Seeking justice under archival erasure




Kovalyova, Natalia Vasilyevna

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Records hold enormous power over people’s life and well-being, so does their absence. Withholding, destroying, or not creating records at all continues to be a major tactic of control. Yet, losing one’s records and having no records does not set a person free. Instead, it creates sprawling problems and sets up multiple barriers, but few take a recordkeeper to court to compel them to fix the system, particularly when the recordkeeper in question is the United States government. This study is about such a case. It examines the role of records and recordkeeping in upholding or suppressing social justice for a large group of Native American people using the legal documents of Cobell v Salazar — the largest class-action suit in the U.S. history – as an exemplar. It surveys deposition statements, Congressional hearings, witness statements, oral arguments, appellate court decisions, and legal opinions issued on the case in order to understand the summoning of Indian trust records at pivotal moments of litigation as evidence of the government performance of its duties or as evidence of its failure to performance such duties. It presents the findings in three vignettes, each dedicated to a specific aspect of the story — damage in archival storage; availability, access, and accuracy; and the impact of the colonial legacy on institutional recordkeeping practices. The narrative juxtaposes the imagined totality of the government archives with the realities of century-long mismanagement and poor recordkeeping that participated in the exploitation of Native Americans in the past and the present. The study concludes with a few propositions regarding the relationship between records, archives and governing and outlines several prospective avenues for future explorations of the co-evolving practices of recordkeeping, archiving, and governing.



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