Archival Science

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 117–140 | Cite as

Unsettling evidence: an anticolonial archival approach/reproach to Federal Recognition

  • María MontenegroEmail author
Original Paper


Current procedures of Federal Recognition—the “legal acknowledgement” of the sovereign and separate political status of tribal nations by the US government—require tribes to document their history, race, culture, and genealogy, and to submit the evidence for review to the Office of Federal Acknowledgement (OFA), where federal agents sit in critical judgment of the petitioning groups’ identity and tribal status. However, many of the types of evidence required and accepted by the OFA as legitimate and official have been destroyed, or removed, or appropriated from these groups; are held, undisclosed, by the very federal agencies that require their production; or were created by non-Indians or the state itself with a clear intent of Indigenous dispossession. This paper argues that evidence, as currently conceived, used, and legitimated by the OFA, perpetuates settler colonial anxieties and practices of exclusion, racism, appropriation and erasure. Rooted in colonial and legal conceptions of evidence, the Federal Recognition policy fails to consider the contexts, temporalities, histories, and cultures of the petitioning tribes. Applying ethnography of the archive/document ethnography, the paper first examines the role(s) that colonial archives play structurally in the Federal Recognition process, particularly in supporting the ways in which settler colonial thinking permeates and predetermines those processes. Secondly, it investigates ways in which archivists could assist tribes in navigating this convoluted and biased process by formulating and legitimizing anticolonial conceptions of evidence that take into account tribal contexts and practices of creation. Finally, it considers how this conceptual, epistemological and practical shift can lead to a more unified effort to decolonize archival praxis within tribal sovereignty claims and purposes.


Anticolonial archival theory and praxis Evidence Federal Recognition policy Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians Settler colonial archives Sovereignty 



This research was generously funded by the University of California, Los Angeles’s Graduate Research Mentorship Program and the American Philosophical Society’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Native American Studies Initiative. I would especially like to acknowledge and thank Fernandeño Tataviam Tribal President Rudy Ortega for allowing me to write about the tribe’s petition and for sharing his thoughts on the USA Federal Recognition system with me. I thank people involved in the Tataviam petition’s research team: Carole Goldberg and Duane Champagne who generously shared their experiences and time, and Kimia Fatehi at the Fernandeño Tataviam’s Office of the Tribal President. Thank you to Anne Gilliland for her mentorship and for her continuous critical and constructive suggestions. Comments from two anonymous reviewers were instrumental in strengthening this piece and I am grateful for their contributions. I would also like to thank Antonina Griecci and Gracen Brilmyer for their thoughtful readings and comments on this piece, and Jane Anderson and Ashley Hunt for the multiple conversations and engagements that fed into this article. I would finally like to acknowledge Michelle Caswell and Jamila Ghaddar for their support and for putting together this special issue.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  2. 2.Los AngelesUSA

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