Words Matter: Reparative Description as Decolonial Action

SAA Committee on Ethics and Processional Conduct - Author Talks | Tuesday, February 22, 2022, 2:00 PM EST 

The sizable Philippine collections at the University of Michigan underscore this institution’s role in U.S. colonial expansion. Michigan faculty, students, and alumni came to the Philippines to teach, conduct field research, establish business ventures, and participate in colonial administration. This involvement resulted in the accumulation of one of the largest Philippine collections in North America. It is time for the University to address its colonial complicity in the formation of these collections by developing decolonial and anti-racist policies and practices. 

This post presents the values and motivations behind ReConnect/ReCollect: Reparative Connections to Philippine Collections at the University of Michigan, which is a 2-year project that develops alternative ways to represent and provide access to Philippine materials held by the University’s Bentley Historical Library, the Special Collections Research Center, and the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology. The project asks: What constitutes reparative work in the decolonization of the University’s Philippine collections?

ReConnect/ReCollect aims to: 1. define what it means to pursue decolonial praxis for Philippine collections; 2. identify institutional obligations and articulating reparative work; 3. reimagine community engagement; and finally, 4. decenter colonial provenance to better represent Indigenous communities and knowledge to understand the full extent of the collection. With funding support from the University of Michigan’s Humanities Collaboratory, Dr. Deirdre de la Cruz (associate professor of history and Asian languages and cultures) and I are working in partnership with librarians, archivists, curators, and collections managers in three University institutions: 

  • the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library (with about 259 collections pertaining to the Philippines);
  • the Special Collections Research Center (which holds approximately 50 collections of archival and manuscript material relating to the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and the University of Michigan’s involvement with the Philippines via scientific investigations. Special Collections also holds more than 1,500 published works on Philippine history and culture); and
  • the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (with 25,000 archaeological artifacts; 74 human crania; and several hundred postcranial elements; 1,899 ethnographic objects; 42 zoological specimens; 617 ethnobotanical specimens; 4,851 glass plate negatives and 640 lantern slides).
This photograph, captioned, “Mrs. Worcester with Igorot girls who are showing her how to make baskets” was taken on April 25, 1907, in Atok, located in the province of Benguet, a mountainous region in the northern part of Luzon island, Philippines. This image is one of the thousands of photographs attributed to Dean C. Worcester (1866–1924), an American natural scientist, colonial official, and entrepreneur, who occupied several key positions in the US colonial government of the Philippines. A zoologist by training, Worcester travelled to various regions of the Philippines to conduct ethnological surveys, and during these trips he coordinated the photographic documentation of many indigenous groups throughout the islands. Worcester circulated many of these photographs through his publications as well as by selling them to collectors or donating them to natural history museums. The Worcester ethnographic photographs continue to stir controversy both for their content depicting indigenous Filipinos as savages needing American tutelage, as well as their use by Worcester and others to support the case for US annexation of the Philippines. (Photo Credit: Dean C. Worcester, Photo 10N027, scanned from original glass plate negative, University of Michigan Museum Anthropological Archaeology.)

It is important to note that the University’s Philippine collections extend beyond these three partner institutions. Our preliminary inventory also indicated that Philippine materials are also held in the following University institutions: 

  • the Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments (at least thirteen items with Philippine provenance in the collection)
  • Clark Library (repository of maps and atlases from the 16th century to the present) 
  • Clements Library (its manuscripts collection has about 48 Philippine-related collections pertaining to Description and Travel, Military, 18th century, Missionaries, Philippine-American War, Spanish-American War, and World War II 
  • Museum of Zoology (with about 2,000 birds, mollusks of approximately 250 lots, representing nearly 1,000 specimens and 150 species, and 3,108 specimens of mammals from the Philippines)
  • Herbarium (5,945 items from the Philippines, which include ferns, algae, flowering plans, fungi, mosses, conifers, and lichens), and 
  • Botanical Gardens (with Philippine plant species). 

Approach to Decolonization

Decolonization has become widely used in cultural heritage and academic circles. Many have become critical of the many misappropriations of the term. Critical race, Indigenous studies, and education scholars, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s essay, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” for instance, has made me reflect on how decolonization might operate in the settler-colonialist context of the United States.[1] For Tuck and Yang, decolonization was about Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, the return of stolen land to Native tribes as the scope and scale of decolonial struggle. 

As such, its use in libraries, archives, and museums—such as “decolonize the reading room,” “decolonize the stacks,” or “decolonizing the catalog,”—to mean incorporating Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in revising our catalogs and databases or exhibit labels, in creating a welcoming space, in diversifying the staff, or in auditing collections for culturally-sensitive or stolen items, may not be appropriate use of the term: unless these practices ultimately result in the return of stolen Indigenous lands. 

To some, it sounds like “decolonization” is yet another word for knowledge appropriation and extractive relations that only benefit institutions in terms of better audience experience, collections management, diversifying staff and visitors, increasing grant funding support, and so on. Thus, the overuse of the term decolonization has impacted its meaning. Its attachment to pre-existing frameworks of social justice, though well-meaning, can remove its connection to the realities of Indigenous life and settler colonialism.

But I am not recommending giving up on the use of the term just yet. 

What I advocate for is a radical reflection and reorientation of the management, representation, and use of Philippine Indigenous materials, which document diverse knowledge and traditions. Because “decolonization” can mean many things to many people, and without specificity as to its use as a concept, politics, or practice, it threatens to mean little at all. Thus, the challenge for us is to understand decolonization as a meaningful concept in the Philippine historical context and for Filipinos. 

The issue of “decolonizing” the Philippine collections at the University of Michigan offers different forms of contexts and considerations. Despite the large accumulation of Indigenous materials at the University, we lack culturally appropriate frameworks and policies for navigating access, building community relations, and instituting reparative actions. Though the Philippines shares a common and connected history of colonialism with U.S. Indigenous tribes, our experiences of, and receptions to, colonialism are not the same. Different cultures respond to colonialism differently. Thus, protocols and guidelines developed for Native American collections are not always appropriate and sustainable in the context of Philippine collections. 

So far, I have not heard of any requests to repatriate any item held by the University. It might be a different case if Philippine Indigenous communities rely on those archival sources and museum artefacts for use in a land claim or to meet some government recognition requirements (like the Federal Recognition process in the U.S.). Philippine materials are also not legally covered by NAGPRA (which stands for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), the law that protects U.S. Native American graves and requires repatriation of Native American human remains and certain cultural and sacred items.[2] This context challenges us to rethink what the University’s institutional obligations to Philippine cultural objects might be. And this, in turn, affects what we might consider as constituting the “decolonization” of Philippine collections at the University. 

So, what constitutes reparative work in the decolonization of the University’s Philippine collections? 

The focus on “reparative work” is intentional here because I believe that the sizable volume of Philippine historical, natural, and cultural collections at the University of Michigan, amassed from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, underscore this institution’s role in U.S. colonial expansion.[3] Michigan faculty, students, and alumni went to the Philippines to teach, conduct field research, establish business ventures, and participate in colonial administration. 

At the height of the U.S. colonial era in the Philippines, “Michigan Men,” as they were called, took pride in their dual identities as Michigan alumni and colonial officials. As George A. Malcolm, the founding Dean of the Law School of the University of the Philippines, in his speech in Manila in 1914 while convening University of Michigan Alumni Association of the Philippine Islands, stated: 

In the Philippine Islands we claim, and are able to substantiate the same by facts, that the University of Michigan Alumni Association is the largest in number in the Far East. Not only this, but it can be safely asserted that its members occupy as important positions in the affairs of the Philippines as do the alumni of any other university. This has been so from the beginning of the American occupation so that now there are not only Michigan men prominent in official and private circles, but Michigan men in the Army, the Navy, and among the Filipino, Japanese and Chinese communities … The University need not be ashamed of their work; it need not fear that its traditions and future are forgotten. All Michigan men in the East of whatever locality or nationality join in the assurance that their Alma Mater can count upon their cordiale support.[4] 

The presence of the so-called Michigan men in the islands resulted in the accumulation of one of the largest Philippine collections in North America. But the harms we associate with these collections are not only limited to the context of their accumulation. I’d like to present 2 persistent areas of harm associated with these collections:

1. The decades of lack of real and sustainable connections with the Philippine communities here in the U.S. and in the Philippines, over the management and representation of these materials. 

After more than a century, it is time for the University to address its colonial complicity in the formation of these collections by developing decolonial practices so that institutions can provide reciprocal and reparative access to Philippine cultural collections. Reconceptualizing archival and museum work from the perspectives of relationships, building where bonds do not exist or repairing when trust has been broken has become a significant theme in archives and museum scholarship. 

We can build on the more recent efforts in decolonial archives and museology, which foreground Indigenous perspectives and community collaboration, consultation, and dialogue to construct a model of relationality and shared stewardship.[5] Although we have seen significant progress in centering Indigenous knowledge frameworks for North American Tribal collections, such as the adoption of the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (PNAAM),[6] comparable approaches are still missing for non-North American collections taken from former U.S. colonial territories that are not covered by legal regimes like NAGPRA.[7]

We take the methodological approach of reparative work that centers community relationships to inspire culturally appropriate curation and scholarly endeavors that address the harmful legacies of colonial collections. We can implement decolonial practice through community consultations, rather than apply protocols that are universally defined and enacted for every institution, culture, and community.[8] 

Many current and previous projects have attempted to address the responsibility and care for colonial collections at the level of digital access through the creation of online databases, web access portals, or virtual exhibitions. But digital humanities efforts that rely heavily on the creation of digital infrastructures without appropriate investment in building community relations or input from community members can end up reproducing some of the problems they seek to redress, generating new tools for the same epistemologies. If the goal is to facilitate broader community impact, efforts must therefore begin and end with better relationships between institutions and communities.   

My understanding of reciprocity is informed by the work of Indigenous education scholars Heather McGregor and Michael Marker,[9] who provide the following characteristics of the concept: 1) reciprocity as giving back, or involving power flowing back and forth between parties, ensuring that relationships are not extractive;[10] 2) reciprocity as sharing knowledge, or a “cyclical and circulating responsibility to teach what one has learned, passing on knowledge between generations;”[11] 3) reciprocity as relational accountability, where relationships are characterized by respect and the interests of communities inform all aspects of work;[12] and 4) reciprocity as circular and continuous, not a system of gifts and countergifts but a constant coexistence and kinship.[13] 

If the goal is to facilitate broader community impact, efforts must therefore begin and end with better relationships between institutions and communities.   

I take this set of characteristics to be the defining goals for archival reciprocity: relationships, practices, and projects that give back (and recognize power dynamics), share knowledge, are held accountable, and are continuous (or sustainable).  Reciprocity in archives must therefore consider the meaningful outcomes and changes that result from reparative interventionsHere, I offer six indicators of impact to help us identify our institutional obligations in reparative work: Knowledge, Attitudes, Professional Discourse, Institutional Capacity, Policy, Relationships.[14] 

Areas of Impact Key Questions
KnowledgeWhat new knowledge about the collections, their histories, representational tools, and uses, have we discovered?Are we using the collections in meaningful ways and in diverse settings, going beyond the exhibition hall, reading rooms, and classrooms, but into community-based learning spaces? 
AttitudesIs there a shift in the attitudes and practices of those who steward the collections around collections management, representation, access, and use?Do community members feel welcome to visit, access, consult, or use items in the collections or interact with librarians, archivists, curators, or collections managers?
Professional DiscourseIs there a renewed understanding of responsibilities over collections stewardship and sense of “ownership” among curators, librarians, and archivists responsible for collections care and management?
Institutional CapacityHave we developed a set of guidelines for reparative practice that enables institutions to better represent their collections and better connect with the communities represented in their collections? Or perhaps created new and efficient ways of managing collections?
PolicyDoes the project lead to, or inspire, efforts to revise or create new institutional (written or unwritten) policies around collections care and representation?
RelationshipsHave we facilitated the formation of a reciprocal relationship among institutions, scholars, and community members?

2. Harmful description and metadata and the privileging of colonial provenance and glorification of colonial actors in our finding aids and catalogs. 

We can decenter colonial creators and collectors in finding aids and provide equal attribution to the communities represented by the collections.[15] The racist, outdated, and culturally insensitive terminologies in finding aids and other descriptive materials can be revisited through “reparative description.”

Archivists have in recent years focused their attention on reparative description and corrective actions, which seek to redress historical inequities and injustices in the ways language is used in archives and special collections.[16] Collections in Western institutions gathered by virtue of colonization, materials that contain violent images, or those that depict troubling historical events, including outdated, racist, incorrect, or inappropriate metadata and description, are not only distressing to Indigenous community members, but they can also limit wider discovery, access, and meaningful engagement or use. 

The aim of reparative description, in the context of the ReConnect/ReCollect project, is to find ways to decenter the colonial provenance of collections to better represent Indigenous communities and knowledge as well as gain better understanding of the full extent of those collections. It is no secret that University collections are often attributed to collectors whose career as academics or civil servants were deeply linked with colonization. 

For example, until recently, the whole collection of Philippine archives, rare books, and manuscripts at the University’s Special Collections Library is attributed to Dean C. Worcester, whose entire career as a colonial administrator was to rationalize the U.S. occupation of the islands. Through his photographic images and writings, Worcester depicted Filipinos as savages, unfit for self-governance, and required American tutelage and civilization. We can offer alternative descriptions that highlight the numerous Indigenous communities in this collection.

Our graduate students, Robert Diaz (Ph.D. student in History) and Emily Na (Ph.D. candidate in American Culture), who conducted the preliminary survey of Philippine collections at the university has noted that “for collections in natural history institutions (such as the Museum of Zoology, Herbarium, and the Botanical Gardens), the scientific naming practices in and of themselves are not indicative of harm, but the use of disciplinary nomenclature does not leave room for cultural or historical context.” Thus, “they leave the significance of these specimens for Filipino communities unaddressed. Consequently, scientific nomenclature elides the relationship that local communities have with these specimens.”

The aim of reparative description, in the context of the ReConnect/ReCollect project, is to find ways to decenter the colonial provenance of collections to better represent Indigenous communities and knowledge as well as gain better understanding of the full extent of those collections.

Reimagining Community Engagement 

We must develop models for culturally-responsive and historically-minded stewardship and care of Philippine materials in non-Philippine institutions. The Philippine cultural and natural history materials dispersed across various Michigan libraries, archives, and museums have been built without any community consultation with Filipinos in the Philippines and in the diaspora. The lack of a comprehensive inventory of the full extent of the Philippine historical, cultural, and scientific items at the University further complicates attempts to fully access and utilize these collections. 

Filipino, Filipino American, and Filipinx communities living in Michigan and in the Philippines seek to develop greater connections and engagement with the Philippine collections at the University. Furthermore, librarians, archivists, curators, and collections managers who steward these collections seek to apply reparative approaches to collections care and representation and build better community ties. Thus, to repeat my earlier statement: we can reconceptualize cultural heritage work from the perspective of relationships, building where bonds do not exist or repairing when trust has been broken. We cannot do this without actively seeking community input.

How do we activate the Philippine collections at Michigan to better serve Filipino, Filipino American, and Filipinx communities living in Michigan and in the Philippines? 

To do this we must address the issue of limited access to Michigan’s Philippine collections. In surveying the existing access infrastructures that have been built by the University’s repositories, it became clear that not only are those infrastructures lacking coordination and integration across multiple units, but community input was almost nonexistent. The dispersion of cultural items across multiple institutions across the University, lack of comprehensive descriptive and access tools, and missing Filipino voices make discovery and use particularly challenging. 

At this juncture, it is useful to take our cue from scholars of Indigenous archives, Kimberly Christen and Jane Anderson, who advocate for “one mode of decolonizing processes that insist on a different temporal framework: the slow archives.” According to Christen and Anderson:

Slowing down creates a necessary space for emphasizing how knowledge is produced, circulated, contextualized, and exchanged through a series of relationships. Slowing down is about focusing differently, listening carefully, and acting ethically. It opens the possibility of seeing the intricate web of relationships formed and forged through attention to collaborative curation processes that do not default to normative structures of attribution, access, or scale. Focusing on the temporality of slow archives is not meant to pose a binary between fast and slow. Rather, slowness is imagined and enacted in terms of relationality, positionality, and a framework that privileges restorative and reparative work that is decolonial in its logic and practice. Slow archives do not presume one course of action; in fact, they allow for changing course, for shifts, and for unexpected endings. The slow archives pivots around the register of decolonization as a processual move in centering Indigenous temporalities, territorialities, and relationalities on their own as well as in conversation with settler colonial logics and practices.[17]  


A first step at decolonizing Philippine University collections is to prioritize the slow path of reparative actions to mitigate or repair the harm of traditional curation, representation, and scholarship that has A first step at decolonizing Philippine University collections is to prioritize the slow path of reparative actions to mitigate or repair the harm of traditional curation, representation, and scholarship that has largely ignored community voices and perspectives, glorified colonial actors, and almost exclusively catered to academic researchers. In addition, decolonial work requires that we examine curation as whole, accounting for the whole spectrum of cultural heritage institutions, galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (or GLAM), and not just collections in archives. In engaging Michigan’s collections, I learned that Philippine items are dispersed across the multiple units of the University that have been historically siloed. We cannot “decolonize” museum objects without paying the same amount of attention to archives and library collections and vice versa. Furthermore, this endeavor cannot succeed in the absence of community consultation. Decolonization therefore demands that we see the discernible connections and relationships between communities, institutions, and collections. And this requires reparative actions.

[1]Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society1(1) (2012): 1-40.

[2]Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq., 43 CFR part 10).

[3]Note that Michigan’s Philippine collection predates the U.S. occupation of the islands, with Professor John Beal Steere’s zoological expedition from 1870 to 1875. For a broad survey of the Philippine specimens that Steere collected, see R. Bowdler Sharpe, “Prof. Steere’s Expedition to the Philippines,” Nature 14 (1876): 297–298.

[4]George A. Malcolm, “Michigan in the Philippines,” January 2, 1914, Occasional Addresses and Articles by George A. Malcolm, Vol. 1 (Manila, P.I.: Printing & Bookbinding of Jose San Juan), 408, Box 10, George A. Malcolm Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. Cited in Patrick M. Kirkwood, “’Michigan Men’ in the Philippines and the Limits of Self-Determination in the Progressive Era,” Michigan Historical Review 40(2) (Fall 2014: 63-64.

[5]See: Daniel C. Swan and Michael Paul Jordan, “Contingent Collaborations: Patterns of Reciprocity in Museum-Community Partnerships,” Journal of Folklore Research 52(1) (January/April 2015): 39-84; Susan Sleeper-Smith, ed., Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Perspectives (University of Nebraska Press, 2009); Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Robin Boast,  “Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited,” Museum Anthropology 3(1) (2011): 56–70; Ann McMullen, “The Currency of Consultation and Collaboration,” Museum Anthropology Review 2(2) (2008): 54–87; and Claire Smith, “Decolonising the Museum: The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.,” Antiquity 79(304) (2005): 424-439.

[6]First Archivists Circle. Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (2007). https://www2.nau.edu/libnap-p/protocols.html

[7]Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq., 43 CFR part 10).

[8]Timothy Neale and Emma Kowal, “‘Related’ Histories: On Epistemic and Reparative Decolonization.” History and Theory 59(3) (2020): 403–412.

[9]Heather McGregor and Michael Marker, “Reciprocity in Indigenous Educational Research: Beyond Compensation, Towards Decolonizing,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 49(3) (2018): 318-328. doi:10.1111/aeq.12249.

[10]See Margaret Kovach, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).

[11]Jo-Ann Archibald, Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2008).

[12]Shawn Wilson, Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2008).

[13]Kuokkanen, Rauna, Reshaping the University: Responsibility, Indigenous Epistemes, and the Logic of the Gift(Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2011).

[14]Ricardo L. Punzalan, Diana E. Marsh, and Kayla Cools, “Beyond Clicks, Likes, and Downloads: Identifying Meaningful Impacts for Digitized Ethnographic Archives,” Archivaria 84 (Fall 2017): 61-102. https://archivaria.ca/index.php/archivaria/article/view/13614.

[15]Krista McCracken and Skylee-Storm Hogan, “Community First: Indigenous Community-Based Archival Provenance,” Across the Disciplines 18(1/2) (2021): 23-32. https://doi.org/10.37514/ATD-J.2021.18.1-2.03.

[16]Dorothy Berry, “The House Archives Built.” up//root. June 22, 2021. https://www.uproot.space/features/the-house-archives-built; Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, “Moving Toward a Reparative Archive: A Roadmap for a Holistic Approach to Disrupting Homogenous Histories in Academic Repositories and Creating Inclusive Spaces for Marginalized Voices,” Journal of Contemporary Archival Studies 5 (2018). https://elischolar.library.yale.edu/jcas/vol5/iss1/6/; Tonia Sutherland and Alyssa Purcell, “A Weapon and a Tool: Decolonizing Description and Embracing Redescription as Liberatory Archival Praxis,” The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion (IJIDI) 5(1) (2021): 60–78. https://doi.org/10.33137/ijidi.v5i1.34669; Jessica Tai, “Cultural Humility as a Framework for Anti-Oppressive Archival Description.” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 3 (2020); Kelly Bolding, “Reparative Processing: A Case Study in Auditing Legacy Description for Racism,” Midwest Archives Conference. March 24, 2018. https://drive.google.com/open?id=1MhOXx5ZlVjb_8pfvvFquMqLsUUlOHFFMT4js5EP4qnA; Jennifer Douglas, “Toward More Honest Description,” American Archivist 79(1) (Spring/Summer 2016): 26-55; Hope A. Olson, “The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs,” Signs 26(3) (Spring 2001): 639-668; and Wendy Duff and Verne Harris, “Stories and Names: Archival Description as Narrating Records and Constructing Meanings,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 263–285.

[17]Kimberly Christen and Jane Anderson, “Toward Slow Archives,” Archival Science 19 (2019): 87. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-019-09307-x