationship with the Coe. 

    Through the process of reviewing objects with artists, nine objects that required more in-depth conversation with communities due to cultural sensitivity concerns were identified. These objects are now secured in a designated area, away from public display, while we engage with relevant community members. Two objects have been successfully deaccessioned and returned to the Dine Hataallii Association. We are also working to deaccession and return a third object to Tesuque Pueblo.

    Database Overview:

    The Coe Center uses FilemakerPro to store information about each object in our collection. In our database, each object has its own respective record, which consists of a set of associated fields that contain information about the object.  These fields are one of the primary focuses of the grant and community members; many of them have information that needs updating. In some cases, formatting issues prevent data from being displayed optimally and/or other problems.

    FilemakerPro also supports multiple layouts; each layout presents the fields associated with an object record in a different format.  A simple example is a layout that includes only tombstone information, whereas a more complex layout can show all the information about an object. Optimizing these layouts is another focus of this project. Updating these layouts allows for appropriate information to be presented in a clear, respectful, and easy-to-understand manner. Updating the layouts enables a review of what information is given to the public or kept internally. 

    Database Improvements and Updates:

    General updates have been made to the database to enhance formatting and improve text legibility. These updates include revisions to three commonly used layouts (“Browse Records,” “Full Information with Value,” and “Full Information without Value”), as well as the data entry page.

    Each field contains a unique type of information about an object. By implementing new fields, we can capture object information more accurately. We have implemented the following new fields:

    • Local Contexts Notices
      • Ten new fields corresponding to each of the Local Contexts notices have been added to the database to apply notices.
    • Object Engagement 
      • Adding this field makes information about artist/community visits easy to find, separating them from the formal exhibition of objects. 
    •  Record of Object Information Changes 
      • Adding this field creates a record of what was previously listed and why the information in fields was changed, creating greater accountability and understanding of why the information was changed. 

    We are currently working to add the information acquired through our community collaboration to date. The Coe collections manager, Rose Burns, is incorporating this information into the database on a field-by-field basis. We are taking this field-by-field approach to ensure that all relevant updates to the format or data entry are identified and properly made.  

    Fields Update examples that are being made: 

    • Media field updates for 89 objects (all objects where community members provided updated information) 
    • Location field updates for 11 objects (all objects where community members provided updated information) 
      • Missing or corrected location information had an additional impact on the database as it allowed for five other objects not included in the Pilot but with the same error also to be updated.   
    • Culture/people and description field updates to remove the term Eskimo and replace it with more appropriate terms; this change affects 17 objects.

    As part of the return process for the objects returned to the DHA and Tesque Pueblo, we updated all the fields for the five objects involved (NA0778, NA1513, NA1511, NA1201, NA1373). We decided to expedite the data entry for these objects to ensure that the return of objects was timely, as the deaccession process requires providing accurate and up-to-date information to the collections committee and Board Directors so they can make informed decisions about deaccessioning objects.

    Collaboration with Local Contexts:
    Our commitment to fostering collaboration within Local Contexts is reflected in a series of initiatives we have diligently undertaken. Recognizing the importance of transparent communication and contextualization, we have embarked on a multifaceted approach to enhance engagement and promote mutual respect.

    We have embraced the Local Contexts Hub as a platform for collaboration. By establishing a presence within the Hub, we aim to connect with other institutions and Indigenous communities actively participating in this shared space. Looking ahead to 2024, we aim to leverage this presence to initiate and nurture additional collaborations among Indigenous communities. We envision a dynamic exchange of knowledge and resources, further enriching the collective understanding of cultural heritage within the Local Contexts framework.

    One key aspect of our initiative involves gradually adding notices to our archive database. This process aims to provide better context for each object within our collection, facilitating a deeper understanding of the cultural significance embedded in these artifacts.

    We have posted a visible “Open to Collaborate” notice in the footer of our website to indicate our presence on the Local Contexts hub as well as our willingness to collaborate. Posting this notice signifies our eagerness to engage with diverse stakeholders, including other institutions and communities. Through this initiative, we extend an invitation to participate in collaborative efforts, recognizing the collective strength that arises from shared knowledge and cooperative endeavors.

    In alignment with our commitment to responsible curation, we have taken proactive measures to ensure the respectful treatment of culturally sensitive objects. These measures include the removal of such objects from our website and social media platforms, accompanied by a shift towards creating educational content that fosters awareness and respect for our collection. This intentional shift reflects our dedication to maintaining ethical practices while still sharing the richness of the cultural heritage found in the Coe Collection.

    These initiatives underscore our ongoing commitment to transparency, collaboration, and the responsible stewardship of cultural materials. By actively participating in the Local Contexts, we strive to contribute meaningfully to a collaborative ecosystem that respects the diversity and significance of cultural heritage.

    Educational Toolkit for Docents & Hands-On Program:

    In our commitment to fostering understanding and engagement, we have developed a comprehensive toolkit to educate pre-teens and adults about our project’s intricate processes: this informative toolkit covers critical aspects, including provenance, community collaboration, and the Local Contexts label and notice system.

    The methodology employed in crafting this toolkit draws inspiration from the approach embraced by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience members. This coalition, a global network of places dedicated to commemorating past struggles for justice is profoundly committed to addressing contemporary legacies. Grounded in the belief that museums and historical sites can serve as trusted educational and community spaces, the coalition advocates for the role of these venues in fostering dialogue and civic engagement.

    The toolkit is structured to provide accessible and engaging content, ensuring that individuals of varying ages and backgrounds can grasp the complexities of our project. Provenance, a critical element in understanding the origin and history of cultural materials, is elucidated with clarity. The importance of community collaboration is highlighted, emphasizing the reciprocal nature of our engagement efforts with Indigenous communities. Furthermore, the toolkit delves into the Local Contexts label system, offering insights into the standardized practices employed to contextualize cultural artifacts within the broader framework of the cultural heritage community.

    Inspired by the Coalition’s commitment to dialogue as an interpretive tool, the toolkit aims to move beyond passive learning by encouraging active engagement. It aligns with the Coalition’s global practices, where dialogue is integrated into exhibitions, tours, programs, and social media. By connecting with audiences in relevant and personal ways, the toolkit seeks to facilitate a deeper understanding of the significance of cultural heritage and its preservation.

    Artist Collaboration Expenses:

    We utilized Luce Grant Funding to cover travel expenses, hotel accommodations, and per diems for artists based on their travel origin. All collaborators receive an honorarium for their contributions. During their visits, collaborators are also provided refreshments, such as coffee, pastries, and fruit. Visiting artists are taken to lunch or provided with lunch onsite by the Coe as deemed appropriate. Other meals are also included. This practice is essential for demonstrating hospitality and welcoming our collaborators into our space.

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