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Archival Research, Indigenous Protocols, and Documentary Filmmaking: A Case Study of British Columbia – An Untold History (Part 2)

11 Oct 2022 8:00 AM | Anonymous

Emma Metcalfe Hurst is in the final year of her MASLIS the UBC iSchool. Her areas of interest include community and artist archives, intellectual property rights, and public programming. She currently works as an archivist at VIVO Media Arts Centre and Karen Jamieson Dance. 

Item E-04633 - Alert Bay. BC Archives. [ca. 1917].

This post is a continuation of
Archival Research, Indigenous Protocols, and Documentary Filmmaking: A Case Study of British Columbia – An Untold History, a two-part blog post that reflects on my experience as an archival researcher for the documentary TV series, British Columbia – An Untold History, and the three key steps – education, relationship-building, and identification – that led to the creation and implementation of an Indigenous Protocol in the production of the series. This post concludes by sharing some individual observations that point to some challenges, setbacks, and changes that arose in doing this work in hopes of using it as a guide for future consideration and improvement in documentary filmmaking practices.

Read Part 1 here.


One of our first undertakings as a team was to look for existing literature on using Indigenous archival materials, and more specifically within film and media contexts
. The On-Screen Protocols and Pathways: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Storiesserved as our foundation, specifically Chapter 5. Working with Archival Materials,which was written by Marcia Nickerson with contributions from Alanis Obomsawin, Loretta Todd, Jesse Wente, Lisa Jackson, Gregory Younging, Hank White, Jean Francois Obomsawin, Stephan Agluvak Puskas, and Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (amongst others), as a commission for imagineNATIVE, the world's largest Indigenous Film and Media Arts Festival. The guide is intended to be used by “screen-storytellers and production companies wishing to feature First Nations, Métis or Inuit people, content or concepts (traditional or contemporary cultures, knowledge or intellectual property) in their films, television programs and digital media content” (Nickerson, 2019, p.6) to:  

  • Provide decision-making guidelines for communities, content creators, funding bodies, and industry partners; 

  • Share best practices developed by Indigenous screen storytellers; 

  • Educatescreen content creators, production companies and gatekeepers about Indigenous worldviews, cultural and property rights, and the protection of Indigenous cultural practices; and finally, 

  • Encourage informed, respectful dialogue between communities, content creators, and production companies (Nickerson, 2019, p.6).  

Other related resources that were consulted were shared in the course syllabi of FNEL 480A: Endangered Language Documentation and Revitalization with Dr. Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla and ARST 585: Information Practice and Protocol in Support of Indigenous Initiatives with Dr. Tricia Logan, offered through UBC’s iSchool and First Nations and Endangered Languages (FNEL) Program. These texts include: 

The Series Producer, Leena Minifie, also hosted a mandatory Indigenous Protocol training session to review the protocols and procedures laid out by imagineNATIVE’sguide, and expanded on the concepts by educating on local Indigenous cultural protocols, storytelling practices, consent processes, and governing structures. Conversations around anti-discrimination and anti-oppression within archival research were also part of the training. The session was not only attended by the team of archival researchers, but also by the producers and editors to ensure knowledge and resources were being equally distributed to the filmmaking team at large to build awareness, understanding, and compliance across all levels of the production.


The colossal task of contacting First Nations groups and individual community members in BC was originally initiated by the Series Producer, Leena Minifie, and Lead Researcher, Jennifer Chiu, to begin relationship-building and to determine who (if any one individual person or a group) has the authority within the community to give consent to the use of archival materials that depict members and ancestors of their Nation. This work occurred prior to my arrival as an archival researcher, but my understanding is that once the archival materials had been selected for use in the final cut, a dialogue began again with the Nations / individuals to clear permissions for use if they contained “Indigenous Content” and / or were designated as “Culturally Sensitive Materials,” based on the definitions listed above. Efforts to consult with the Repatriation department at the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) and the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre to discuss protocols for access and dissemination of culturally sensitive archival materials were ongoing at the time of my departure. A consultation meeting with Lou-ann Neel, Acting Head of Indigenous Collections & Repatriation Department and Curator of Indigenous Collections at the RBCM at the time, also took place to discuss, compare, exchange, and identify gaps in our methodologies.


It was imperative that the archival researchers included descriptive metadata for all of the archival materials entered in the internal database system in order to identify and retrieve all of the Indigenous materials selected for the series. This process followed a high-level to low-level identification strategy. After retrieving all of the Indigenous materials from the database, myself, the licensing and permissions specialists, and the series producer developed and applied a classification system that determined the “cultural sensitivity” of an item based on how much metadata (specifically date, location, and Nation) was available to identify and describe it,3 as well as other visual indicators (to the best of our knowledge) that would fall under the definition of “Culturally Sensitive Materials,” meaning: images that depict Indigenous masks and carvings, traditional regalia, sacred ceremonies (such as potlatch), places (such as gravesites), and the institutionalization of Indigenous peoples including hospitals and Indian Residential Schools and students – with particular attention paid to the date of the creation in respect to survivors. We identified three classifications of images in this process: those that were “complete” and included all of the associated metadata that we needed for context and to seek consent from the Nation or authoritative consenting figure; those that were “incomplete” due to missing some essential information and which required further research and consultation; and those that were “exempt” and completely unusable due to a lack of attainable information (commonly referred to as “orphan images” in the field of archives) and the high cultural sensitivity of the content. This classification system was included in the metadata of each individual item in the database and informed next steps for clearing licensing and permissions, as well as the final selection of archival materials for the series. 


Item : CVA 137-2 - [Indigenous fisher]4 catching salmon in the Fraser Canyon. City of Vancouver Archives. [ca. 1893].

Typically, resources such as labour and time to take on a project of this scale are often extremely limited. Institutions generally don’t have employees who can devote sustained attention to and assistance with a multi-part project of this size, and most documentary film projects don’t have a whole team of twelve archivists to work with. Imbalances of labour were also present in that BIPOC employees were often tasked with performing extra emotional labour through relationship- and trust-building with Indigenous communities, educating others, imparting information as designated authorities with specialized cultural knowledge, in addition to their regular responsibilities. The fast pace and quick turnover demands of the film industry also felt at odds at times with archival research and consent processes, which asks for sensitivity, self-reflexivity, and meaningful relationship-building; all of which takes (and should take!) time.5 More conversations and consideration in the early stages of the project for Indigenizing description, such as incorporating Indigenous languages into descriptive metadata, would have also been welcomed. Indigenizing description would have also provided an opportunity to subvert the racist and bigoted language that we often found used to describe and locate archival materials and documents. Overall, the main hindrance of the project was time (always at a premium) and labour (always restricted by budgets).

While the clearance work was still ongoing when I left the production, I believe the success of the project was in its refusal to accept current industry standards in documentary film production; the efforts made towards rethinking “best practices” in documentary filmmaking which is primarily concerned with intellectual property rights and ownership (copyright and fair use) by instead seeking consent directly from the Nation communities represented in the archival materials; and the implementation of new strategies and educational opportunities with the support of the Director and Producers which sought to remediate harmful practices of the past. By challenging industry standards in documentary film production through the development and implementation of an Indigenous Protocol, this archival research process has laid the foundation for others to reference and to carry on. In the future, I would encourage directors, producers, and archival researchers to consider how this framework of direct community consent and cultural sensitivity may also be applied to other racialized groups (under)represented in archives and historical documentary contexts.6

Thank you to Hans Ongsansoy and Leena Minifie for the editorial feedback and support on the original paper.

End Notes

3 - After my work with the series was complete, I came across the CFLA-FCAB’s Indigenous Matters Committee’s Red Team-Joint Working Group on Classification and Subject Headings and the National Indigenous Knowledge and Language Alliance (NIKLA)’sFirst Nations, Métis, and Inuit Indigenous Ontology Google Doc Spreadsheet (2020) which would have been a useful resource to consult for this work.

4 - Title changed to address outdated and racist language in the original title.

5 - Kimberly Christen’s article “Towards Slow Archives” (2019) puts forth the idea and practice of “the slow archives” as a decolonizing approach which creates a temporal disruption to make space for listening, critical reflection, relationship-building, and intentional acts.

6 - Over the last decade, archival literature has addressed the concept of permission and consent, specifically in the areas of community archives and Indigenous archives. See for example: “Archival Consent” (2018) by Julie Botnick; “The Role of Participatory Archives in Furthering Human Rights, Reconciliation and Recovery” (2014) by Anne J. Gilliland and Sue McKemmish; and “Come Correct or Don’t Come at All:” Building More Equitable Relationships Between Archival Studies Scholars and Community Archives” (2021) by Michelle Caswell et al.

Sources Cited

Local Contexts. “About.” Last modified 2022.

Local Contexts. “TK Labels – TK Culturally Sensitive.” Last modified 2022.

Museum of Anthropology. “The Collections.” Last modified 2022.

Museum of Anthropology. “Guidelines for the Management of Culturally Sensitive Materials.” 2020.

Nickerson, Maria. ON-SCREEN PROTOCOLS & PATHWAYS: A Media Production Guide to Working with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Communities, Cultures, Concepts and Stories, May 15, 2019.

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