shadow lines
Credit: Abe Selby (mockup) and Steven Hubbard (data consultant)

Shadow Lines

by Eugenia Kisin
Spring 2018
(Teaching-with-Technology Grant Awardee)

Shadow Lines is a digital database and mapping project that traces the movement of Native American-made objects into collecting institutions and between communities. Expanding on objects as the material of social relations, Shadow Lines explores the relational cultures of collecting, and how these intersect with complex histories of settler occupation, resource extraction, and knowledge production across ancestral and unceded Indigenous territories and within the discipline of anthropology—mapping, for instance, Penobscot landscapes, stories, and objects that trace a river’s movement in relation to a history of struggle over hydroelectric dams.

Shadow Lines is also itself a relational project. It was conceived in collaboration between NYU anthropologist Jane Anderson, UC Santa Cruz historian Amy Lonetree (Ho-Chunk), and UMass Amherst archaeologist Sonia Atalay (Anishinabe). So far, the project’s archival and community-based research has been carried out in collaboration with the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Karuk tribes. It has also involved undergraduate and graduate students across the collaborators’ institutions in both research and data entry, as well as in the larger theoretical questions about how to do geospatial research in a decolonizing framework, given that mapping is so often deployed as a colonial technology of rule.

I joined the Shadow Lines team in 2017, hoping to expand the research on this project with Gallatin students. Jane and I were awarded a Gallatin Teaching-with-Technology Grant to hire a team of student research assistants and a data consultant to work on several prototypes, with the goal of producing several different database and digital interface possibilities for representing our research on objects, people, landscapes, and the links between them in a decolonial way.

“Over the course of the semester, I was struck by how the students worked with the data in ways that also extended the collaborative spirit of the project.”

In my Material Practices in Museum Anthropology graduate elective, students in Gallatin and Museum Studies, including two Gallatin undergraduates, worked with our data sheets and prototypes to propose future directions for Shadow Lines. As an anthropologist who works with First Nations and Native American artists on the Northwest Coast of North America as they engage their work in social and environmental struggles, I was (and continue to be) particularly interested in how the removal of objects from communities for museums might be related to the expansion of infrastructure for transportation and resource extraction, through the actions of particular collectors or through settler expansion into Indigenous-controlled territories. As with most Digital Humanities projects, these are scholarly questions of interest to anthropologists and historians; however, the geospatial tools are powerful and public ways of visualizing them with students and communities trying to reconnect with their cultural property.

Students in Museum Anthropology took these questions and digital applications on enthusiastically. Working in teams of four, students decided on a theme on which they wanted to focus a technological and museological intervention. These were: “Belongings,” a focus on the social lives of collections from the viewpoint of communities of origin; “Narrative,” which involved moving beyond geospatial data to focus on the relationships between anthropologists and institutions; “Accessibility,” which focused on building more accessible technology for Elders and users with disabilities, particularly visual impairments, through SmartScribe technology; and “Extraction,” which was centered on issues of representing trauma and affect in European collecting institutions around the forced removal of cultural heritage.

Over the course of the semester, I was struck by how the students worked with the data in ways that also extended the collaborative spirit of the project. For example, the “Belongings” group assembled a toolkit for future student research with museums that would facilitate the archival research process by listing the kinds of questions one should ask an archivist, and how to navigate the different departments in such institutions (e.g. the registrar’s office, library, special collections, etc.) to triangulate different lines of evidence; similarly, the “Extraction” group responded directly to our Penobscot collaborators’ calls for more research in Europe, and carried out initial catalog-based research with collections held at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris that had been misattributed to Abenaki peoples—a significant archival find that also emphasized the value of collections-based research in digital projects.

Jane and I will continue to teach with Shadow Lines as our partnerships with our collaborators deepen. We also have plans to link the project with other research and teaching: Jane’s project Local Contexts, a system of TK (Traditional Knowledge) labels and legal resources that Indigenous communities may use to mark and extend existing protocols around the digital access of cultural materials; and Eugenia’s interests in contemporary artists’ work with collections as a practice of cultural resilience, exemplified in Penobscot artist, anthropologist, and educator Jennifer Neptune’s reproduction of a beaded ceremonial chief’s collar held in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Shadow Lines has been a useful teaching tool for activating such relations around museum collections, as we grapple with what decolonizing digital pedagogy can be in the context of the university.