With United Nations endorsement for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 we have a “minimum standard for the survival, dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples of the world.” The UNDRIP offers an international legal framework for the recognition of the unique collective rights of Indigenous Peoples across the globe. It also recognizes the Indigenous right to self-determination as interpreted through the lens of those human rights. As the world’s pre-eminent organization concerned with the understanding and care of archival heritage, the common humanity of our social memories, the International Council of Archives has a responsibility to respond to the UNDRIPs advice. For this purpose, the ICA Programme Commission established the Expert Group on Indigenous Matters (EGIM) at an ICA Meeting in Adelaide, Australia in October 2019. Twelve years after the UNDRIP’s publication, in the words of Phyllis Williams, EGIM co-chair and an Indigenous representative at the National Archives of Australia, the wheels of international bureaucracy move very slowly. The EGIM would be the first official office exclusively devoted to Indigenous matters in the context of the ICA’s concern for international documentary heritage. Tandanya, The Adelaide Declaration, its first formal declaration on Indigenous matters.
Leading up to the Adelaide opening meeting, over the Spring and Summer an ad hoc international committee held several international dialogues with Indigenous community representatives and archivists across the globe to lay out the principles for the EGIM. Some of these included:
- Implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as it related to Indigenous knowledge and Knowledge-Keepers;
- Preservation and accessibility of indigenous languages within archival materials;
- Communication regarding the role of archives and collections in supporting communities’ initiatives for reparation and reclamation;
- Implications for archival management and accessibility in the context of transnational Indigenous groups;
- Investigate Indigenous methodologies for the creation, sharing, use, and safeguard of expressions of Indigenous knowledge.
In the beginning the EGIM recognized, in the words of the Declaration, “its responsibility to reimagine the meaning of archives. It must become an engaging model of social memory; to embrace Indigenous worldviews and methods of creating, sharing and preserving valued knowledge; to open the meaning of public archives to Indigenous interpretations; to bring new dynamics of Indigenous spirituality, ecology and Indigenous philosophy into the European traditions of public memory. To support a fair and healing remembrance of the colonial encounter.” Goals articulated, the Declaration’s draft was assigned to an archivist who drew up the body of the text, subsequent versions were circulated to the ad hoc committee for comment and editing.
Fundamental to these discussions was a recognition the ICA operates on the international stage, where it is possible to outline in collective terms, the rights of “peoples,” as opposed to sovereign nation states. As S. James Anaya notes, “self-determination is concerned with human beings, not simply as individuals with autonomous will, but more as social creatures engaged in the constitution and functioning of communities.” The EGIM is aware the dynamic concept of community has collided, violently at times, with the Westphalian sovereign states that have carved up the globe. Collective rights recognized on an international stage find expression in the context of a multitude of states’ governing structures, each with a legal definition of a nation’s “people,” to support the underlying authority of the state.
To address this cognitive divide, Archivists should read the Declaration as a conceptual bridge from the international legal support for collective Indigenous rights to self-determination, to the challenges archivists must confront to integrate such Indigenous rights into the colonial archives of settler states. The five areas the Declaration describes each address specific archival concerns, threads where Indigenous ideas of identity, self-expression, humanity, and social memory might be woven into statist conceptions of responsibilities to preserve cultural heritage.
If the conceptual divide seems impossible from the perspective of traditional European archives, the challenge is even greater for Indigenous peoples who prevailed through the genocidal colonial encounter. In the words of Indigenous legal philosopher James (Sa’ke’j) Youngblood Henderson, to take up the challenge of recognizing our common humanity in law and archives,
“Indigenous Peoples must encourage hope to prevail over past experiences, creativity over impossibility, constitutionalism over domination, prophecy over habit, kindness over impersonal, place over time, solidarity over individualism, serenity over vulnerability, and empathic love and relationship over everything.”