Conducting ethnographic research in the archives: mapping the activist and artistic subjectivities of Frank LaPena

Archives are critical sites for investigating intersections in contested history, for mapping the social and material landscape upon which humans engage with one another—violently, unsteadily, compassionately, creatively—and for expanding the depth of our understanding of human nature in cultural context. Personal archive collections provide a partial but focused interpretation of this history—our history—through the eyes, heart, and mind of someone who was there, struggling with it, documenting the gains, the losses, the uncertainties, the firmly entrenched obstacles in the road and the creativity with which people transcend them everyday. The personal collection of Native artist and activist Frank R. LaPena (Wintu-Nomtipom), held by the Special Collections and University Archives, California State University, Sacramento, is a particularly powerful site for loosening the grip of oppressive forces and revealing the varied dimensions of human existence and experience that have been silenced for centuries. Based on my ethnographic research on LaPena’s collection, I highlight the ways that art and action can reshape history and make it more whole, more consistent, and more “truthful.” The broad scope of LaPena’s life and the wealth and breadth of materials he bequeathed—which include personal and professional correspondence, artwork, photographs, manuscripts, project files, and newspaper clippings—make this collection a particularly evocative and relevant site for anthropological investigation, one that has the power to bring to light the actions of those individuals who make it their responsibility to reconcile the social inequities that humans create and reaffirm everyday.