Listening for Indigenous Voices in Archival Research

March 7, 2024 By Eric Ely-Ledesma, Friends board member and Libby Theune, administrator

On March 12 at the Chazen Museum of Art Auditorium, Dr. Stephen Kantrowitz, Plaenert-Bascom and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at UW-Madison, will be joined by Josie Lee, Director of the Ho-Chunk Nation Museum and Cultural Center. In their discussion titled, Citizens of a Stolen Land: A Conversation on Ho-Chunk History and Survivance, Kantrowitz and Lee will expound upon their research into how the United States and its settlers laid claim to the ancestral homeland of the Ho-Chunk People and how the Ho-Chunk people resisted those claims and remained in their homeland. As they do so, they discuss ideas of history, the past, documentation, and access.

To be informed members of society we must turn a critical eye toward our collective past as we strive for a more inclusive and just future. While we may not directly have been involved in the atrocities of the past – banishment, dispossession, and genocide in the case of the Ho-Chunk and other tribal nations – it is important to learn from our history. At the local level, many of these lessons can be sifted from the vast, world-class resources housed within the UW-Madison Libraries and the Wisconsin Historical Society. However, the task is not an easy one when an underrepresented community is the focus of the research.

Kantrowitz has made extensive use of library and archival resources on campus during his 28 years in Madison. Discussing his recently published book, Citizens of a Stolen Land: A Ho-Chunk History of the Nineteenth-Century United States (University of North Carolina Press, 2023), Kantrowitz states, “The book that I just wrote is a book written from colonial sources, almost exclusively. Its strengths and its weakness flow directly from that fact.” This idea of the colonial archive is one example of how the nation’s past, and, more specifically, the history of libraries and archives, has focused almost exclusively on the white experience. As he conducted research for his book, Kantrowitz reflected on the process, “What I learned working through the various colonial archives held by the Wisconsin Historical Society, is that the people trying to carry out settler colonialism are constantly in relation to the native people they are trying to replace. That relation produces spaces in which native people insert and assert themselves. And you can hear them from a great distance of time in the written record and the degree to which that was true surprised me.” Together on March 12, Kantrowitz and Lee will discuss their efforts to hear the voices that were embedded in the spaces of primary sources, and what they learned from those voices.

While resource deficits created by the historians of the past are difficult to backfill, solutions for future researchers are underway. The libraries and archives now take a much broader approach, actively seeking out marginalized voices for records retention. At UW-Madison, the University Archives recently hosted a queer archive drive and regularly solicits materials from previously overlooked communities. Research access to these records has also been expanded. Highly skilled subject librarians are available to ensure material can be discovered. The academic collections held within the UW-Madison Libraries are accessible to the public and may be taken home via community borrowing cards. To increase usage of indigenous materials, the Friends funded student wages to produce a Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museum (TLAM) research guide, and the UW-Madison Libraries hired a TLAM Librarian, Cassy Leeport, who teaches and advises students and works with community partners.

Creating an inclusive record of the past may be an impossible goal. We don’t yet know what voices we are leaving behind in the records of the future. By considering multiple viewpoints, Kantrowitz and Lee have assembled a more complete picture of the Ho-Chunk experience – an experience that must be told and understood to move forward into a respectful future.

The Friends of UW-Madison Libraries are pleased to give Stephen Kantrowitz and Josie Lee the opportunity to share their discoveries and insights on Tuesday, March 12 from 5:00-6:00 pm at the Chazen Museum of Art Auditorium, 800 University Avenue, Madison, WI. A reception and book signing will follow the conversation.

The event will be recorded but not livestreamed. R.S.V.P for an event reminder and a link to the recording after the event:

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