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Native American Archival Research  

Last Updated: Mar 3, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

Start Your Research Print Page

Ann Massmann

Contact Info:
Head, CSWR Public Services
Center for Southwest Research
University of New Mexico
(505) 277-8370
(505) 277-3814  reference desk

Secondary Sources



Welcome to Archival Research

 This guide is designed to help you navigate your way
through the use of archival or primary sources for Native American research.

Gaining access to archival and special collections materials is essential for many forms of research.  For tribes, cultural centers, Native American and non-native researchers, this access can be vitally important as these resources are often at the very heart of land, water, enrollment, and sovereignty claims.  Archival materials have also played a role in the efforts of cultural restoration among the tribes as well as current ethnographic, historical, and multi-disciplinary research by students and scholars.  Scholars, educators, legal teams, research consultants, students, genealogists, and others are among the current and potential users of these specialized library materials.


Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Secondary sources generally can be described as the sources which are created by people who are not themselves part of the events or communities they are discussing.  Articles by historians, books by anthropologists, dissertations by students, and newspaper articles by later-day journalists are examples of secondary sources.  Primary sources are generally sources created by the people or generated from the events being studied.  These are often thought of as the "first person voices" of oral histories, photographs, letters, journals, memoirs, and governmental records.  Newspaper accounts and published government documents may be primary sources if they are tied to events as they are happening.

Start your research with Secondary Sources first, then go to Primary Sources.

Sounds backward but it will help you immensely!  Secondary sources (books, articles, video documentaries, dissertations, etc.) are the place to gain broad knowledge of your research topic by people who have studied the topic before: historians, anthropologists, journalists, community members, students, etc.  Don't re-invent the wheel!  Make use of the research that came before you.  Get to know the key people, places, issues, and events of the topic you are researching through the secondary sources that will provide you with a good overview of some aspect of the tribe.

Primary sources are the "bits" you need to place together. Don't get lost by starting with the bits! 

It is important to have gained knowledge of your topic before you approach the primary sources.  Otherwise you will likely miss out on information you will encounter in documents, photographs, oral history interviews and such.  This is true for primary sources found in the archives and also primary sources in the form of people in your community.   If you are interviewing members of your tribe, or a scholar or governmental official who works with your tribe, you need to be prepared ("do your homework") before you undertake that interview.  Otherwise you will not really know the questions to ask to make the best use of your and the interviewee's time.  You also risk bypassing important references that come from your interviewee as he or she talks.  This is the same with archival sources.  They represent bits of information; it is up to you as the researcher to understand where that particular "bit" fits in to the big picture of your research, and how it will lead you to new information, new ideas.

Research is Like Cooking

My favorite analogy for understanding primary vs. secondary source research relates to food.  Conducting research is like putting together your own version of a recipe, your own dish. 

  • Archival institutions are like grocery stores, full of ingredients
  • Libraries and museums are like restaurants or cookbooks where something's already been prepared/interpreted for you

So if you want to learn to cook something new, you don't start by searching the grocery store shelves without knowledge of your dish and what it might contain.  You start by learning from other people (someone in your family or community), and then by paying attention to how a restaurant or someone else has made their version of a dish.  Maybe you'll look at several cookbooks that give specific information. Just what is in venison stew?  From there, you go about creating your own version based on the ingredients you find or choose to use. 

So it is with research.  You start by learning more about what it is you want to study, then seeing how others have interpreted a topic before you.  Then you head out to find those particular ingredients for yourself--the primary sources.  See what these ingredients tell you, see how they form what you are creating.  Or perhaps they will lead you to something entirely new and unplanned for.  Also keep in mind that the bigger the project, just like the bigger the dinner, you will need to gather your "ingredients" from diffierent places.  You'll search at a variety of archives, just like a cook will often find their ingredients from a variety of locations--a supermarket or two, a specialty market, a family member, someone's garden or farm, etc.  Don't expect to find everything in one location for your research! 

Ann M.


Primary Sources


Photos of the church and plaza at Isleta Pueblo, circa 1890 and 1940.             


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