War/History/Claiming Voice

This week, I am working on finishing up the John Rutter Brooke Papers, the first collection I am processing as part of the Digital Center for Americana.

J.R. Brooke

J.R. Brooke

The collections that are part of the project were chosen because of their Civil War-related content, so imagine my surprise when I realized that the Brooke collection has much more to do with the US Army’s “Sioux Campaign” in 1890-1891, which culminated in the slaughter of many hundreds of Lakota Sioux men, women and children at Wounded Knee.  Brooke also sat at the helm of the military takeover of Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1898-1899.   I spent more time than I should have reading through some of the letters about the military movements and directives leading up to Wounded Knee, but I couldn’t help myself.  Knowing the outcome of the situation already, I read these letters with a pounding heart as the communications increased between December 26th and  29th.

photo taken by the 3rd Infantry division

photo taken by the 3rd Infantry division

When I am working with material dealing with the nastiest chapters of our nation’s history, I am filled with a sense of sadness and heaviness as my worst feelings about the historical legacy of the United States are confirmed before my eyes.  I felt this in my last processing project, when I was reading through papers dealing with the Chew family’s plantations and the enslaved people who suffered without assurance of adequate food or clothing or the prospect of freedom.

I struggled to maintain a sense of objectivity about the people who created this record of history.  I wondered how to give a voice to those people whose voices were silenced through their enslavement.  I tried to give their names when I knew them, so that their stories could be uncovered by researchers and ancestors.  I feel this same sense of struggle when reading about Wounded Knee.  How can the real stories of these events be told?  My instinct directs me to contact indigenous groups who are documenting their own history so that they know about these papers and can use them to tell the story of their people.

As an archivist, I know my job is not to tell my version of history, however true and real it may feel to me.  I know that my sympathies lie with the people whose voices have rarely been heard in history texts, yet my job is to present descriptions of materials without bias (as much as that is possible for anyone).  These issues were brought to the forefront of my mind at the Chew event on October 14th, which was billed as a celebration of the end of the project.

I wanted to educate the event’s attendees about how many topical areas are covered in the collection, how rich the material is, and how much it can offer to scholars and researchers.  This “celebration” turned into a contentious discussion during the Q&A (read Matthew’s post for a more detailed perspective on the evening), but it got me thinking a lot about the view we bring to our work, and the language we use to describe what we have in front of us.  It matters–all of our biases and personal views and resistances are there in the way we choose words, the way we focus our attention, and the ways we are willing (or not) to engage in debate about these issues.  The fact that these issues are in the forefront of my mind now is extremely valuable, especially as I begin to describe another collection filled with painful, and potentially volatile, material.

We have much to heal in this country–prejudices related to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, disability, and many other things do divide us.   These collections offer us an opportunity to work toward healing these divisions by giving the power of interpretation back to the public, and offering groups whose history has been erased or covered over the chance to reclaim some of their story.  While I bear a heavy burden when it comes to the choices I make in description, by making the papers accessible and available to researchers, their voices eventually become the conversation and my voice becomes more of a background hum that tells you where to find that paper with a date and name.  I do my best to provide access points and hope that groundbreaking and thoughtful histories come next.