Making Indigenous Material Culture More Accessible in the Digital Age

By Kiley E. Molinari

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) encourages Indigenous communities to submit proposals to their Recovering Voices Program, which provides funding to access their collection of objects, as well as photographic and language archives at the National Anthropological Archives (NAA). In March 2016, four members of the Apsáalooke Tribe and I began our research through the Recovering Voices Program. Soon after we returned to the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana, we realized the importance of making museum collections accessible to everyone, rather than only to those who can travel to our nation’s capital to view them. What happens when Indigenous community members have the chance to look at their own collections in museums and archives? What are the benefits that the entire community gets to share in and be a part of when digital content is brought back to Indigenous communities? Based on preliminary fieldwork in 2016 and important conversations we had, I developed the idea for a “pocket archive” – a digital space, accessible on a cell phone with access to images and 3D content curated for and by Indigenous communities with a few clicks. 

In August of 2015, the Apsáalooke joined a growing new media movement across Indian Country and released its own mobile phone software: the Apsáalooke Language App through Thornton Media Inc. Aimed at Apsáalooke language revitalization, this multimedia platform integrates quizzes, games, oral histories, ethnographic descriptions, and archival visual imagery in a free downloadable app for Apple and Android cellphones and tablets. Once the individual downloads the app, it can be used in “Airplane Mode” without WiFi or cellular data. This is incredibly important since access to WiFi is limited on the Crow Reservation. This gave our Recovering Voices group the idea to create a new app, possibly using Mukurtu software, for the exploration of how Indigenous new media is reinventing the basic terms of political advocacy through cultural heritage and specifically, digital returns through a cell phone app.[1]Digital returns refers to the act of making accessible the material culture of indigenous groups when returning the actual items to them faces so many barriers. A “pocket archive” produced by, or in collaboration with, the Apsáalooke people that makes it possible to curate digital heritage content into a collection also allows culturally sensitive objects to be protected by passwords if needed based on cultural protocols. In doing so, it promises to illuminate new developments in Native America: the ways that the unique properties of decentralized, democratic digital interfaces are quickly expanding the stakes and terms of sovereignty, memory, and engaged collaborative anthropological research. Following the example of the Apsáalooke Language App, we wanted to be sure that the “pocket archive” could be downloaded and not require WiFi to operate.  

Access is important, but so is authorship. Anthropologist Faye Ginsburg writes that new media forms “are seen as a powerful means of (collective) self-expression that can have a culturally revitalizing effect” on the community as a whole.[2] Each individual Indigenous community, acting as the producer of the app, gives the final approval of all of the content that is going to be a part of the finished product. The app then becomes a digital “pocket archive” of material culture and historic images, as well as song and video recordings that Indigenous peoples can use. One person who was part of the Recovering Voice trip used photographs of men’s war shirts from the Smithsonian when she returned to the Crow Reservation to begin making her own. Another person who did not come on the trip asked me for photographs for Elk Tooth dresses for her to have on the table as she made one for her granddaughter for that year’s Crow Fair. Crow Fair, which takes place the 3rd week of August every year, gives Crow Agency its nickname of “Teepee Capital of the World.” Apsáalooke, as well as friends and tourists from all over the world, travel to the Crow Reservation in order to attend the events.

Focusing on a pocket archive, then, promises to illuminate the social life of Indigenous mobile new media and the digital remediation of material culture into an easy to access format. Oftentimes, tribal members are not aware of the number of objects that are stored in museum locations across the world. These digital pictures of objects, photographs, and video recordings start conversations and even lead to reconnecting these items to descendants of the people who first made them. Not only will this information help to strengthen museum outreach and access, but giving tribal members the opportunity to be reconnected to these objects will also greatly benefit the entire community.  

“Pocket archives” can bridge “traditional” archives with everyday life. Such an idea would make museum collections more accessible, and possibly more appealing to younger generations who are already so reliant on, and interested in, technology to stay connected and absorb new material. The Apsáalooke Language App facilitates the learning process that usually happens in Indigenous communities when elders pass down the knowledge of their culture. By using this new form of digital media as a learning tool, elders and the youth work together, where the elders teach the youth about the material on the app, and then the youth teach the elders about how to work with the new technology.  

Our Recovering Voices team discussed options to help aid in community outreach while we learned more about the Mukurtu software and logistics of building the “pocket archive.” We thought Dropbox or a shared Google Drive would be a good idea since it was a free app, that could be used on a computer as well. We decided to create a Dropbox account that would be jointly administered with the Recovering Voices group, as well as the Crow Cultural Committee. This way, team members would be able to upload their pictures onto this platform in order to disseminate information from our trip to the Crow community shortly after we returned. Indigenous communities who either collaborate, or develop their own digital technology, are the ones who know their cultural heritage and the protocols best. The switch from being the object of the media to the subject and producer of the media allows Indigenous communities to “flip the script,” and as Ginsburg writes, “talk back” on their own terms without anyone else speaking for them.[3]

Apps such as the Apsáalooke Language App and software that Mukurtu offers for its Indigenous community members to use are based on multiple perspectives and help answer the question of “what is the meaning behind the technology for the society?” Indigenous communities, using whatever form of technology they choose can have the chance to express their culture and traditions in a new way. Valerie Alia explains that “old traditions flow into new technologies; change is organic, not anomalous.”[4] A “pocket archive” can serve as an easier and more innovative way for Indigenous peoples to access to their museum and archival collections, allowing them to be able to alter the new media within their own cultural and political concerns and re-objectify the media and meaning making behind it. 

This project revolutionizes and expands how tribal members can access their material culture, images, and historic media/song recordings without having to leave their communities. This collaborative ethnographic and archival study shows how new media such as apps work in tribal communities, how the communities are using it, and what the community would want in a new app focused on archival and collections research. This emphasizes collaborative work between museums and Indigenous communities, and acts as another way of getting museums involved in community collaboration and digital cultural heritage.


Dr. Kiley Molinari is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. Her research focuses on topics such as material culture studies, Indigenous new media, language and cultural revitalization and retention, digital cultural heritage, and collaborative research within Indigenous communities. She has been working on various projects and presentations with the Apsáalooke People (Crow Tribe) since 2010. 

Title image: Using a Collection Image to Finish an Elk Tooth Dress. Photo by author. 

Endnotes: 

[1] Mukurtu began with the Warumungu Aboriginal community in Australia and was built specifically for what they were looking for in a digital archival platform.  “Mukurtu is free and open source and principally engineered for use by indigenous communities. Some of these communities, without doubt, are vulnerable and prone to isolation in an increasingly globalized world. The project allows people around the planet to share in and preserve their heritage using modern technology.  The archive platform provides standards-based tools which can be molded and adapted to suit the local cultural norms and needs of communities.” (https://mukurtu.org). This software, because it is built with each Indigenous community in mind, helps preserve cultural heritage in today’s digital world.  

[2] Faye Ginsburg, “Embedded Aesthetics: Creating a Discursive Space for Indigenous Media,” Cultural Anthropology.Vol. 9, No. 3. (1994), 366.

[3] Ginsburg, “Embedded Aesthetic.”

[4] Valerie Alia, The New Media Nation: Indigenous Peoples and Global Communication (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), xii. 

Additional Readings:

Alia, Valerie. The New Media Nation: Indigenous Peoples and Global Communication. New York: Berghahn Books, 2010. 

Anderson, Jane and Kim Christen. “‘Chuck a Copyright on It’: Dilemmas of Digital Returns and the Possibilities for Traditional Knowledge Licenses and Labels.” Museum Anthropology Review. Vol. 7, No.1-2. (2013): 105-126.

Boast, Robin and Jim Enote. “Virtual Repatriation: It Is Neither Virtual nor Repatriation.” Heritage in the Context of Globalization. New York: Springer, 2013.

Brown, Michael F. Who Owns Native Culture? Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Cameron, Fiona and Sarah Kenderdine ed. Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2007.

Christen, Kimberley. “Gone Digital: Aboriginal Remix and the Cultural Commons.” International Journal of Cultural Property. Vol. 12, No. 3 (2005): 315-345.

Fox, Aaron. “Repatriation as Reanimation Through Reciprocity.” The Cambridge History of World Music, ed. Philip Bohlman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014: 522-554.

Ginsburg, Faye. “Embedded Aesthetics: Creating a Discursive Space for Indigenous Media.” Cultural Anthropology.Vol. 9, No. 3. (1994): 365-382.

Ginsburg, Faye. “The Parallax Effect: The Impact of Aboriginal Media of Ethnographic Film.” Visual Anthropology Review. Vol. 11, No. 2. (Fall 1995): 64-76. 

Swan, Daniel C. and Michael Paul Jordan. Contingent Collaborations: Patterns of Reciprocity in Museum-Community Partnerships.” Journal of Folklore Research. Vol. 52, No. 1. (2015): 39-84. 

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