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The Trouble with Y-H-K

Catalogue cards at SUAC, another incomplete but vitally important museum inventory.

Catalogue cards at SUAC, another incomplete but vitally important museum inventory.

Apr 3 2015

Students in Museums Cultures began the process of “Data Verification” today: checking our current database records against primary museums sources, filling in blanks and making corrections, noting inconsistencies, finding and solving mysteries. In order to understand the implications of this seemingly objective process, they read Fiona Cameron’s 2010 piece in Museums in a Digital Age, “Museum Collections, Documentation, and Shifting Knowledge Paradigms.”

While doing paper entry this morning, one student asked if she could “just write down Y-H-K.” She asked because she was being reflexive, as Cameron champions.On museum records here, and in many places, Y-H-K is shorthand for “Yurok-Hupa-Karuk,” the three Lower Klamath tribes that most likely generated most, if not all, of the Daggett Collection items and are often lumped together in museum records. Treating three tribes as comprising a single identity is troubling; reducing tribal names to mere initials is also troubling. In addition, there are several other tribes in the region of collection, and tribes regularly traded and exchanged items among themselves. Museums have a long legacy of reductive practices, in which indigenous knowledge was altered, simplified, and left out of official accounts. We don’t want to reproduce these practices. Cameron argues that nothing about the knowledge produced by museums is benign, that even the most basic documentation should be a reflexive process. She argues that we should incorporate transparency and polysemy into the backbone of every museum collection: its relational database. Simple actions can support these goals, and SUAC has adopted several. These new methods include noting not only the source of museum information, but also the person who examined that source, the date they looked at it, and any interpretive gloss they choose to add to it. Noting these details adds a lot of work to the data entry process, but it also adds transparency and accountability. Museum authority, while still institutional, is no longer faceless and nameless.

Students doing data verification for the Daggett Collection.At the same time, asking students fully to write out three tribal names on dozens of paper forms is not necessarily the best use of their time. So I was glad the student asked about using Y-H-K. We had ashort discussion during whichwe decided we could probably write an entire paper on the colonialist implications of these abbreviated tribal names. We will use full tribal and culture names in the database, I assured them. And we will try to resolve “Y-H-K” into component tribes and tribal members to the extent possible. But in the meanwhile, on our paper verification sheets, a mindful shorthand will do.

– C. J. Hodge