Popular Native American Archive Also Holds School History

Research into a popular Native American collection at a college library reveals history about the college and Plateau Indian tribes.

The most-used archive in the Washington State University Libraries is a collection of books, manuscripts, photos and artifacts from Nez Perce, Yakama and other Columbia Plateau Indian tribes. It was collected in the first half of the 20th century by Yakima rancher Lucullus V. McWhorter.

Wondering at the popularity of the materials, Trevor Bondhead of Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections (MASC) in WSU Libraries—researched and wrote an essay about the McWhorter collection as part of his work toward a Ph.D. in public history. The essay is featured in the most recent (Spring 2011) issue of Pacific Northwest Quarterly, a peer-reviewed academic journal of history published by the University of Washington.

But Bond found more history than he perhaps expected. Woven through the McWhorter collection story are threads of historical "firsts” for WSU: It was among the first to relate the past from the Indian perspective and to preserve valuable materials via modern archiving practices.

Indian point of view

McWhorter maintained close relationships with individual Plateau Indians. For example, he befriended and collaborated with the Nez Perce Yellow Wolf to write the book "Yellow Wolf: His Own Story” (1940).

"It was the first published military account of the (1877) Nez Perce War from an Indian perspective,” Bond writes in his essay.

McWhorter also collaborated with Mourning Dove on "Cogewea, the Half-Blood” (1927), the first novel ever published by a Native American woman.

"McWhorter wrote the new western history in the 1930s and 1940s, long before recent converts found their way to believing that ‘Native Americans should have a voice in historical accounts,’ " Bond writes, quoting Clifford Trafzer, editor of a 1998 collection of Columbia Plateau Indian narratives.

Vanguard of Northwest archiving

Bond also found that the challenges faced by WSU (then the State College of Washington) in processing the vast McWhorter collection led to professionalization of the college archives. It was among the first archives departments in the Pacific Northwest.

"The complexities of curating the McWhorter Papers resulted in WSC hiring professional archivists who not only administered the papers, but also developed the facilities and procedures for collecting, describing and making accessible thousands of other collections,” Bond writes. "The State College of Washington was at the forefront of a trend of regional research institutions adopting professional archival standards.”

Moreover, "the guide to the McWhorter Papers was a significant achievement for the fledgling archives program,” Bond continues. "It first appeared in 1958,… the first publication of a guide to a manuscript collection at WSC and likely the earliest in the Northwest.”

Collection consulted by many

The collection in MASC includes 51 boxes of manuscripts, 20 boxes of photos, 360 books and numerous artifacts. Historians have mined it for decades for Nez Perce and Yakama sources.

Bond writes: "According to McWhorter’s biographer, Steven Ross Evans, ‘not only historians, but folklorists, ethnologists and anthropologists have taken advantage of this vast collection.’ The collection was even consulted by a team of researchers from the Pleasant Company prior to the release of the Nez Perce American Girl doll, Kaya.”

Larger effort explores collectors of Indian culture

Bond’s essay is one chapter in his doctoral dissertation, which will explore collectors of Indian culture on the Columbia Plateau.

"I will examine how American Indian cultural artifacts were collected and then deposited in multiple archival repositories,” he said.

"In a larger sense,” he said, "my project examines how knowledge is created and preserved; who owns history; and how the preservation of some collections (and not others) in turn influences what sources are available to historians.”