Indigenous communities still battle with archival silences

Indigenous people often contend with being silenced. In the archiving field, they deserve to be known for the entirety of their culture.

“We are not yet dead for us to be preserved,” BAI Indigenous Women’s Network National Coordinator Kakay Tolentino remarks in Filipino. Indigenous peoples (IPs), as a still living and breathing community, do not wish to preserve their current traditions—instead, IPs would rather see their cultures and traditions flourish dynamically through progressive plans of action and policies.

Unfortunately, the struggles and experiences of IPs remain unheard of. Barely any information about them is available or accessible to the public, and they even continuously face difficulties due to misconceptions about them and their culture.

Silent struggles

Tolentino would describe the state’s effort to archive IP works as being exploitative, while citing examples of government “deception” in obtaining antique cultural objects and indigenous people being displayed in museums.

‘Yung una kasing pag-aarchive sa panig ng gobyerno, hindi siya nakatulong sa amin in the sense na, mas pumasok yung pagsasamantala,” they narrate.

(The first attempt of the government to archive did not help us, it only helped foster exploitation.)

The National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP)—a commission under the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) mandated to protect the interests of IPs—is ironically one of the major hurdles IPs are facing. Raising instances where the NCIP denied the identities of certain groups, such as the Igorots of Cordillera, Tolentino believes that progressive preservation of information—where information is not merely stored but is also shared—helps solidify IP identity to avoid the denial of IP identities, and even their existence.

Another issue raised against the NCIP is the agency’s lack of budget to create a database on IPs’ materials, says Philippine Task Force for Indigenous People’s Rights Policy Adviser Tyrone Beyer. “Lagi nilang sinasabi na kulang ‘yung budget nila. So they can’t [create a] database or [store] information hinggil sa indigenous peoples,”  he laments. 

(They keep saying their budget is not enough to create a database or store information on indigenous peoples.)

These challenges have led other institutions to take the helm in archiving IPs and their culture, one of them being the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). However, Beyer is concerned about how NCCA’s process of archiving prefers artisans over the ordinary IP’s culture.

“‘Yung reality, mas marami pang [ginawang] efforts at programs ang NCCA…ang problema lang sa NCCA, naka-focus lang sila sa arts, artistic works, crafts…hindi ‘yung collective knowledge or product, ‘yung tinututukan nila, yung masters,” explains Beyer.

(The reality is that the NCCA has made more efforts and programs than NCIP. However, the problem with NCCA is that they focus only on the arts, artistic works, and crafts, not on the collective knowledge or product. They are only focused on the masters.)

Who silences

There is a concept in the field of archiving under which these struggles of the IP fall—“archival silences”. It is defined as the omission or distortion, intentional or not, of the documentation of anything that has enduring value, leading to gaps in depicting the past.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a proponent of the concept, explained that these silences could happen during the historical processes, starting from the processes of source creation to fact assembly, fact retrieval, and introspective significance.

When the government archives what is “exotic lang,” as Beyer laments, or “‘yung worth [something] lang kasi kakaiba,” they end up being concerned only with what is “representative of the old world, the ancient times or ancestors.” There might be existing information on IPs in our history, libraries, museum, and even the academe, but Beyer gripes that its provided knowledge ignores the everyday needs of IPs today.

(What is worth something because it’s different.)

When archivists establish systems or criteria of what to archive, they tend to stick to these archival standards. This is a concern for Iyra Buenrostro-Cabbab, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s School of Library and Information Studies, who suggests that this practice may be creating gaps between the IPs’ real culture and archived culture as well. “The IPs wish to preserve their culture, probably not using those standards…IPs might want to preserve their culture differently,” she expounds.

She also believes that these gaps, even outside the discourse on IPs, could have been caused by some lack of coordination between the record keeper, the archivist, and—most importantly—the creator of the record. However, in the bigger picture, the professor holds that a reason why there are still rifts between different topics is a lack of “collective recognition” of the discipline. 

“When people do not see the significance of archives, records, or even the work that we do, ang hirap…it’s critical [that they do because] when they know how records are, kasama na rin diyan yung pagkakaroon nila ng awareness of their own rights.”

(It’s part of knowing this that they gain awareness of their own rights.)

Moving forward

For Buenrostro-Cabbab, addressing archival bias entails one’s acknowledgement of it. This process allows the archivist to balance between their own preference and reason. “Iniisip nila na it should not be biased, should be objective, should be neutral…but, from the moment you appraise, you already impose your bias as an archivist,” she admits. 

Community archiving, an emerging approach in the field, could also address the plight of IPs. In this sphere, local communities decide which portions of their identity they wish to preserve and how they want to be represented in the archives, thus entailing a bottom-to-top approach to archiving.

“You have to make them realize as well that it’s their identity [that] will be preserved, and not our interpretation of them,” Buenrostro-Cabbab explains.

The successful incorporation of everyone’s history into the Filipino identity would call for the proactive participation of the public and private sectors, IP communities, and archivists in ensuring the preservation of local traditions, cultures, and practices that are slowly dying. As Buenrostro-Cabbab shares, “Mahalaga na may point of view ang archivists [to preserve the IPs’ cultures]. So, I think that the government should recognize that may mga iba’t ibang mga disciplines and professions para sa tamang preservation ng mga ito.”

(It is important for archivists to have a point of view [to preserve the IPs’ cultures]. The government should recognize that there are different disciplines and professions that can adequately preserve these.)

Tolentino echoes this sentiment, saying IPs prefer to update existing notions about their identity and culture. “What we need is to update the existing data to correct wrong perceptions and ideas when it comes to IPs,” she posits in Filipino.

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