WASHINGTON – As the Library of Congress puts thousands of hours of Native American recordings and thousands of photographs online, some Native American groups are saying culturally sensitive material, often taken without the tribes’ consent, should be a part of the tribal traditional property.
In the first half of the 20th century, anthropologists and sociologists made a substantial number of tribal recordings and took numerous photographs, often without the knowledge or consent of the tribes, material that ended up in the Library of Congress, according to public records.
While the spokesman of Library of Congress said that some photographs that tribes had flagged as objectional are available only by an appointment with the Library, others are displayed under the explanation that these photographs, drawings, engravings, lithographs, posters, and architectural drawings were not made by indigenous peoples and that they, therefore, have no right to them.
Under the 2018 Music Modernity Act, all recordings gathered prior to 1923 are available for public use in 2021.
“They have no idea what they have,” said Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia. “It would just be music to them, but to the tribes, it could be something sacred.”
According to Martin Saniga, a member of the Saponi tribe and a site supervisor at the historic Jamestown settlement, ethnographers gathering culturally sensitive materials didn’t always obtain permission to record them, specifically because of the religious or cultural significance of the information.
“There are songs about mourning and sending the dead to the afterlife so the anthropologists really had no right to come and make records of these,” Saniga said.
Helena Zinkham, chief of the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division, said her department did not consult with indigenous tribes prior to sharing their photographs online, noting that these materials were already available physically in the library.Get the The Backstory newsletter in your inbox.
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“We received no official complaints from the tribes,” said Zinkham.
In addition, some of the photographs are now in the public domain because the photographers’ copyrights expired. This means that anyone can not only access but legally duplicate photographs even if they contain culturally sensitive information.
But Richardson said that some of the materials should never reach the public domain, regardless of who recorded them.
At a Senate hearing in November on modernizing the Library of Congress, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., called on the Copyright Office, which collaborates with the Library of Congress on the digitalization effort, to work closely with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to prevent the “potential release of culturally sensitive information.”
A committee spokeswoman said Wednesday that the Library of Congress did not consult with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the library’s policy is to work with tribes directly.
Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said that all tribes have a right to maintain, control and protect their cultural sovereignty.
“Any decision to share a tribe’s cultural information publicly should only be done after government-to-government consultation and with the prior consent of the Tribe,” said Udall.
“I’ll continue to push the Copyright Office to work with tribes and Congress to ensure efforts to modernize copyright law respect Tribes’ cultural rights and sovereignty.”
A small department within the Library of Congress, the American Folklife Center, does work with tribal leaders to ensure that none of its sensitive material is shared online. An official said the department would not share sensitive information without prior consent, but that there are tribal related materials in all departments of the library, not just that small department.
Josh Marshall, a member of the Arapaho tribe, said in an interview that the first step in posting tribal content online should be contacting the tribe. He called the appropriation of indigenous imagery and music a continuation of America’s troubled history with indigenous peoples.
“They take our kids, they take our dead, they take our religion, confiscating our habitat. A colonial nation, that’s what we are,” Marshall said.