I came across this piece about a collection of Timucua language imprints that had been digitized by the New York Historical Society. It piqued my interest in particular because the Timucua were an indigenous nation in what is now known by us settlers as central Florida, my home.
The piece itself is interesting in that it talks about the historical and linguistic importance of these imprints—how they represent the only remaining evidence of a rich native language that is thought to be an isolate, i.e., a language not related to any other language. The piece traces the story of how these imprints came to be housed in New York and how they came to be digitized. All very neat stuff.
What the piece fails to acknowledge is the fact that the reason these imprints are the only things left of the Timucua language, and much of the culture, is because of the white European religious settlers who invaded the area. Indeed, this entire collection of imprints consists of Catholic religious documents that were created in both Spanish and Timucua in an undoubted attempt to force the Timucua to assimilate on pain of death. Nowhere in this piece are these historical facts laid bare. Nowhere is there a critical reflection on what it means that the only remaining evidence of a people’s language are translations of books representing the religion of their invaders and oppressors.
As information professionals—librarians, archivists, curators, digitizers, whatever—we have a responsibility to bring a critical lens to every instance of our work. We cannot erase difficult or oppressive histories from the materials we collect and preserve. We should not hide them. There is no neutrality in that kind of whitewashing of history, only more oppression.
I don’t fault the writer of this NYHS piece. They were just “doing their job” like so many of us do. But I do challenge this person and all of us to take more care in how we contextualize the materials we work with. Let us be careful not to perpetuate the oppressive power structures already represented in those materials. We can best do that by criticalizing our work whenever and wherever we can.