Historical material often contains violent acts, offensive language, or negative stereotypes that reflect the culture and language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record.
American Indian Center of Chicago Open House Invitation (c. 1968) by American Indian CenterChicago History Museum
In 2021, the Chicago History Museum was awarded a grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation to catalog a collection of 13 folders containing 80 miscellaneous pamphlets relating to Indigenous peoples. To improve access and discoverability, we created individual records for each item in CHM’s online catalog. We employed critical cataloging concepts, researched how communities define themselves, and added disclaimers when historical language is used.
Manners and Customs of the Western Indians (1906) by Charles Wesley Mann (1862-1909)Chicago History Museum
This story documents the process taken to catalog these items and can be used to guide those embarking on subject-specific cataloging projects.
To begin, view an example of the original catalog record for the pamphlet collection before the full cataloging was completed.
What Is Critical Cataloging?
Critical cataloging engages with metadata using social justice principles, seeking to implement the language communities use to describe themselves and to minimize harmful descriptive terminology. Critical cataloging creates an inclusive experience for users and confronts biases and structural oppression. At CHM, there are 5 main objectives for critical cataloging: (1) identify harmful language in our metadata; (2) change the language where appropriate and highlight it otherwise; (3) identify and amplify diverse voices; (4) connect and consult with various communities represented in the research collections; (5) maintain a sustainable critical language policy for the institution.
Six pamphlets from Chicago History Museum's research collection (1878-2007) by Chicago History MuseumChicago History Museum
About the Pamphlet Collection
These miscellaneous pamphlets are broad in scope and content. The items date from the 1820s through the 1990s on a range of topics, including tribal relationships with the US government, American Indian Days encampments, and Cahokia Mounds preservation efforts.
Their formats include pamphlets, correspondence, essays, annual reports, maps, periodicals, brochures, and more. Almost all the items were created by non-Indigenous authors, except for materials published by the American Indian Center of Chicago.
Mitigating Harm though Critical Cataloging
The content of many pamphlets contains biases, inaccuracies, and harmful language. This project does not erase the historical record represented in the pamphlets. Instead, the goal is to revisit the language describing these resources to ensure the materials are discoverable using terminology used by Indigenous peoples themselves. To accomplish this goal, we needed to: (1) de-center European perspectives through research and consultation with Indigenous communities and scholars; (2) identify and change inaccurate terms, names, and spellings of Indigenous individuals and groups; (3) use disclaimers and content warnings where necessary; (4) review Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) and apply local headings, if needed.
A United States prison pamphlet (1886) by Anna Laurens Dawes (1851-1938)Chicago History Museum
Research and Outreach
One of the most crucial parts of critical cataloging work is to become informed by engaging with representatives of affected communities, listening carefully, and implementing their recommendations. Before reaching out to Indigenous community members, CHM staff researched the histories of Indigenous peoples in the United States. The aim was to better understand the ways communities continue to be impacted by systemic racism, the harmful narratives used to describe Indigenous peoples, and the results we see in our museum practices.
The pamphlet collection consists primarily of publications used in scholarly research. Therefore, we asked members of Indigenous academic communities for their input. Because the pamphlets contain information about the Great Plains and Eastern Woodlands peoples, we searched for scholars with midwestern Indigenous backgrounds who could help us better understand the histories of the region.
Front Page of the Quarterly Bulletin of the Municipal Employees Society (Oct. 1923) by Municipal Employees SocietyChicago History Museum
Respectful and Relevant Terms
Several of the pamphlets reference American Indian Days, an event hosted each September in a Cook County forest preserve from 1920 until 1923. These gatherings centered on encampments of Indigenous peoples, intended for viewing by mainly white audiences.
White organizers set the program and agendas for the Days, thus controlling the narratives about Indigenous peoples. The authors of the American Indian Day pamphlets used “exposition,” “display,” and “encampment” to describe these gatherings.
We asked an Indigenous subject matter expert about the appropriateness of the language historically used to describe the Days. Encampment, display, exhibit–these terms describe the gatherings for what they were, then and now. This language was kept because it adequately reflects the intent of American Indian Days in Cook County.
Ultimately, we described the article in the summary as “the American Indian Day exposition held in a Palatine, Illinois, forest preserve in September 1923. Indigenous representatives exhibited their culture for largely non-Indigenous audiences numbering in the thousands. The encampment was organized by the Indian Fellowship League, the Forest Preserve of Cook County, and the Chicago Historical Society.”
Portrait photograph of Walter Battice (Sac and Fox) from Business and Professional Woman Magazine (Aug. 1920) by The Business and Professional WomanChicago History Museum
While many of the pamphlets refer to Indigenous peoples by tribe or the overly broad “Indians,” some feature mentions of and/or photographs of individuals. For example, Walter Battice (Sac and Fox) appears in more than one item. Battice was vice president of the Indian Fellowship League. He helped organize the American Indian Day gatherings that were held in Palatine, Illinois, in the early 1920s. Battice’s name does not appear in the Library of Congress Name Authority File.
There is scant information about him in CHM’s archival holdings or online. The caption here includes phonetic English translations of Indigenous names from oral traditions. We asked a subject matter expert to recommend how to accurately record Battice’s names in a catalog description and were advised to record all three: the “Christian” name (Walter Battice), the phonetic spelling (Pa-me-wau-sa-skuk), and the English translation (Sheet Lightning). The subject matter expert also emphasized consistent spelling across records to ensure discoverability through keyword searches.
Milford G. Chandler in Fort Dearborn Magazine (Sept. 1920) by Mabel McIlvaineChicago History Museum
Adding Contextual Information
Through the addition of contextual information, catalogers can offer a disclaimer to alert users of sensitive or problematic content. In this photograph, Milford G. Chandler, a white man, is dressed in regalia. Regalia reflects Native culture and is not meant to be appropriated by non-Native peoples.
For this example, the catalog record’s summary note reads “Walter Battice (Sac and Fox), vice president of the Indian Fellowship League, appears in this image posed with Milford G. Chandler, president of the Indian Fellowship League and a white man. Both people are dressed in regalia.”
CHM publishes a sensitive content disclaimer on the landing page of the publicly accessible catalog. It reads: “Historical material often contains violent acts, offensive language or negative stereotypes reflecting the culture and language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record. The Chicago History Museum has an institution-wide initiative to critically consider the language used to describe people and materials, and we invite you to read more about our related projects. If you see incorrect or harmful information, please help improve this content.”
Content containing slurs and images of human remains warrants a special disclaimer in the individual record to flag the item for users. For example, an image and caption from a 1926 periodical shows human skeletal remains taken from an Indigenous burial site, and the original caption contains a slur. The disclaimer in the catalog record states: "This issue contains photographs of human skeletal remains, removed from an Indigenous burial site, on the front cover and on page 167. The caption of the photograph on the front cover contains a slur." Per the direction of an Indigenous scholar, we have not reproduced the image here, as depictions of human remains can cause physical, emotional, and spiritual harm to viewers.
Front cover of Ancient Society in Tennessee: The Mound Builders Were Indians (May 1888) by Gates Phillips Thruston (1835-1912)Chicago History Museum
Identifying Appropriate LCSHs
Several pamphlets reference mounds. Earth mounds in North America are the remaining traces of precontact cultures. The peoples who created them are listed as “Mound builders” in the LCSH.
This heading could be deemed problematic due to its association with the “mound builders myth,” a false narrative popular in the 19th century. The myth credited the mounds to a fictional race of beings driven out by Native Americans. It served to justify white settler colonialism and was employed in the systematic erasure of Indigenous peoples.
Because of this association, we removed this heading and chose narrower terms like the LCSH “Mississippian culture,” referring to the Indigenous peoples who lived in the area. We recognize the limitations of this heading because it may imply a singular culture. Our search for a more appropriate LCSH continues.
Front cover of Mound Builders' Works, near Newark, Ohio (c. 1884) by Isaac Smucker (1807-1894)Chicago History Museum
For an alternative to the LCSH “Mound builders,” we looked for other relevant headings such as “Effigy mounds,” “Mounds,” and “Earthworks (Archaeology).” However, we needed more clarification than the scope notes offered to apply the terms properly. We sought the advice of a subject matter expert who explained the difference among terms and confirmed that they are not interchangeable.
For the article “Mound Builders Works, Near Newark, Ohio,” we applied the LCSHs “Earthworks (Archaeology)—Ohio,” “Hopewell architecture—Ohio,” and “Hopewell culture—Ohio” because they more accurately describe the structures and the peoples who built them.
The Delaware Indians in Ohio: The location of their villages at the time of the Revolutionary War (1878) by Stephen Denison Peet (1831-1914)Chicago History Museum
Local Subject Headings
To reflect names and spellings preferred by Indigenous peoples, librarians at CHM devised local headings that highlight tribal endonyms to use in place of authorized LCSHs. These local headings are based on information sourced from official tribal nation websites, documents and language dictionaries by Indigenous authors, and work done by other GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) organizations.
For example, when cataloging “The Delaware Indians in Ohio,” the local heading “Lenape (Delaware)” was applied instead of the LCSH “Delaware Indians.” The list of local headings is a living document, neither exhaustive nor definitive, and it will be updated as language changes
Manners and Customs of the Western Indians (1906) by Charles Wesley Mann (1862-1909)Chicago History Museum
Here is an example of a new pamphlet record. As a result of this project, we can now provide an individual record, author/creator designations, summary, and appropriate subject headings that enhance discoverability for each pamphlet. These changes and revisions are not considered permanent. We recognize that language and identity terms evolve, and we welcome input from users.
· Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014)
· Society of American Archivists Native American Archives Section, “Protocols Webinar Series (1): Building Relationships of Mutual Respect,” 2019, https://sustainableheritagenetwork.org/digital-heritage/protocols-webinar-series-1-building-relationships-mutual-respect
· Manitoba Archival Information Network, Indigenous Subject Headings in MAIN, https://main.lib.umanitoba.ca/indigenous-subject-headings
· Reclaiming Native Truth Project, Changing the Narrative about Native Americans: A Guide for Allies (Fredericksburg, VA: First Nations Development Institute, 2018)
· Gregory Younging, Elements of Indigenous Style: a Guide for Writing by and About Indigenous Peoples (Edmonton, AB: Brush Education, 2018)
Special thanks to the following individuals who made this Google Arts & Culture story possible:
Peter T. Alter
Charles E. Bethea
Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation
Pamela Richardson Jones
John Low, Citizen - Pokagon Band of Potawatomi
Timothy Paton Jr.
Cataloging of the Indigenous-related pamphlets was generously supported by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.