How We Got Here…
History is usually one-sided. Not just in its storytelling but in its sourcing too. Things are documented with no guarantees of permission, consensus, or autonomy. It’s not ethical.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Populous Map and what I want us to get from it. Yes, a mapping website is a huge part of it, something people can land on and search points they haven’t had the opportunity to explore before. A place where I can share the patterns I’ve seen. I’ve hosted live events, gathered hundreds of volunteers, and made connections with 90 amazing Elders and Knowledge Keepers across the province. When I reflect I can see that together we’ve built a community of people who are interested in history. But still, something’s missing.
For eight years I’ve been traveling across BC and the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been to over 300 ghost towns and rural communities and have been slowly documenting and sitting with their people. Noticing their buildings and the things that move around each year. I’ve also been thinking about and deeply researching into their shadow histories: indigenous owners of the unceded lands, minorities who’ve settled or have been erased, the ecology. All in an effort to answer the most important question I have had in my tool belt: “who is missing?”
The question has now advanced to:
How may we make diverse, private, and unknown archives as accessible and researchable as our primarily white settler archives? How do we do this while maintaining autonomy, privacy, and reciprocity in the histories we gather?
The true answer: we won’t, but we’re sure gonna try.
To make an archive accessible it can’t just be a website. It has to find a way to share back the history with the person who shared it first and meet them where they are. It also means doing thorough ethnography to be certain that the archive serves the person who is giving their story. Or, if that person is no longer living, does justice and can be shared with their community.
To make an archive reciprocal it can’t just be a website. If having something digitized doesn’t make an impact in the person sharing’s life, then it doesn’t make an impact. That story not only requires further permission but also clarity in what the value could be. I am more than willing to pay people for their time and make things happen that they wouldn’t usually have access to.
The anthropology and history in Populous Map will not only take and store knowledge. Because only taking has created a disparity in our history that I see in every town I go. Historical erasure exists because history is disgustingly colonial and owned by its victors. Only taking erases living people and their experiences.
So what does accessible and reciprocal history look like?
I spent about six hours flipping through the pages of a Knowledge Keeper’s scrapbooks in Ocean Falls, BC. Despite this being the most comprehensive, personal, and cared for collection from the town it’s possible it will never be seen once she’s gone. Of course, I’m itching to digitize all 10 books, each about 70 pages. But digitization isn’t a value-add if you don’t know what that is. She gets it, why it could help people, but it’s clear that she’ll never feel the rewards of the process. 700 pages is by no means a short process.
After chatting a bit more, it became clear that putting together a sign for the cemetery would actually have a much greater impact on her. Because she’s spent the last 10 years carefully mapping the decaying tombstones, picking dirt out of names with shish kebab skewers, and lifting moss from the edges of the graves.
We got to talking about this, her work mapping the site. When she’s not there, visitors have no access to know where their loved ones are buried. She takes this personally but doesn’t have a solution yet. She’s wanted to make a sign but hasn’t gotten around to it. The town wasn’t interested in funding it either.
Of course, we’re going to make her a sign. Waterproofed and to be delivered this coming spring. That’s an easy one.
While I don’t expect each town to bring on a project like this, I’m open to it. History isn’t about one-off points, it’s about how we’ve connected as people.
History can’t just be a website.