Saturday, January 24, 2015

Collaborative History and Virtual Peer Networks

I recently wrote a short post on historical trauma and self-care.  Shortly after writing that post I read Shurlee Swain's Public Historian article "Stakeholders as Subjects: The Role of Historians in the Development of Australia's Find & Connect Web Resource."  Swain's article reflected on the challenges of creating the Find & Connect digital resource that was created as a result of the 2009 government apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants.

The Find & Connect site brings together historical resources and documentation relating to institutional care in Australia.  It contains histories of each institution written by public historians that have used a collaborative approach to history; combing information found in official records with oral history accounts of institutional care.  Swain's article highlights the challenges of collaborative history and of historians working as mediators to present the past.

I found a number of similarities in Swain's discussion of the Find & Connect project to on going work relating to residential schools that attempts to provide a fuller picture of the past, which incorporated administrative/government records with survivor voices.  Swain's also outlined the implications for historians working with this type of project.  She argued that "There is a need...as a historian, to 'get it right'.  'Getting it right' is not about finding the truth because the truth is a different story for everyone...It is about finding the "right voice to present history from multiple viewpoints."  Finding balance when writing about historian trauma is extremely difficult.

Working on topics related to historical trauma can also be emotionally taxing and historians need to address the personal toll of vicarious trauma.  Swain maintains that the impact of working on a historically traumatic topic is cumulative and that historians need to admit the personal realities of working on difficult topics.  In the case of the Find & Connect project a virtual peer network was created to allow researchers to support each other, share experiences, and discuss coping mechanisms.

Researchers tend to work in isolation and creating a support network can be instrumental in creating strong coping mechanisms.  Swain's article was the first time I've seen a public history project openly address the needs for emotional supports.  Her work also made me wonder about the lack of resources available for most historians researching residential schools and what can be done to emotionally support people who are engaging in important work independently. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Redress and Reconciliation: The Legacy of Residential Schools

Yesterday I attended a panel at Algoma University focused on residential school and reconciliation.  The panel, “Redress & Reconciliation in the face of Post-Apology Revelations”, was standing room only and featured four residential school survivors, two inter-generational survivors, and historian Ian Mosby.  

The panel participants were invited to speak about their thoughts on Harper's apology to residential school survivors, reconciliation, and relations following the apology.  The first two survivors to speak, Mary Hill and Fran Fletcher Luther, both emphasized that they thought Harper didn't truly believe the words of the apology, that the words he spoke didn't come from the heart, and that he didn't write the apology.  Mary Hill also said she felt disappointed that the apology didn't acknowledge those survivors who have already passed on. 

The two inter-generational survivors spoke of the long term impacts of residential schools on communities and the need to acknowledge the on-going damage.  They pointed to the ongoing legislation that is marginalizing indigenous people and then need for a true apology to be followed up with actions.  Mitch Case highlighted the need for truth.  He argued that reconciliation cannot begin until the truth is out there and accepted. 

The inter-generational impacts of the residential school system have been devastating and is something that needs to be acknowledged and discussed more.  The inclusion of two inter-generational survivors on the panel helped highlight the need for more open discussions and brought attention to current legislation that is marginalizing indigenous communities.

One of the most moving parts of the panel was listening to Mike Cachagee speak about his experience at residential school, his work with the government leading up the residential school settlement agreement, and the residential schools survivor movement.  Mike spoke about starving at residential school and the physical and emotional pain caused by starvation. 

Mike also told an anecdote in which he was questioned about why he was publicly speaking against the residential school settlement agreement.  He asked government officials if they had children and if so what price could they put on their love for their child.  Predictably, the individuals said you couldn't put a price on love.  Mike response was 'But you have.  You paid me $3,000 a year for my attendance at residential school.  $3,000 a year for being deprived of my parents love, for being taken away from my family.' 

I've heard Mike tell this experience to other groups.  But every time this example is gut wrenching.  The compensation of the residential school settlement agreement did not fix things and can in no way make up for what happened in residential schools.  Mike's pointed words highlight an underlying dissatisfaction many have with the apology, the settlement agreement, and current discussions of reconciliation. 

The panel closed with the resilient words "They can't take our spirit.  They couldn't take our souls."  I have worked closely with the survivors who were on this panel for the past five years.  I have heard them speak about their residential school experiences countless times.  But each time they speak I learn something new and I am reminded of the importance of truth telling and the need for us to listen to each other.  Reconciliation takes two sides.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Digital Community Archives: South Asian American Digital Archive

The recent issue of The Public Historian featured an article, "Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation", by Michelle Caswell.  The article looks at the development of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) and the role the archive has played in preserving the marginalized history of the South Asian American community.

South Asian American history was not being collected by repositories and the history was being left undocumented.  The SAADA was established as a grassroots effort to change the profound archival silence around the South Asian community.  The SAADA is an excellent example of a community rallying together to preserve its own history and using digitization to increase awareness and access to material.

Caswell argues that "community-based archives serve as an alternative venue for communities to make collective decisions about what is of enduring value to them and to control the means through which stories about their past are constructed."  Community archives have the potential to empower communities, reunite communities with their past, and create a shared history.  Like many grassroots archives the SAADA was created in a response to the omission of the 'official' historical record.  The South Asian community did not see themselves in popular history or in more formal repositories -- sparking the creation of their own community archive.

SAADA is also engaging in the documentation of community knowledge.  The project facilitates shared authority and participatory archival description, allowing community members to describe the content held by the archive.  This practice acknowledges the importance of community knowledge and works toward integrating that knowledge into the archival record. This integration highlights the truly community governed nature of this archive and serves as an excellent example of a marginalized people creating their own archival voice and preserving their history in a way that they sit fit.

Caswell's article on the SAADA is an example of a community archive that has much success. The first six years of operation saw 1800 digitized records being created and the collection being used by educators, community members, and researchers.  The digital only model of the archive is interesting.  The SAADA has on public space and it's collections are purely digital.  The original items remain with larger repositories or the community members who own them. The access created by the emphasis on digitization is great.  But I wonder about the long term preservation of the community based materials and helping community members preserve those original documents.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Patchwork of Care: Midwifery in Canada

My most recent post, "Patchwork of Care: Midwifery in Canada" can be seen over at the Active History site.  The post looks at the history and regulation of midwives in Canada and the current differences in access to midwife care across the country.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Historical Trauma and Self Care

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Prompt: Energy.  What gave you energy this year? What took away your energy?

Recently on twitter a few historians were discussing the personal impacts of working on projects involving historical trauma.  Working on emotionally charged historical topics can be emotionally draining.  In the past four years while being actively engaged with residential school archives and survivors I have seen and experienced the toll of working with archives relating to historical trauma. 


Archival material relating to residential schools can be triggering and cause emotional distress.  The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre archives is overseen by the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA) and this group of survivors is actively involved in the management of the archives.  The CSAA also serve as health support for the staff, researchers, survivors, and community members who use the archives.  

 Having this type of health support available to visitors has been invaluable.  I've seen people from all walks of life be emotionally touched by residential schools. Having built in mental health supports is essential in creating safe spaces to discuss historical trauma. It is also important to teach front line archival staff how they can support visitors who may be triggered by material they are viewing.  Creating a supportive environment for viewing material relating to historical trauma needs include training staff to spot emotional distress and how to provide assistance when needed.
 
I've been lucky to be part of a workplace and community that is supportive of self-care.  The emotional impact of working on topics related to historical trauma is something that isn't often discussed amongst historians, archivists, and other heritage professionals.  But talking about the toll of working with emotionally draining material is crucial.  Personally, I've found taking a step back from the material, focusing on the importance of truth telling and the positive impact of connecting communities with their past helpful.




Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Closure of Smith Museum of Stained Glass

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Revised Prompt: What heritage sites have you discovered this year that you love? Tell us all about them, and why you love them. 

One of my favourite trips this year was to Chicago and included a number of heritage sites.  The built heritage in Chicago is beautiful and I enjoyed learning about how the city developed and the mixture of architecture styles that developed as a result of continuous development after devastating fires in the city.

One of the smallest heritage sites I visited this year was the Smith Museum of Strained Glass Windows in Chicago.  This unique site featured over 150 stained glass windows many of which were originally housed in buildings in Chicago.  I found the contrast of the beautiful old stained glass with the modern, tourist location on Navy Pier particularly striking.

When looking up the link for this post I discovered that in October 2014, two months after my visit, the Smith Museum closed and the stained glass was all boxed up and removed from Navy Pier.  The Pier is undergoing renovations and 'needed' the museum space for planned new attractions.  At this point the collection of stained glass does not have a home. There are tentative plans to have some of the works exhibited in public spaces, but no signs of a dedicated space for the entire collection.  The Smith Museum was unique in its location and was the largest exhibition of stained glass in North America, its closure is a huge loss to the heritage and stained glass art community.