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Archival Research, Indigenous Protocols, and Documentary Filmmaking: A Case Study of British Columbia – An Untold History (Part 1)

4 Oct 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Emma Metcalfe Hurst is in the final year of her MASLIS the UBC iSchool. Her areas of interest include community and artist archives, intellectual property rights, and public programming. She currently works as an archivist at VIVO Media Arts Centre and Karen Jamieson Dance. 

Poster for British Columbia: An Untold History, produced by 1871 Productions Inc. and Screen Siren Pictures for Knowledge Network.

Developing an Indigenous Protocol for a documentary is an ongoing, multi-step process where a one-size-fits-all approach does not apply. Despite the compressed deadlines that are standard in the television and filmmaking industry, as well as the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic during production, telling a collaborative and culturally sensitive story requires the time and care that an Indigenous Protocol mandates. I learned this first-hand while working as an archival researcher for the documentary TV series British Columbia: An Untold History, produced by 1871 Productions Inc., a subsidiary of Screen Siren Pictures, which aired on Knowledge Network. In this role, a pressing set of questions came forward that brought to bear on the project as a whole: How might one undertake ethical research in colonial archives and how can that approach be reflected in the filmmaking and production process? In this two-part blog post, I share how education, relationship-building, and identification became pillars of our project team's approach. In the second part, I provide a framework and suggestions for what can be done better the next time the cameras roll.

From February through October 2020, I worked as one of six archival researcher student interns and one of twelve researchers (in total) in the archives department for British Columbia – An Untold History.1 The series covers a wide ranging history of the province now known as “British Columbia” through a multi-narrative and story-telling approach. The project also includes an interactive digital media timeline that supports the series by sharing additional stories, personal accounts, archival photos, and documents. Both the TV series and digital media timeline were created and conceived of as online educational tools for secondary and post-secondary schools, memory institutions, and educators throughout the province and beyond.

During my time with the production, I did a significant amount of archival research in online databases of both large institutions, as well as regional and community archives, to source archival materials that supported the stories included in the documentary series and the digital media timeline. I also worked with the personal archives of individuals featured in the series. Communicating and building relationships with individuals, as well as professional archivists and local historians by exchanging stories, archival materials, knowledge, and resources was a meaningful and necessary part of this work.

In this project, archival photographs, moving images, and textual documents are used to tell a history of the emergence of British Columbia, which joined confederation in 1871. Needless to say, it was essential for us – not only as archival researchers, but also as a production team as a whole – to think critically about the ways in which we were sourcing and using archival materials, and the people who are inextricably connected to and represented in them. Because archival records have long been used as tools to uphold power, it was imperative for us to begin by acknowledging that archives are not neutral and neither is the act of working with them – especially for a historical documentary; a filmic genre that typically declares authority and proclaims fact. It was also important for us to recognize that the majority of archival records we gathered either overtly or covertly document and legitimize the creation of the colonial nation state of “Canada” and “British Columbia,”2 and that the majority of these records continue to be housed and preserved by state-funded and operated institutions, instead of with the communities who were documented – if they were documented at all. Many of these archival records are also deeply connected to Indigenous nations and peoples who preceded European colonization in the Pacific Northwest of “British Columbia,” who endured and resisted intentional acts of genocide, cultural assimilation, and displacement from their lands by the state and foreign settlers. Additionally, racialized immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers – many of whom experienced government-sanctioned exploitation, discrimination, marginalization, and extradition – also suffered and endured, as evidenced by historical records and personal accounts. With all of this in mind, I sought to approach this work experience by asking: How might one undertake ethical research in colonial archives, and how can that approach be reflected in the filmmaking process?  

MAP 537 Lower Mainland, B.C. : land subdivision. [1870?], copied [197-?]. City of Vancouver Archives.

Within the context of documentary filmmaking, my attempt to answer these questions lay in the disruption of industry standards, focusing specifically on the licensing, rights, and clearances department which dictates how archival materials are acquired and used in film. Under the leadership of the Series Producer, Leena Minifie, an Indigenous Protocol initiative was developed and implemented with assistance from myself, the series’ licensing and permissions specialists, and others to function as an internal system for identifying and clearing items-for-use that contained “Indigenous content”which meant: images that depict Indigenous people, ceremonies, sacred places, and traditional practices. In the first episode, about half of the images that were collected for use and identified as “Indigenous” could be categorized as “Culturally Sensitive Materials” today. The Museum of Anthropology’s Management of Culturally Sensitive Material Guidelines define “culturally sensitive materials” as “items that, owing to their power, require special care and handling and/or may only be viewed by certain people” (Museum of Anthropology, 2020). Additionally, MOA acknowledges that culturally sensitive materials “may have a non-material side embodying cultural rights, values, knowledge and ideas which are not owned or possessed by MOA, but are retained by the originating communities” (Museum of Anthropology, n.d.). Local Contexts, an international consortium of information practitioners dedicated to “[supporting] Indigenous communities to manage their intellectual and cultural property, cultural heritage, environmental data and genetic resources within digital environments” (About, 2022) suggests using a “Culturally Sensitive” Traditional Knowledge label on materials to identify “cultural and / or historical sensitivities” (TK Culturally Sensitive, 2022). This can include materials that “[have] only recently been reconnected with the community from which it originates, that the community is currently vetting and spending time with the material, and / or that the material is culturally valued and needs to be kept safe” (TK Culturally Sensitive, 2022). Cultural sensitivities for a material may “...arise from legacies of colonialism [...], the use of derogatory language or descriptive errors within the content and/or content descriptions” (TK Culturally Sensitive, 2022). In consideration of these two definitions, it was important for us to recognize the implications of using such archival materials in the documentary, and to lay out the necessary steps to determine whether or not it would be ethically sound to do so.

Developing the Indigenous Protocol for the series was an ongoing, multi-step process where a one-size-fits-all approach did not apply. In many ways, it was ever-shifting due to the specific informational and cultural needs of each item and subsequently, each individual Nation, Band, or Tribe. The ever-expanding network of professional and personal connections continued to build upon previous work – work that was not always visible or that I was privy to. For these reasons, in the second part of this blog post, I will share three steps – education, relationship-building, and identification – that were undertaken to my knowledge and based on my first-hand experience to help develop the Indigenous Protocol for the series. It is also important to recognize prior thinking and work that influenced the development of this protocol. Lastly, I will conclude with a few individual observations that point to some challenges, setbacks, and changes that arose in doing this work in hopes of using it as a guide for future consideration and improvement in documentary filmmaking practices.

Thank you to Hans Ongsansoy and Leena Minifie for the editorial feedback and support on the original paper. 

End Notes  

1 - Prior to working on the documentary series as an Archival Research student intern, I assisted with archival research to develop stories to pitch to Knowledge Network, beginning in December 2018.

2 - See for example, Rachel Alpha Johnston Hurst’s article “Colonial Encounters at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: ‘Unsettling’ the Personal Photograph Albums of Andrew Onderdonk and Benjamin Leeson” (2015) which addresses the role of photography as a documentary tool to fictionalize and validate colonial settlement of British Columbia at the turn of the 20th century. 

Sources Cited

Local Contexts. “About.” Last modified 2022.

Local Contexts. “TK Labels – TK Culturally Sensitive.” Last modified 2022. 

Museum of Anthropology. “The Collections.” Last modified 2022.

Museum of Anthropology. “Guidelines for the Management of Culturally Sensitive Materials.” 2020.

Nickerson, Maria. ON-SCREEN PROTOCOLS & PATHWAYS: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Stories, May 15, 2019.


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