Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Klamath Basin Communities – Whose Voices Will Remain To Tell our Tales?

After the sad event of historian Howard Zinn’s passing earlier this year, I came across a speech he gave in 1970 to a gathering of professional archivists. In “Secrecy, Archives and the Public Interest”, Zinn acknowledged the seldom-recognized power archivists have to determine what kind of history is available to future researchers. Archivists make decisions about what and whose voices are represented in the publically-available historic record, as they decide what primary source collections have enough research value to warrant being kept by their institutions. As Zinn correctly observed, archival practice is biased towards famous, powerful and often wealthy people. The personal papers of a little-known individuals or organizations are generally considered not to have adequate research value to warrant the ongoing work and resources needed for their preservation and provision for their access. As a champion of the history of ordinary people and social movements, Zinn challenged archivists to adopt new practices such that archival preservation would no longer serve to protect the status quo and that a more diverse and representative history be available to researchers of tomorrow.

What does all this have to do with the history of the Klamath River region? In my opinion, everything. The biases inherent in archival collection practice work directly against the preservation and future public access to information about the people, communities and movements within a region like the Klamath Basin. Zinn did not mention it, but public history repositories are also biased towards urban places, communities and events. The Klamath River region is rural to downright remote. The California-Oregon state border runs right through the middle of the basin, emphasizing the political divide already between the upper and lower basin communities. The area’s economy fluctuates and poverty is widespread. While the people of the Klamath Basin are in no way ordinary, they are also not prone to large-scale fame, fortune, or power. Many of the communities within the region are so isolated from the nearest urban centers that information professionals may have little to no exposure to how unique and different life is within them.

While archivists and other information professionals can and should become aware of their biases and reframe their collection goals to capture a more diverse humanity and geography, it is the communities and ordinary people of the Klamath Basin who have the greatest ability to determine what parts of our present experience is made available for future researchers and citizens. And although the people of the Klamath Basin do not generally possess the traditional qualities sought after to be included in public archival collections, our communities, experiences, and histories are unique and important. I believe that the voices of people of the Klamath River region, and diverse they are, are worthy of being heard far into the future.

In his life, Howard Zinn worked to show us how rich the legacy of ordinary citizens can be and the importance of being able to access the “people’s history” to really understanding our collective past. I wonder what Zinn would think of a movement of under-documented communities proactively organizing to preserve their own histories? What if we, the people personally connected to the Klamath River region, were the ones to identify what was important information to be preserved for a future public?

I would love to know what you think. What do future generations need to know to understand the events, dynamics and communities of the Klamath River region as it is today? Leave a comment with your ideas and/or feedback, and I bet we will be able to learn from each other and take a step forward together!


  1. The movie, "Karuk Voices" was an excellent example of locals recording their own history. I do not know what it takes to preserve that information format for future generations. I think the article that Creek Hanauer puts out occassionally is also a great example of locals documenting local interests, concerns and events. How that all gets archived is something I can only hope that you or someone else in the know could get the funding to do. Thanks Ade for the thought provoking piece!

  2. I second Kimberly's comment. I know that Edna Watson has been collecting material for years about the river communities and the Black Bear anthology from ten years ago was an effort to capture another part of our history.

  3. I agree with Adrienne on the fact that rural collections are not kept as often as urban ones and that the rich and famous tend to be much more documented that most ethnic groups or ordinary people.
    In this area we are lucky to have excellent historical archives in both county historical societies- Humboldt and Del Norte, the tribal libraries and Humboldt State and the Humboldt County Library. It is not always easy to get into these libraries, but researchers can access information about the European based settlers and the native peoples, right down to the misunderstanding and mistreatment of the original peoples by those attempting to settle here.
    Because of donations of collections to any of these facilities, people can access information about their ancestors and daily lives of people who lived in this area. Several books have been written and are available in libraries or for sale in several locations that are about the more well-known in the areas and also about the peoples in these areas and their adventures.
    Our area may not be common. Other, larger, more easily accessible locations may have the problems of how to deal with collections that focus on the ordinary person. Our remoteness works for us in this sense. It works against us in the sense that people outside our area do not understand the value of our history. We do… and we have the collections to prove it!

  4. Adrienne is such a good writer! (OK, full disclosure; I am her father.) While the histories of whites in the area is most likely less than 200 years, the Karuks and neighboring tribes may have been in the area thousands of years. I wonder what life was like for them way back then. Has anyone done, or is doing, in depth research on the more distant past of the area. Is there any archeological activity attempting to identify village sites, how they lived, etc.? What were their numbers? Where did they come from?

  5. Interesting discussion. I was introduced to this concept years ago, but was recently reminded by a book where a history teacher assigns her students a writing assignment. After the assignment she has all but one student destory their work. Teaching the students that history does not record the whole story, only what remains. Indicating that we really know very little about our past. Future archivists and historians may be digging through blogs and email histories to piece together daily life. Scary thought given how temporary blogs and emails have become. Keep up the good work. i enjoy your blogs. Thanks!

  6. Adrienne I am so thankful that you are trying to preserve some of our "people's history". I hope your work in this area will encourage others to help or do the same...