Native Voices in the Archive

Emma O’Neill-Dietel

What makes you feel connected to the stories you read and hear about the past? Maybe you live a block from Independence Hall or maybe your school is named after a historical figure. Whatever the case, a gateway to learning about the past is the ability to connect with the people in the historical narrative. History comes alive when you can trace it back to yourself. But what happens when there is no paper trail of your history? For many Native Americans, their history has been marginalized and misrepresented in archives and historical narratives. Native Americans are often confined to the footnotes of history textbooks, leading many people to falsely believe that Native Americans and their traditions, beliefs, and identities are remnants of a distant past. Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America, of which this exhibition is just one small part, seeks to reframe the historical narrative of the Conestoga (Susquehannock) people by highlighting Native voices from the past and present.

Historical memory is vital to the survival of communities, especially those who have been systematically erased or excluded, such as the Susquehannock people. In Pennsylvania there are no federally recognized tribes, but Native communities have survived. The Lenape, Pequot, Wampanoag, and other peoples have maintained their history through oral storytelling for hundreds of years, and Pennsylvania archives are only just now beginning to catch up. There is an effort to “decolonize” archives, that is, to shift the perspective away from white settlers (squatters) and lawmakers and emphasize the voices of Native people.

The Library Company of Philadelphia, for example, has limited experience working with indigenous communities. This is why Redrawing History is important not only as a singular project, but as a demonstration that it is possible and necessary to tell Native histories in America’s cultural institutions. By partnering with Native American artists, scholars, and community members, institutions can shed new light on their collections. We cannot travel back in time to recover the voices of the Susquehannock people. However, by partnering with Native American community members, scholars and curators can ask new questions of the materials that have survived. While scholars have traditionally driven the conversation at places like the Library Company, Redrawing History invites new participants into the study of Pennsylvania’s colonial history.

White historians have long spoken on behalf of Native peoples. This project presents a challenge to curators at the Library Company and beyond: how to highlight indigenous histories without telling those stories with white voices at historically white institutions. Rather than telling others’ stories on their behalf, Redrawing History invites Native artists and community members to lead the reinterpretative process. If cultural heritage institutions are serious about working with Native communities, they ought to empower those communities to speak for themselves.

Just as cultural heritage institutions are developing new ways to surface underrepresented viewpoints from history, those communities are finding new ways to collaborate, remember their histories, and celebrate their identities. One such avenue is Indigenous Comic Con, founded by Ghost River author Lee Francis.  At Indigenous Comic Con, Native people from across the country convene to share art, writing, and ideas. The artists, writers, game designers, and other creators at Indigenous Comic Con work to create positive, accurate representations of Native identities. Like the Library Company, Indigenous Comic Con is a platform for conversations that tend to go unheard by most people outside.

To carry those stories beyond Indigenous Comic Con, Lee Francis founded Native Realities, a publisher devoted to Native artists’ comic books and graphic art. Publishers have traditionally resisted publishing the work of Native artists, either censoring or whitewashing their stories or claiming that there simply isn’t a market for them. The scarcity of representation leads young Native people to believe that their history and their stories are not valued. People like Lee Francis and Ghost River illustrator Weshoyot Alvitre are taking matters into their own hands by telling Native stories and making room for other Native creators to do the same.

Comics are powerful tools to fight against stereotypes and empower young people. In comics, anything is possible, from flying through space to envisioning moments from history that have been lost to time.   When people see their lives and identities reflected in popular media, they feel less isolated and more empowered to tell their own stories. The artists who share their work at Indigenous Comic Con or through Native Realities blend history, fantasy, popular culture, and the contemporary issues that matter to them.  For example, designer Elizabeth LaPensée developed a Native-centric game (illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre) that responds to the popular settler-focused computer game Oregon Trail by using a similar structure to follow the displacement of the Anishinaabeg people in the 1890s.

Representation in archives is just as crucial as it is in fiction and popular culture. It makes history more relatable, accessible, and ultimately more accurate. Archives bring the past to life with tangible artifacts. Redrawing History does the same through art, archives, and contemporary reinterpretation. Through its teacher’s institute, graphic novel, and public exhibition, the project connects spheres that have rarely overlapped: Native communities and archives; academics, artists, and public school teachers; oral and written histories; and, of course the past and the present. Redrawing History explores how a change in our contemporary perspective reframes how we think about the past.

This exhibition opens the public to Native histories that have shaped the history of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. It’s a small step in a larger effort to make our cultural heritage institutions places where all peoples and cultures feel welcomed, respected, and remembered.

Interview Clips