In the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle scholars are using images of documents dating from the 17th century to piece together the history of Native Americans in New England.
Earlier this month, the Yale Indian Papers Project, which compiles documents related to New England’s Native American history and has been underway for over two decades, moved its headquarters from the University’s Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Conn., to the Divinity School. The documents include letters, missionary reports, census and land records, legislation, court cases and maps, all available to the general public through an online database.
The project’s Assistant Executive Editor Tobias Glaza explained that the project relocated to central campus largely so that Yale undergraduates and graduate students might interact with the program more regularly, using it for research as well as for internships and other opportunities. He said that the Divinity School is “a natural home” for the project, as it contains many religious and missionary documents.
“Students and faculty [at the Divinity School] are interested in the project because it’s about giving voice to people who have been silenced — an idea close to us here,” said Director of Communications and Media at the Divinity School Jared Gilbert.
Executive Editor of the project Paul Grant-Costa explained that the project consists of collecting and digitizing documents, generating their literal transcriptions and then regularizing the texts — a process that includes modernizing spellings, standardizing names and annotating the texts with biographies and footnotes.
In addition to offering visual access to the documents, he said, the database provides intellectual access through the inclusion of annotations.
Materials are drawn from institutions including the Yale University Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Connecticut State Library, the New London County Historical Society, the Massachusetts Archives and the National Archives of the United Kingdom, as well as from smaller partnerships with other institutions such as local historical societies.
Grant-Costa explained that the project began at Yale during a time when non-native people were denying the authenticity of native groups’ roots in New England because the groups’ histories lacked documentation.
“The project is derived from a need in the scholarly and the native communities to access primary source materials in New England’s native history, politics and lore,” Grant-Costa said. “It’s a documentary record that’s been scattered and fragmented, but now we’ve got thousands and thousands [of documents]. There’s no way you can say these communities don’t have a grounding in this landscape.”
The project works closely with tribal peoples and often contacts tribes to ask for their perspective on certain documents, Grant-Costa said, adding that the Mohegan tribe is a collaborative partner in the project. Glaza said that he, Grant-Costa and their part-time colleagues on the project are active members of the Yale Group for the Study of Native America, a working group dedicated to the study of Native American and Indigenous peoples.
Though the Yale Indian Papers Project has been underway for decades, it has become a full-time project for its editors only within the last few years. Glaza explained that the project accelerated after receiving one three-year scholarly editing grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and another grant this past year.
Rev. Ezra Stiles, Yale’s president from 1778–1795, also gathered information about native tribes, drawing maps with tribes’ locations and talking to peoples about their customs and mythologies, Grant-Costa explained. Yale has compiled these documents into the Stiles Papers, which feature prominently into the current project.
The Yale Indian Papers Project is planning to launch a new digital platform for its online database in the next few months.