A photograph of Albino Silva, born circa 1859 in New Mexico and believed to be a Jicarilla Apache, from the Rio Grande County Museum. The image is shown transposed with a 1790 census of Taos designed by Juan R. Rios and found in the New Mexico State Archives. (via the School of Advanced Research)

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded $1.5 million in grant funding to the project Native Bound-Unbound: Archive of Indigenous Americans Enslaved, an effort to create a digital repository centralizing archival materials about enslaved Indigenous people in the northern hemisphere. Researchers will spend the next three years engaging with descendants, gathering records, and digitizing them.

From 1490 to 1900, between 2.5 and five million Indigenous people are estimated to have been enslaved in North America, excluding Mexico — but their stories are often forgotten, owing to the neglect of narratives centering the colonization of Indigenous people in the historical record. 

“The stories of enslaved Native Americans have been quieted over the years by whispers as much as by silence, even by their heirs — carrying, if not geography in their faces and hands, certainly its memory in an aching consciousness,” said anthropologist, Indigenous scholar, and Native Bound-Unbound project lead Estevan Rayl-Galvez in a statement.

“Recovering these stories is especially imperative for descendants endeavoring to see themselves reflected in history and to recover a sense of self and heal from the past,” added Rael-Gálvez, who is a descendant of enslaved people.

In the first year, Rael-Gálvez will assemble a team of researchers who will begin archiving the materials they find in the course of research, labeling, digitizing, transcribing, and translating them. Documents that will be cataloged include legal records, census papers, photographs, letters, personal items, and newspapers. Researchers will also design a “unique architectural configuration” for an administrative portal and an open-source database that will be launched to the public in the second year.

As they move into the second year, they hope to dedicate resources to outreach to descendants, who may be able to contribute treasured family stories and other objects and documents that have been passed down to them. According to Justin Garrett Moore, Mellon Humanities in Place program officer, “Native Bound-Unbound has the potential to amplify and expand knowledge about Indigenous American slavery and serve as a tool for descendants of enslaved Indigenous Americans to access generational memory and see themselves reflected in history and in the public sphere.”

In the third year, researchers will look for opportunities to expand the project beyond the database. Data visualizations, interactive maps, timelines, and other innovative exhibits that tell object stories and envisage archaeological sites are some creative options that the project is entertaining. Throughout, the team will also pursue collaborations with universities, museums, archives, and other nonprofit organizations.

One possible project that Native Bound-Unbound could find common cause with is Brown University’s Stolen Relations: Recovering Stories of Indigenous Enslavement in the Americas, a collaborative effort to compile a database of enslaved Indigenous people across the Americas.

“​​Collectively, these archival [materials] encompass the indelible stories of people, places and moments in time, and when drawn together, promise to deepen the national narrative and consciousness,” Rael-Gálvez said.

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.