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The second life of ethnographic fieldnotes

Robert Leopold


La deuxième vie des notes de terrain ethnographique. Créées dès 1879 sous le nom d’Archives du Bureau of American Ethnology, les National Anthropological Archives ont pour mission de collecter et d’assurer la sauvegarde des notes de terrain et, plus généralement, de l’ensemble des matériaux ethnographiques. Ces notes, photographies, archives sonores et images animées sont consultées très régulièrement par des anthropologues. Certains se consacrent à l’écriture de biographies, d’autres travaillent sur l’histoire de la discipline, d’autres encore sont désireux de revisiter les archives d’ethnologues les ayant précédés sur le même terrain. Ces matériaux sont également de plus en plus souvent consultés par des non-anthropologues, parmi lesquels on compte des membres de sociétés étudiées soucieux de mieux connaitre leur héritage. Ce texte présente quelques uns des défis que pose la collecte de ces archives et plus encore leur mise à disposition du public sur place ou en ligne. Il prend particulièrement en compte le rôle de l’archiviste vis-à-vis des sociétés-sources pour tout ce qui concerne les problèmes éthiques posés par l’utilisation de ces matériaux si sensibles.

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1The National Anthropological Archives began as the Archives of the Bureau of American Ethnology (bae), the Smithsonian’s first research bureau. The bae was founded in 1879 by John Wesley Powell to promote anthropological research and to serve as the permanent repository for manuscripts and photographs concerning American Indians that had been collected earlier by the US geographical and geological surveys of the western United States, particularly those of Ferdinand V. Hayden and George M. Wheeler.

2Powell sought continuing funding for his ethnographic research program by evoked the imaging of the disappearing savage: “Rapidly the Indians are being gathered on reservations”, he said, “where their original habits and customs disappear, their languages are being modified or lost and they are abandoning their savagery, and barbarism and accepting civilization. If the ethnology of our Indians is ever to receive proper scientific study and treatment the work must be done at once” (quoted in Fowler, 2000: 93). Powell proposed that the federal government’s colonial enterprise would benefit in very tangible ways from the bae’s ethnographic work. His motto was “Better knowledge for better governance”.

3The bae’s staff included some of America’s earliest field anthropologists, including Frank Hamilton Cushing, J. O. Dorsey, Jesse Walter Fewkes, Alice Cunningham Fletcher, John N. B. Hewitt, Francis LaFlesche, Cosmo and Victor Mindeleff, John Stevenson, and Matilda Coxe Stevenson. In the twentieth century, the bae’s staff included such notable anthropologists as Neil Judd and John Peabody Harrington – a legendary linguist who spent more than forty years collecting specimens of endangered languages from their last speakers. The bae also supported the work of many non-Smithsonian researchers (known as collaborators), most notably Franz Boas, Francis Densmore, Garrick Mallery, Washington Matthews, Paul Radin, Cyrus Thomas and T. T. Waterman.

4Together these individuals contributed ethnographic, archaeological and linguistic materials that they produced or collected from others. In addition, the bae supported the work of many non-Smithsonian researchers, most notably Franz Boas and his students. A highlight of their work was the Schedule of American Indian Languages that they distributed widely to missionaries, frontier army officers, Indian agents, government scouts, physicians, travelers, and gentlemen scholars. The completed schedule formed the basis for the first comparative study of North American Indian languages.

5The archive’s collections grew quickly. By 1885, bae was already referring to its “archives” of manuscripts under the custodial care of John N. B. Hewitt, a talented linguist who was a member of the Tuscarora tribe of New York. Twelve years later (1893), the collections comprised “over 1,110 specific linguistic papers, 60 miscellaneous linguistic papers, and 236 manuscripts on miscellaneous ethnographic subjects”, all of which were stored in two large fireproof vaults. By 1897, just four years later, the collection had grown to more than 2,000 titles, and a first catalogue of manuscripts was prepared by John Hewitt “with the assistance of the late Rev. J. Owen Dorsey”.

6In 1965, the bae merged with the Smithsonian’s Department of Anthropology and its archives became the archives of the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology. The focus of its collecting activities changed from documenting the American Indian (and people of American possessions, particularly the Philippines) to cultures throughout the world.

7In 1968, the archive was renamed the National Anthropological Archives. The naa was created in response to a widely felt need to preserve unique field materials – a concern resulting to a considerable degree from the reluctance of university archives and libraries to accept the raw materials of science, and in many cases, the collections of their own research staffs. In fact, the National Anthropological Archives is the only American repository that exclusively collects ethnographic materials.

8Today, our collections include more than 8,500 linear feet of manuscripts (2.5 km), 635,000 ethnographic photographs (including some of the earliest images of indigenous people worldwide), 21,000 works of native art, more than 11,000 sound recordings, and more than 8 million feet of original ethnographic film and video.

The use and re-use of ethnographic fieldnotes

9Although the bae and naa were originally seen as a place to deposit raw ethnographic field materials, the archives is increasingly seen as a place from which new knowledge arises. In 2006, our archives served more than 600 researchers, mainly anthropologists, and our web site was visited by more than 600,000 individuals. naa researchers use our collections to conduct comparative ethnographic studies, diachronic research into social, cultural and linguistic change, and to review and reinterpret the date collected by other anthropologists, particularly those working in the same ethnographic region.

10In addition, many of our researchers are writing biographies of anthropologists, histories of Western exploration; preparing new exhibitions and studying previous exhibitions with an eye toward issues of representation and “first encounter” narratives; and writing intellectual histories.

11Although the majority of the researchers who visit our archives are ethnologists and archaeologists, field materials are increasingly consulted by non-anthropologists, particularly native peoples studying their own cultural heritage. Many of these native researchers are re-using anthropological field notes for genealogical research; for assistance in supporting the revitalization of endangered languages; and to seek historical support for Native land claims and mineral rights.

12Other native researchers are seeking federal recognition of their tribal sovereignty, which requires documentation (which is often found in our archives) of their historical presence on the land and an unbroken chain of political leadership. Finally, many native researchers use our archives to support their claims for the repatriation of cultural property in our museum and in others.

13Now that I’ve given you a broad overview of our collections, let me turn to some of our major challenges. These challenges fall into four major areas:
- What to collection
- Restrictions on access to our archives
- Issues related to Intangible Cultural Heritage
- Knowledge Repatriation

What to collect?

14The first challenge concerns the sheer magnitude of our mission: to document the world’s peoples and the history of anthropology. As some of you may know, the National Anthropological Archives is the only American institution that collects anthropological fieldnotes exclusively. Although many university archives and libraries have ethnographic collections, many of them (including some of the largest and best known institutions) do not accept ethnographic fieldnotes, even those that are produced by their own faculty members. Accordingly, our collections include manuscripts written by many of the major figures in American anthropology, as well as academics whose names you might not recognize.

15Our decision to collect and preserve ethnographic fieldnotes produced by all American anthropologists reflects our profound belief that primary ethnographic data is extremely valuable even materials produced by less-known academics and those who publish relatively little. In fact, my colleagues and I believe that these materials may have even greater value because the results of their research have never been published. They include materials that document regions of the world that continue to undergo rapid social and cultural change. As such, their fieldnotes preserve a unique record of social life.

16Our decision to be inclusive, of course, means that we are quite literally overwhelmed by documentation. Each year, our archives preserves 50-60 meters (175-200 linear feet) of ethnographic field materials – much more than we can ever hope to arrange and describe. The tremendous increase in the volume of ethnographic materials at the Smithsonian has coincided, however, with a dramatic decrease in our staff and budget.

17Another reason why we collect so much ethnographic material is because we’re committed to preserving everything an anthropologist creates, plus items that illuminate his or her public career and private life. In addition to common ethnographic materials such as fieldnotes, diaries, photographs, sound recordings, and moving images, we also strive to collect lecture notes and class notes, grant applications, manuscript reviews, editorial business, personal and professional correspondence, and personal diaries. As a consequence, we not only collect ethnography, but materials that could be used to produce biographies of American anthropologists.

18New fieldwork techniques and methods have also changed the way that our archives operate. In 1986, the naa began receiving personal papers and organization records in electronic formats. Since then we have acquired more that 40 collections in electronic media – some of which were produced in now-obsolete file formats. Although digital preservation, technical metadata and related issues are fairly well understood, it remains to be seen how anthropologists will preserve their own electronic materials before they are deposited in our archives, and how the anthropological community will eventually use these electronic materials in their own research, writing and publications. At the moment, we have created more than 75,000 digital images from our collections, and more than 40,000 of these images are now available online.

Access and restrictions

19The second major challenge facing our archives involves the public access restrictions that donors occasionally impose of their field materials. Currently, at least 25 of our collections of personal papers and manuscripts are partially or entirely restricted from public access. The reasons for these restrictions vary:
- Some collections have been restricted to maintain the confidentiality of medical records, forensic examinations produced by physical anthropologists (many of which are subject to continued legal investigation) or records pertaining to children.
- Other collections have been restricted at their donor’s request to maintain the anonymity of native informants and interview subjects, or merely to protect their well-being. Frederica de Laguna, an ethnologist and archaeologist who conducted fieldwork among the Chugach and Yakutat Tlingit, restricted a selection of her fieldnotes and diaries relating to witchcraft accusations.
- Still other collections have been restricted to maintain the confidentiality of personal correspondence or family privacy.
- Finally, some fieldnotes are restricted, quite understandably, for purely personal reasons. As anthropologist George Bond remarks is his essay in the book Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology:

Fieldnotes are an anthropologist’s most sacred possession. They are personal property, part of a world of private memories and experiences, failures and successes, insecurities and indecisions. They are usually carefully tucked away in a safe place. To allow a colleague to examine them would be to open a Pandora’s box. They are, however, an important key to understanding the nature of what anthropologists do; they are the records of our findings, if not our own self-discovery as artists, scientists, and – more accurately – bricoleurs, assembling cultures from the bits and pieces of past occurrences. (Bond, 1990: 273)

20In most cases, these restrictions on public access are temporary restrictions that are limited to the lifetime of the anthropologist’s interview subjects, the fieldworker’s assistants, or the lifetime of medical subjects. Occasionally, however, anthropologists have placed 10, 25 or even 50-year restrictions on their ethnographic fieldnotes. These restrictions often have unexpected consequences, both for the archives and for the subjects of the anthropologist’s research.

21Consider the example of William Lessa, an anthropologist who conducted fieldwork between 1947 and 1961 on Ulithi, an atoll in the Caroline Islands. Lessa insisted that we “place under restriction journals, censuses, and other material that relates to the ancestry of Ulithians.” In particular, he asked the archives to restrict access to native-boni Ulithians themselves.

22Clearly, the anthropologist’s donation placed an enormous burden on the archives’ staff (who are obviously unable and unwilling to determine the ethnicity of our researchers). But more importantly, his restriction placed the Ulithian people in an extremely awkward position. Although Lessa apparently intended to protect Ulithians from learning facts about their paternity that he had uncovered through his census and village histories – in other words, although he intended to protect their privacy – his restriction would have concealed valuable cultural information from Ulithians while simultaneously revealing it to researchers seated at an adjacent reading room table in our archives.

23In addition to the ethical issues involves, consider some of the other limitations that Lessa’s deed of gift placed on the people he studied. For example, imagine how useful Lessa’s village census and genealogies would be to Ulithians themselves in the event that a genetically transmitted disease were to be discovered on this Island of 700 villagers.

24Until quite recently, our policies regarding access to ethnographic fieldnotes was based almost entirely on the interests of collection donors, rather than of the communities whose culture is documented in their fieldnotes. But our policies are rapidly changing as a result of increasing dialog with native communities as well as our belief that our previous methods of managing ethnographic fieldnotes were not always in the best interests of everyone concerned. For despite George Bond’s characterization of fieldnotes as purely “personal property”, we know that fieldnotes frequently contain material that indigenous people may require to advance their political struggles for survival and autonomy.

25Consider also the unintended consequences of the restriction that James G. E. Smith placed on his fieldnotes. Smith was the curator of North American Ethnology at the Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation, and an authority on the history and culture of the peoples of the central Canadian subarctic. He was on excellent terms with the people with whom he worked. He frequently contributed his expertise to native peoples’ struggles for their rights by serving as an expert witness in court, and he is said to have been instrumental in helping the Ojibwa to establish their land rights. In fact, he was so close to the Lubicon Lake Cree Indians that he is buried in their village cemetery.

26But Smith bequeathed his fieldnotes to the Smithsonian with a 50-year restriction on public access. In 2005, I received an inquiry from an anthropologist who works for the Dene, another tribe with whom Smith worked. She asked me to reconsider the access restriction on Smith’s collection. In a series of messages, she explained that the Dene needed to view Smith’s fieldnotes in order to make a case for the recovery of their traditional lands. She explained that “It would be seen as a token of good faith since the people that provided him with the basis of his career, the people he interviewed and worked with, are the ones that now need the support his notes, interviews and journals could lend to their psychological and socio-economic well being” [V. Petch to Leopold, May 20, 2005].

27Unfortunately, there was little that we could do to help the Dene people’s cause. But as a consequence of our experience with the Smith papers, the National Anthropological Archives has begun to explore more “open” methods for restricting collections. These methods would
- consider the interests of the donor as well as subjects of his research;
- consider whether access to culturally sensitive collections can be provided selectively to communities of origin;
- provide options for future contingencies such as war, drought, and disease;
- and allow donor agreements to be reviewed (and perhaps modified) at the discretion of the archives (or the discretion of native communities) at set intervals in the future, perhaps every 10 or 20 years.

28In fact, the Code of Ethics of the International Council on Archives states that archivists “should observe faithfully and apply impartially all agreements made at the time of acquisition, but, in the interest of liberalisation of access, should renegotiate conditions in accordance with changes of circumstance” [ica, 1996, Section 6].

Intangible cultural heritage

29Which brings me to the final challenge that I want to discuss – our archives’ relationship to source communities and the ethical issues that arise in curating culturally sensitive materials.

30In America, the ongoing debate regarding the ownership of intangible cultural heritage – such as myths, narratives, folklore, and ethnobotany – is intimately related to federal government legislation that was created in 1991, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. nagpra, as this legislation is known, required museums to return skeletal remains and associated funerary objects to tribal descendants. Although nagpra did not address the ownership of intangible cultural heritage directly, many American Indian tribes viewed this legislation more broadly and inclusively to include cultural patrimony in ail of its various manifestations.

31In 1994, for example, the Hopi Tribal Council passed a resolution requesting that museums and other repositories restrict public access to “archival records, including field notes, audio tapes, video tapes, [and] photographs; which describe and depict esoteric ritual, ceremonial and religious knowledge […]” and, in a subsequent letter to our museum, the Hopi tribe requested that “all future research requests on Hopi religion, ceremonies, customs, and clan histories will be with the expressed written review and permission of the Hopi Tribe” (Jenkins to Killian, January 23, 1995). Similarly, also in 1994, our archives received a letter from the Governor of the Pueblo of Zuni (New Mexico) expressing his concern over unrestricted public use and research of Zuni photographs. The Hopi and Zuni efforts to manage and control the distribution of their traditional knowledge, while understandable, are a direct challenge to the open access policies of virtually all American archival repositories.

32To address these and similar issues, a group of 19 Native American and non-Native American archivists, librarians, museum curators, historians, and anthropologists gathered at Northern Arizona University last April (2006) to identify best professional practices for the culturally responsive care and use of American Indian archival material held by non-tribal organizations. At the conclusion of the meetings we drafted a document called Protocols for Native American Archival Materials. The Protocols address:
- the recognition of the sovereign governments and associated rights of Native American communities;
- issues in the collection, ownership, preservation, handling, access, and use of American Indian archival resources;.
- the importance of building relationships, balancing different approaches to knowledge management, and mutual respect;
- the need to expand the nature of the information professions to include Native American perspectives and knowledge.

33Most of us understood, from the very start, that most archival repositories will be able to accept only portions of our recommendations. We understood that federally funded repositories, in particular, will have a more difficult time restricting access to culturally sensitive materials because they have a legal obligation to provide complete public access to ail materials, however sensitive in nature.

34For our part, our archives has attempted to address indigenous interest in our collections by actively promoting what we call knowledge repatriation programs. The goal of knowledge repatriation is two-fold: to enter into a dialog with native peoples that is responsive to their interest in preserving cultural heritage, and to make our collections more readily available to them, especially for language revitalization programs, by creating digital surrogates of our collections. Over the past ten years, we’ve reproduced more than 30,000 pages of primary documentation to the Southwest Oregon Research Project (sworp), allowing them to place copies of fieldnotes and other primary data in their local archives in the state of Oregon, where it can be used more easily by tribal members. In addition, we’ve produced digital versions of all of our Navajo photographs for the Navajo Nation. After consultation with Navajo medicine men, we agreed to restrict a small portion of these photographs from our online catalog.

35Our most recent collaboration is with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, representing one of the largest tribes in America, for which we are currently digitizing more than 8,000 pages of manuscripts in the Cherokee language. These collections include songs and musical transcriptions; lists of Cherokee personal names and place names; early maps and censuses; copies of Cherokee treaties; and a wealth of ethnobotanical material. The Cherokee have already begun to carry out fieldwork with elders and native speakers in order to assess these materials, translate them, and develop ways to use them in Cherokee language preservation programs.

36Although collaborations such as these cannot resolve all of the issues associated with native peoples’ interests in their intangible cultural heritage, we think they’re a good beginning. By sharing fieldnotes with native researchers, we’ve learned a great deal about our collections while our native researchers have learned even more about their cultural heritage. This is the second life of ethnographic fieldnotes.

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Bond, George C.
1990 Fieldnotes: Research in Past Occurrences, in Roger Sanjek (ed.), Fieldnotes: The Making of Anthropology (Ithaca, Cornell University Press), 273-289.

First Archivists Circle
2006 Protocols for Native American Archival Materials.
([on line]

Fowler, Don D.
2000 A Laboratory for Anthropology: Science and Romanticism in the American Southwest, 1846-1930 (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press).

Hinsley, Curtis
1977 Savages and Scientists: The Smithsonian Institution and the Development of American Anthropology, 1846-1910 (Washington, Smithsonian Institution Press).

International Council on Archives (ica)
1996 Code of Ethics for Archivists.
([on line]

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Robert Leopold, « The second life of ethnographic fieldnotes »Ateliers du LESC [En ligne], 32 | 2008, mis en ligne le 04 août 2008, consulté le 28 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Robert Leopold

National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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