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Holisso Center Offers Archival Research, Clues To The Past

The Holisso Research Center specializes in collecting documents, photos and artifacts important to Chickasaw and other Southeastern tribes.

More than 20 patrons traveled from as far away as San Antonio, Texas, to tour, research and deposit items at the official archives of the Chickasaw Nation as part of International Archives Day.

“International Archives Day is a day to celebrate the archival process. It makes people aware of the importance of archives, what they have in them and what they are used for,” archive manager Mason Cole said. “Archives allow people to catch a glimpse of how people thought of the world in a different time period.”

Holisso: The Center for Study of Chickasaw History and Culture (Holisso Research Center) is a repository and place for scholarship. As a key part of the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma, the Holisso Research Center specializes in collecting one-of-a-kind documents, photos and artifacts important to Chickasaw and other Southeastern tribes.

During International Archive Day, tours of the facility and seminars were conducted. Visitors were treated with a rare behind the scenes glimpse of the Chickasaw Nation Archives, preservation rooms and equipment, as well as workshops on protecting family photos and documents.

The Holisso Research Center is home to many collections. These include records pertaining to the Chickasaw Nation prior to statehood, copies of the Dawes Commission Rolls, more than 5,000 photographs dating from the mid-1800s to the present, copies of 15th and 16th century documents from the Spanish Archives, the British Public Records Office and the French Archives. Media formats include microfilm, newspapers, videotapes and audio recordings of oral histories.

The Holisso Research Center is a state-of-the-art facility providing a safe and secure environment for the preservation of historical items. The building is climate controlled and features special lighting that will not damage rare objects, texts, photos and other historically important items.

“All documents will degrade over time. We keep (them) preserved by controlling the environment, to keep them in the state when they were created. The building is temperature and humidity controlled,” Cole said. “We catalog, photograph and scan all the items to save for posterity.”

New items entering the collections of the Holisso Research Center go through a rigorous decontamination process. Objects are first placed inside large freezers. Items are then taken to a decontamination room and positioned into a large airtight tent. Oxygen is removed from the tent and carbon dioxide is pumped in. This process kills mold, mildew and microscopic insects that damage artifacts.

This is one of two decontamination rooms used in Oklahoma, the other being at the Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma.

The Holisso Research Center has an ongoing effort to digitize its collections. Guests can browse digital copies of rare items found within its collections at computer stations in the main library. The preservation equipment includes a scanner that does not harm delicate books and photos.

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“We are always improving and updating our equipment,” photo archivist Christian Zellner said. “In January, we were provided a scanner that allows us to scan delicate books and photos. It has a self-balancing cradle that keeps the items level for scanning. The pressure is evenly distributed. It will not hurt book bindings and allows the scanning of old fashion photos that are bowed and uneven.”

The Holisso Research Center provides a safe, secure location for Chickasaw families to deposit important documents and photos to be shared with others within the tribe. For those who wish to share but would like to keep the original items within the family, archivists scan items and return the originals to the owner.

“We brought a photo of our grandparents, both original Dawes enrollees. The photo is starting to show its age. It is difficult to scan, it’s bowed outward in an oval pattern,” Chickasaw citizen Bobbie Stover of Oklahoma City said. “We brought it here to get a digital copy, learn how to preserve it and to share it. We are not ready to donate the photo yet; it will stay in the family a while longer.”

A Place for Genealogy Research

Most who visit the Holisso Research Center do so for genealogy investigation. The staff of the Holisso Research Center provides genealogy assistance to those interested in tracing their American Indian heritage from sources related to the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma.

“Nearly nine out of 10 people who use our services are here for genealogical information,” library specialist Elizabeth Underwood said. “Elders come in for history, to learn about their family members and where they were from. We also have people who are trying to make the connection (for tribal citizenship) to original enrollees of the Dawes Rolls.”

The Holisso Research Center is home to complete copies of Chickasaw and Choctaw Dawes Rolls, as well as indexes for Muscogee Creek, Cherokee and Seminole tribes. Taken in Oklahoma prior to statehood to divide tribal lands held in common by the tribes, the Dawes Rolls is the foundation for the citizenship process for these Oklahoma tribes. People seeking citizenship into these tribes must produce state issued documents linking direct linage to original Dawes enrollees.

The Holisso Research Center provides the most extensive Chickasaw archival research material in the region. These include census information, land deeds and vital records maintained before statehood when Oklahoma was known as the Indian Territory. People from around the country come to the center to research their family tree.

“I am here to explore genealogical information regarding our original Dawes enrollees. Our family was originally from the Duncan area,” Tom Strong of San Antonio, Texas, said. “Using census information provided by the Holisso Center, we are trying to link family to the rolls. The process overall has been frustrating and hard work, but the employees are helpful and the census records we are looking at have only been found here.”

The center also engages in preserving current documents and family heirlooms. Chickasaw citizens are encouraged to start family files. Treated like any other items in the collections at the Holisso Research Center, these files contain items important to family history.

“The room where we keep the family files has more documented history than any other room at the center,” Underwood said. “It serves as a family repository for future generations, so family histories won’t be lost like they were in the early 1900s.”