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September 30, 2013

October is American Archives Month. Otoe–Missouria Language Director Sky Campbell shares his experience at the NMAI Archive Center


Throughout October—American Archives Month—we celebrate the exceptional collections that can be found in archives throughout the United States. As an archivist at NMAI, I am privileged to work with unique primary sources that document the cultural heritage of the Native peoples of the Americas. These source records often contextualize the lives and work of individuals, families, or organizations, and can include original documents like letters, notebook, and essays, as well as photographs, films, and sound recordings. The job of an archivist is to organize, describe, and provide access to these materials. The job of an NMAI archivist also includes reaching out to members of Native communities to build relationships of reciprocity and mutual respect. 

This past June over 50 Native scholars and linguists participated in the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages. As a kick-off to American Archives Month, I asked Breath of Life participant Sky Campbell (Otoe–Missouria) if he would share some of his experiences working with the museum’s archival materials, which he happily agreed to do. 

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Sky Campbell doing research in the M. R. Harrington papers in the NMAI Archive Center, 2013. Throughout the early 1900s, Harrington collected objects, took photographs, and made notes among Native tribes for NMAI’s predecessor institution. Harrington’s papers are a part of the Museum of the America Indian, Heye Foundation records. Photo by Rachel Menyuk, NMAI.


Over the past few years, we have gathered a wealth of language information from historical documents, various recordings, and tribal members. It is exciting to find a new source of language information because it means we can potentially find terminology that we currently do not have, or maybe find a precedent for a sentence structure that we need. Sometimes new sources do not give us any new information, sometimes new sources answer questions that we have, and sometimes new sources create new questions. 

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A page from M. R. Harrington’s notes on Otoe bundles in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation records, box 241, folder 3. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution. Photo by NMAI Photo Services.

The results were astounding! After spending a few years researching the Otoe–Missouria language, I figured that I knew about most, if not all, of the locations where Otoe-Missouria language information was kept. And if I did not have the actual information from a location, at least I knew of the location. Or so I thought. I was pleasantly surprised to find Otoe–Missouria language information at the CRC. My excitement grew as we continued to find more and more information. I reluctantly had to leave the CRC that first day without having gone through all that I wanted to and immediately set up another visit before the end of Breath of Life. After the next, more thorough visit, I left with what I went there for, but even then I could not shake the feeling that there was more to be found. 

The information we found at the CRC has allowed us to give names to various historic and/or sacred items. We originally thought that we might have to invent our own terms for these items. These new inventions would have been sufficient; however, we very much prefer to have the terms that were actually used. That is what makes finds like this so exciting. Anything that is found helps us with our goals. With that thought in mind, we are extremely grateful to the CRC staff for their help in making this material available to us.

This experience has given us new hope that there are more as-yet-undiscovered treasures to be found. The hard part is knowing where to look. So if you haven’t already, look into the archives in Washington, D. C. Places like the Cultural Resources Center may take your language revitalization efforts to a whole new level. 

—Sky Campbell, language director, Otoe–Missouria Tribe 

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“My Oto interpreter and his family,” photograph by M. R. Harrington, circa 1910. Sky Campbell identiified the adults as Grant Cleghorn (Otoe) and Madeline Cleghorn (Sac and Fox), and the children as Jimmy and Mary Cleghorn. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (P23435).


One goal for American Archives Month is to promote the importance of unique materials that document someone’s life or work. Sky is right about undiscovered treasures. Often these types of primary sources are forgotten about or remain hidden to everyday researchers. Technology is changing that. Now, with online finding aids and digitization technology, archival collections can become more available to community members who may not be able to travel to Washington, D.C., or another archival center.

It's also true that these materials aren’t necessarily stored in a museum, at a university library, or in a local historical society or tribal archive. They may also be in your family home, tucked away in an attic or file cabinet, or on a shelf somewhere. They could be letters from grandparents or photographs of birthday parties that contextualize something in your family’s history.

Is there a time you found something in an archive—either doing formal research (at the NMAI Archive Center, for example!) or by happening upon documents, photos, or audio-cassettes at home—that really impacted you?

We would love to hear your story about a time you found something exciting in the archives. Send your stories to NMAIArchives@si.edu and periodically throughout October we will be highlighting how archives are important to you.

—Rachel Menyuk, NMAI

Rachel Menyuk works in the National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution. 


To read more:

The Otoe–Missouria Tribe and the Otoe Language Program 

Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages 

The Society of American Archivists on American Archives Month

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Archive Center

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