Project UteTube: A Digital Photo Archive for the Uintah and Ouray Ute Tribe

What follows is a brief exploration of Project UteTube, a tribal photo and video archive due to be completed later this year. In spring 2017 a member of the Uintah and Ouray Ute Tribe, based at Fort Duchesne, Utah, approached the staff of the American West Center at the University of Utah and suggested a collaboration in conceptualizing and securing funding for a tribal photo and video archive. The project would be funded with a mix of tribal and state money, designed by an experienced web developer, and guided by a longtime Ute filmmaker and photographer. UteTube, as it was dubbed, would fill two pressing needs: the immediate digitization of a large collection of photos in danger of decay and destruction by the elements, and tribal access to seldom-seen photos and videos documenting a half century of life on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. A third, and ultimately more problematic goal from a funding perspective, was the protection of potentially sensitive tribal materials and their access only by tribal members.

The American West Center, currently in its fifty-fourth year of operation, is an interdisciplinary office at the University of Utah devoted to the study of the American West’s lands and peoples, with long experience in collecting oral histories and conducting public lands research for numerous stakeholders, from the state of Utah to the National Park Service. Since its inception the Center has been closely involved with Native American entities. Center personnel have assisted in the development of tribal archives around the West and have collaborated with tribes ranging from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes to the Tohono O’odham Nation to the Hoopa Valley Tribe in generating histories, resource use studies, compliance documents, and curricula. Project UteTube is therefore eminently suited to the American West Center’s mission and experience. As of this writing the project develops apace, with materials digitized and the website under construction. From a practical standpoint, then, Project UteTube is fairly straightforward: digitize endangered materials, present them online. But this seeming simplicity overlays complex concerns, and speaks to the importance—and difficulty—of creating a public humanities project.

UteTube is without question a public history project. The academic institution—the American West Center—merely acts as a facilitator, assisting with grantwriting and providing talent where needed, with no leadership role. It is likewise a digital project. But the “public” aspect trumps the digital. The digital is merely a means of connecting a wider audience to materials otherwise in danger not only of invisibility, but of loss. Preservation and access are at UteTube’s core. But access for whom? “General public” is a freighted term here, and reveals the need for an alternate vision, as Pellissier and Johnson term it, of “how a “public digital humanities” archival project might appear or engage with the public.”” In brief, the tribal government is none too pleased at the prospect of the “general public” viewing any of the material UteTube hosts. Showing a concern numerous Native American and First Nations organizations have voiced, the tribal government is understandably reluctant to provide just anybody with what they see as potential ammunition to be used against the tribe (1). And this reticence immediately presents problems with funding, as the Utah State Historical Archives and Records Board, a granting institution partially funding the project, urges full public access with all digitization projects. The UteTube workaround is that it serves, in a sense, two publics: the tribal public, and the wider, Habermasian “public sphere,” by placing all materials tribal leaders deem sensitive behind a firewall accessible only to tribal members using their Bureau of Indian Affairs identification number. It seems rather fitting: a colonial system is being made to serve tribal security needs.

So what will make UteTube a success? Criteria follow two somewhat different tracks, and in so doing represent the divide between funding agency goals and evolving real-world use. For funding purposes, the project’s success hinges on the twofold aims of physical preservation and online presentation. The website’s creation and functionality, immediately apparent to anyone who accesses it, and the preservation of the physical photos and videos, will demonstrate success as far as the State of Utah, the granting agency, is concerned. But success in this instance, or in any digital public history project, is contingent on the community’s actually learning about UteTube, using it, and providing feedback that will be used to incorporate useful changes and upgrades. To that end tribal members are promoting UteTube and will demonstrate it at numerous public events. These presentations also serve an important role and enhance a feature of the website. Much metadata, in the photo collection in particular, has been lost or was never gathered. We envision a sort of crowdsourced metadata collection, wherein the people viewing the photos will be able to enter a comment stating who a certain person in the photo is, or at what event it was taken, for the web admin to confirm and update. Not only does this process help us better identify photos and their subjects, it gives users the opportunity to participate and reminisce. And public presentations of the website, for example at elders’ luncheons, are designed to provide a setting for people to jog each other’s memory and make accessing a digital archive into a real social occasion.

Scale, of course, rears its head very quickly. Helping the public become aware of UteTube is in some ways rather easy on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, home to some 3,500 people. But how to secure any meaningful recognition across the state, and around the nation? Costs for advertising and presenting UteTube rise very quickly. Nonetheless the tribal members behind UteTube actively envision a vastly larger funding base for UteTube and the current grant-and-tribe-funded project as merely a seed or a starter for something much larger. Not content with local funding sources, they are pursuing buy-in from Hollywood media personalities with known proclivities for backing Native productions. At this early stage, with approximately 200 photos and 25 videos digitized and being uploaded, security, and the unease the tribal government feels about any kind of publicity or open access to what they deem personal and perhaps actively sensitive media, is quite easy to ensure, at least on a superficial level. But if UteTube receives the funding its progenitors hope for, the tensions between access to all and access to a few will become more pronounced, and may themselves give rise to or highlight divisions within the tribal polity. This particular public history project may always wind up serving a rather small public.
The entire UteTube endeavor, then, is built on the competing concerns of access for all and security of sensitive information. In a sense it is an internally focused digital archive whose real emphasis is on preservation of a large, disorganized set of photos and videos in danger of physical degradation, with a limited access component built into it from the beginning. It is tempting to ask how appropriate it is to create a digital archive with two such obviously competing audiences. But what is public history? Public history is serving a specific nonacademic audience in the way that they need—often, precisely in the way that they specify. And that encompasses, as Richard White has noted, “democratization of the archives,” with a very special significance in Indian country. Native archives serve to collect and, if necessary, safeguard, information of vital importance to tribal sovereignty. They also serve as repositories of, and facilitators for, “genealogy, community, local history, and lived identity.” (2) Public history is not simply, as Sheila Brennan points out, making something available online and calling it public any more than it is an academic historian doing a lecture at the local library. Pellissier and Johnson ask, what kind of audiences should digital archives projects be engaging with? They should be engaging with exactly the same audiences public history engages with. In this as in many other projects, public history ought to work to “effectively serve the interests of disparate cultural communities included in our national community.” (3)

1) See for example Harding et al, “Conducting Research with Tribal Communities: Sovereignty, Ethics, and Data-Sharing Issues,” Environmental Health Perspectives 120(1), January 2012, 6-10,
2) Richard White, Keynote, “Western Lands, Western Voices: The American West Center At 50: A Symposium on Public Humanities In the West.” 19 September 2014, Salt Lake City, UT.
3) With apologies to David Neufeld for taking him out of context, I nonetheless strongly feel that this a key mission of public historians in general, and of the American West Center in particular. From David Neufeld, “Parks Canada, the Commemoration of Canada, and Northern Aboriginal Oral History,” in Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes, (ed.s), Oral History and Public Memories (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 7-25.


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