Listen, Hear Our Voices: Preserving Indigenous Culture and Language Recordings

Jennelle Doyle, Delia Chartrand, Angela Code, Taylor Gibson, Michel Gros-Louis, Samara Harp and Lindsey Louis

Museums, archives, and other institutions who acquire, exhibit, and store documentary heritage material have continually misused and misappropriated Indigenous content. The content acquired is typically from the Western perspective of a Western academic who has studied Indigenous people throughout their career. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is no exception to this practice, however, through Initiatives such as “Listen, Hear Our Voices”, the institution is working to move away from these tendencies. Listen, Hear Our Voices offers Library and Archives Canada the opportunity to improve institutional practices surrounding Indigenous materials and the opportunity to assume accountability for the legacy of how the institution has treated Indigenous materials since its formation.

The Listen, Hear Our Voices team is comprised of seven Indigenous Archivists based across Canada. This decentralization was a key component to the initiative, as it extended LAC’s services to communities instead of having them come to visit the institution. The qualifications required for this posting differ from all other archivist postings at LAC. We were not required to have a master’s degree in order to qualify; this, we felt, placed a real value on our lived experience as Indigenous people and the local and traditional knowledge each of us possess. We support and uphold the equality of Indigenous and Western knowledge. As Indigenous archivists, we provide the balance between the two ways of knowing and provide a cultural lens into Indigenous worlds across Canada; something that is new to LAC as an institution. Allowing Western knowledge and Indigenous knowledge to be valued at the same level recognizes that Indigenous knowledge is vital to the continuation of relationship building between the state and Indigenous people.

This initiative has two main components; the first is a free digitization service for Indigenous language and culture audiovisual recordings. This service is available for Indigenous individuals, communities and organizations. There is no mandate to acquire material, as is the standard in archives, and no transfer of copyright, giving the individual, community or organization control over how their materials are to be shared and stored following digitization. LAC does not retain a copy of any material that it digitizes using the free digitization service, which counters the usual role of archives. However, should a client express a need for storage of the digital preservation master file LAC is offering a free deposit storage option – LAC will retain a copy until the client is ready to receive it. Another way in which our project differs is that typically, when LAC digitizes material, there is a requirement for that material to be publicly accessible. This project does not have that requirement, and, once again, allows the client to share their documentary heritage material with the audience of their choosing.

The second goal is a funding program for non-profit Indigenous organizations to help build capacity in First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation communities. The funding route has the potential to employ community members and create a better local understanding of archives, which is a specialized knowledge set that is conceptually very different from Indigenous worldviews. The funding option was also extremely important for LAC to offer, because documentary heritage materials cannot always be a priority for communities to invest in when there are other, more urgent issues, such as lack of clean water, and lack of housing.

In realizing the connectivity limitations of communities in the North, LAC sent two of the seven Archivists on community visits, along with the Deputy Librarian and Archivist of Canada, to discuss the project and offer assistance or clarification. The communities selected were Iqaluit, Nunavut, Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, and Inuvik, Northwest Territories. These visits also meant the beginning of meaningful relationship building and community engagement. What’s more, some of the archivists are partnered with local institutions in order to support LAC’s relationship building and to support capacity building. For example, one of the regional archivists, located in Manitoba, held a workshop for her community on the basics of Archives, and also travelled to nearby communities during the funding application period in order to assist interested parties in filling out their applications.

All of this work continues to be guided by an Indigenous Advisory Circle (IAC). The IAC are a group of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation experts who advise the institution on how the Indigenous Initiatives ought to be carried out, and make changes as the projects move along. The IAC is an integral part of this initiative and the LAC as a whole. In addition to the IAC, LAC established an External Review Committee of even more Indigenous experts to review the funding applications that we received for the first Listen, Hear Our Voices call. This ensured that successful applicants were selected by individuals who understand the limitations that exist for Indigenous organizations, or those that are located in isolated areas.

All in all, this project is one piece in a bigger picture for LAC as an institution. Moving forward, we hope to see LAC continue to commit to collaborative work like we have seen with the Listen, Hear Our Voices initiative. We also hope that our work on this initiative will serve to inform future projects facilitated by LAC. This collaboration is vital in order to ensure the safety, integrity, proper use, and access to Indigenous material by Indigenous people, no matter where we are located in Canada.

Museums have an opportunity to serve as a catalyst in reframing this understanding. To allow for flexible and fluid partnerships with Indigenous Peoples and communities in our work inclusion has to be step number one of the process to ensure that privilege does not lead.

Jennefer Nepinak